Coughs that come with upper-respiratory infections such as colds are often productive, meaning they cause you to bring up mucus. It's not unusual for the productive cough to be followed by an unpleasant dry cough that can linger for days or many weeks after the infection has cleared up. Stopping a dry cough is often a matter of soothing a sore, irritated throat. Soothing the throat naturally may even be more effective even than over-the-counter cough medicines. Sometimes it's not a cold, however, and coughs that last more than 3 weeks should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.
Honey has been found to be at least as effective in controlling cough as dextromethorphan (DM), the leading over-the-counter cough suppressant, and without the side effects. Rich in antioxidants and with natural antibiotic properties, honey also has also been shown to have an antiinflammatory effect. Honey has been used since ancient times and is included in the Ayurvedic approach to cough. Children younger than 12 months should never be given honey due to the risk of botulism, but honey can be safely given to anyone older. It can be easily mixed with herbal tea or warm water.
Though steam inhalation has long been used to sooth the common cold, the jury is out as to whether there are consistent benefits, according to a June 2013 "Cochran Review" article. Cool-mist humidifiers can be used for humidifying the bedroom at night, particularly when central heating dries out the air. Dry air itself can aggravate a dry cough, so if that's a constant problem throughout winter, dedicated humidification of your living space is one option. And, if you happen to be in the market to replace your furnace, you may want to look into newer options for central control of the household's relative humidity -- these systems add moisture to the air as it comes out of the furnace.
Hydrate With Herbal Teas
When you've got a cold, staying hydrated is one of the best things you can do for your throat as well as your whole body. Many herbal teas have been cherished for centuries for their soothing properties, although there's not a lot of research validating their effectiveness for cough. When it comes to medicinal herbal teas, licorice, a proven antiinflammatory, or licorice tea is a traditional remedy for sore throat and cough. Licorice root, slippery elm and marshmallow leaf -- and many other botanical ingredients -- are included in a tea preparation called Throat Coat; this product lists many precautions and contraindications, however, so be sure to read the label carefully and/or confer with your doctor about its use.
Gargle Warm Saltwater
Gargling warm saltwater remains a favored home remedy that soothes sore throats by drawing water from swollen tissue. The American Academy of Otolaryngology recommends gargling several times daily with a solution of ¼ teaspoon of salt to ½ cup of warm water.
Over-the-counter antihistamines may help tame a cough that's associated with postnasal drip -- whether from a cold or from allergies. Older-generation antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and chlorpheniramine (Chlor-trimeton) can cause drowsiness, which is a bonus if your cough is keeping you awake at night. It should be noted that "nondrowsy" versions such as loratadine (Claritin) aren't effective for cold-related coughs.
Warnings and Precautions
Although coughs can linger for quite some time after an upper-respiratory infection, any cough that lasts more than 3 weeks is a reason to see your healthcare provider. Allergies, acid reflux and smoking can also lead to that tickling sensation that stimulates the need to cough, but unlike colds, these are chronic irritants whose underlying causes need to be addressed. Certain medications, such as ACE inhibitors, can cause coughing, so for unexplained dry cough, it's a good idea to review your medications with your doctor. Herbal preparations can interact with other medications, and they should not be administered to children -- or during pregnancy and lactation -- without consulting a healthcare provider.
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Bronchitis?
- American College of Chest Physicians: Cough
- JAMA Pediatrics: Effect of Honey, Dextromethorphan, and No Treatment on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality for Coughing Children and Their Parents
- Merck Manuals Professional Version: Cough in Adults
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Cough
- British Medical Journal: Herbal Tea Helps Reduce the Pain of Acute Pharyngitis
- American Academy of Otolaryngology: Sore Throats
- BMJ: Management of Chronic Refractory Cough
- Lung: Older-Generation Antihistamines and Cough Due to Upper Airway Cough Syndrome (UACS): Efficacy and Mechanism
- Cochrane Database Systematic Review: Heated, Humidified Air for the Common Cold