Every year in the fall and winter, along with the chilly weather often comes sniffles, a tickle in your throat and maybe even a cough.
Before you reach for an over-the-counter cough suppressant, though, there are some natural cough remedies you can try.
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One popular cough home remedy is a cup of hot water with lemon and honey — also great for a sore throat or stuffy nose.
Here, learn why this trio of ingredients works as a natural cough suppressant and how you can make the concoction yourself.
First, What Causes a Cough?
A cough is your body's natural reflux designed to help clear phlegm (i.e., mucus) out of your throat and airways, per Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Some common causes range from environmental irritants to other conditions like the following, per Brigham and Women's Hospital:
- Cold or flu
- Upper respiratory infections
- In rare cases, lung cancer or diseases
While having an occasional cough is normal, you may need to see a doctor for a cough with discolored or bloody mucus, or a persistent cough (i.e., one that lasts for weeks), per Brigham and Women's Hospital.
And keep in mind that coughing is a natural body response and it may even be helpful/necessary when you have too much phlegm built up on your lungs and throat, per the American Lung Association.
Why Lemon-Honey Water for a Cough?
Figuring out how to get rid of a persistent cough can be difficult, no matter its cause. But one way to try and reduce the discomfort is by drinking a combination of lemon juice, honey and hot water, aka lemon-honey water.
These ingredients are similar to old-fashioned cough syrup recipes, which sometimes include other ingredients like apple cider vinegar, garlic or even whiskey.
The reasons why these ingredients are used? "Honey is soothing on your throat, lemon supports your immune system and water keeps you hydrated and helps to flush toxins out of your body, regulates body temperature and supports overall wellbeing," says Amy Shapiro, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and founder and director of the New York City-based private practice Real Nutrition.
"So pairing them together can help to assist in cough reduction," she says.
Benefits of Honey and Lemon for Cough
So how exactly does honey and lemon help a cough? Here are some benefits:
1. Lemon Is High in Vitamin C
Some of the best foods to eat when you're sick are those high in vitamin C. "Lemon is very high in vitamin C and therefore can support immunity, increase the production of white blood cells to fight infection and may reduce the duration of your cough," Shapiro says.
The juice of one lemon wedge/slice has about 3.7 milligrams of vitamin C, while the juice of half a lemon has about 9.3 milligrams, per the USDA.
For context, adults should try to get anywhere between 75 and 90 milligrams of vitamin C per day, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements.
Shapiro recommends you rinse your mouth out after drinking lemon-honey water to help remove acidity from the lemon, and decrease your chances of tooth enamel erosion.
2. Honey May Reduce Cough Severity and Frequency
An April 2021 meta-analysis in the BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine found that honey not only improved symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, but also reduced cough frequency and cough severity compared to traditional cough remedies.
3. Honey May Reduce Phlegm (Mucus)
Turns out, honey is a great way to reduce phlegm, and it may help soothe your throat when it's irritated from coughing.
"Honey's ability to coat the throat can reduce mucus secretion and decrease cough sensation," Shapiro says.
Keep in mind that honey is a natural source of sugar, though, so while a spoonful of "sugar" can help the medicine go down, it's best not to overdo it, Shapiro says. A little goes a long way.
4. It's Antimicrobial, Anti-inflammatory and Filled With Antioxidants
When it comes to lemon-honey water, raw and fresh ingredients are always best, Shapiro says.
Raw honey often has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties (making this a great drink for inflammation, too), per the Mayo Clinic. And fresh lemons are filled with antioxidants, per the Cleveland Clinic.
"You want all of the antimicrobial effects of honey and the freshest lemon juice, as the amounts of antioxidants and vitamin C can decrease when lemons sit on your countertop or are exposed to light," she adds.
And according to a November 2018 study in AIMS Microbiology, in comparison to other types of honey, manuka honey, in particular, has an added antimicrobial component that helps increase its healing benefits.
While honey is great for a cough in adults and some children, it is not generally recommended for infants under the age of 1, due to the risk of botulism, a rare but serious illness caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves, which can cause difficulty breathing, paralysis and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If your infant has a cough, call your pediatrician to get other treatment options.
How to Make Lemon-Honey Water for a Cough
If you're feeling a cough coming on (or you already have one), here's how to make lemon-honey water for relief.
First, Shapiro suggests keeping fresh lemons and raw or manuka honey on hand for cough relief. Here's her recipe:
- Juice from 1/2 fresh lemon
- 1 tsp. raw honey
- 8 to 10 oz. of warm water
- Heat warm water in a kettle or microwave to a temperature that's warm, but not scalding.
- Squeeze in lemon juice, then mix in honey until dissolved.
- For best results, drink while warm.
You can also drink tea with honey (including things like the popular medicine ball tea for colds) for some extra flavor and possible benefits.
How Much Honey and Lemon Should I Drink for a Cough?
If you're trying to soothe a cough or sore throat, try drinking eight to 10 ounces of lemon-honey water per sitting, according to Shapiro. While there is no recommended limit for this drink, it's best to keep your additional sugar intake (from honey) to a minimum. The recommended maximum amount of added sugar for adults is about 6 to 9 teaspoons per day, according to the American Heart Association.
When to See a Doctor for a Cough
Some common signs your cough is getting better will include less mucus, less pain when you cough and less of an urge to cough to clear your throat. You may not need to go to the doctor if you start to notice improvement.
But if your cough is persistent, comes with lots of phlegm (like white mucus) or is accompanied by a fever, chills, sore throat and muscle aches, you may have an infection or virus that needs medicine. Call your doctor to figure out your treatment options.
If you cough up blood, see your doctor as soon as possible, as this could be a sign of a serious condition.
How much honey should I take for a cough?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, adults can take a spoonful of honey (about 1 teaspoon) for a cough or a sore throat. This should be enough to coat your throat and provide relief from a sore or tickly throat (which causes you to cough).
What can I mix with honey to cure cough?
If you don't want to eat a spoonful of honey on its own, there are a few things you can mix it with that will still be beneficial. Try mixing honey in your tea or coffee, or mix a spoonful into your yogurt, applesauce or oatmeal. You may even be able to find honey-based cough drops or lozenges at your local pharmacy.
- Brigham and Women’s Hospital: “What Is a Cough?”
- Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CND, registered dietitian; founder and director, private practice, Real Nutrition, New York City
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Lemons”
- Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin C: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Botulism”
- AIMS Microbiology: “Antibacterial Activity of Manuka Honey and Its Components: An Overview”
- USDA: "Lemons"
- BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine: "Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Honey for Your Sore Throat and Cough"
- American Heart Association: "How much sugar is too much?"
- American Lung Association: "Learn About Cough"
- Mayo Clinic: "Honey"
- Cleveland Clinic: "7 Reasons to Start Your Day With Lemon Water"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.