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Natural Solutions to Acute and Lingering Cough

Cough, cough, cough.

Is everyone around you coughing? Last week brought the first big snowfall to Toronto and it seems like a whole lot of people are hacking. Coughs are a frequent symptom of Upper Respiratory Tract Infections and the Common Cold. It’s one of the more annoying symptoms that can linger all winter long if left unattended. Even after an infection has cleared, coughs can persist and persist. Which is highly unfair, considering they can come on so suddenly. Anyone else's toddlers go to sleep one night perfectly healthy and wake up the next morning sounding as if they’ve been smoking a pack a day for 20 years??

Sometimes coughing is a healthy defense mechanism, a reflex action to clear the airway of irritants. Occasional coughing is normal and healthy and needs no treatment. If you can’t cough, you can’t get the irritants out.

Coughing is a good thing when someone is choking on something – this means air is still able to pass through and they do not need any intervention like the Heimlich maneuver or back pounding.

Coughing that continues for days or weeks, coughing that hurts, coughing that brings up coloured mucus – these are coughs that indicate there is something going on in your body that needs addressing.

Some coughs, especially long term irritating dry coughs can be a side effect of a medication – most commonly blood pressure lowering medications known as ACE inhibitors – these can cause an irritating constant throat clearing cough. Speak to your doctor if this is a side effect you are experiencing, your medication may need to be altered.

The cure for a cough, like anything, is to treat the cause. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out. Sometimes you may need the help of your friendly neighbourhood Naturopathic Doctor or other Health Care Provider.

Here I have compiled an extensive list of evidence based natural cough remedies that have worked in both my family and my practice to help patients both young and mature recover faster and reduce the severity of their cough quickly and easily without side effects. There’s something here for everyone, I hope you can find the ones that feel right for you!

The Basics: Hydration – coughing patients must stay hydrated for so many reasons. Coughing can both be caused by and can cause dry mucus membranes – drinking copious amounts of water and tea can help. A cough can linger due to thick residual mucus being stuck in the lungs & smaller airways. Staying hydrated helps to thin out the mucus and allow it to be expectorated.

Bone Broth is excellent for this as well – thinning the mucus while also soothing aching muscles from coughing so much.

Traditional Medicinals has some wonderful teas that contain some of the herbs discussed below. Breathe Easy, Throat Coat and Cold Formula are all good ones

Avoid Sugar, Dairy, Soy and Bananas: Sugar suppresses your immune system so you can’t fight off the cough. The others are mucus producing – more mucus = more coughing.

Honey – The. Best. Simple anti-bacterial sweet sticky goodness. Numerous studies have compared it to standard over the counter cough medications. A recent Cochrane review (internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based care, comparing all published randomized controlled trials) concluded that when compared to over the counter cough medication, placebo and no treatment, honey is superior at quieting coughs. (Oduwole O, 2014) (Wagner JB, 2013) (Cohen HA, 2012)

Cough from the common cold is different than cough due to asthma – a respiratory condition of reactive airways triggered by allergy or hypersensitivity of some kind. Often well meaning doctors will prescribe asthma medication – puffers - for a cough that is not due to asthma, but rather just the remnants of a cold that won’t go away. Unfortunately these medications do not help for non-asthma associated coughs. Clinical trials pitting puffers against honey in children with a cold show honey is a more effective treatment of the cough than either salbutamol inhalers or placebo (Waris A, 2014) Honey is totally safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

** Raw honey is best. **It is dangerous for babies under the age of 1 to ingest honey.

Herbs: Andrographis – a well loved medicinal plant used heavily in Traditional Chinese as well as Ayurvedic Medicine for the treatment of a wide range of conditions due its extensive anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-microbial properties. (Okhuarobo A, 2014) Another Cochrane reviewed meta analysis found strong evidence for Andrographis in alleviating both the frequency, severity and duration of patient’s cough symptoms. (Wagner L, 2015). **This is a strong, effective herb, but not safe for everyone. Do not take during pregnancy or with existing Gallbladder or Kidney conditions.

Licorice aka Glycyrrhiza glabra – a powerful and impressive herb with a multitude of uses, healing the respiratory tract is just one of them. No relation to red twizzlers, except in name. As an adaptogen it helps your body adapt to stress, having a cough itself is stressful enough, plus, you know, life. As a demulcent it can soothe your throat and respiratory tract, it’s anti viral properties banish the viruses causing the cough. It’s an immune-stimulator – assisting your immune system in rallying and fighting the cough and of course, it’s an anti-tussive – meaning anti-cough. (Nosalova G, 2013) (Wang J, 2013) It has even been studied comparing it’s cough ending capabilities with codeine and seems to be more effective with less side effects. Hmmm… cough suppression without constipation or addiction? Yes please. (Saha S, 2011) (Kamei J, 2003). Can be taken as a tincture, lozenge or tea.

**Safe for children and adults. Not safe during pregnancy, or in those with high blood pressure.

Homeopathics – homeopathy gets a bad rap, but in the treatment of coughs I have seen it work too wonderfully & instantly not to include it on this list. The right homeopathic medicine can be instantly effective for coughs, but if you have not been trained or are not working with a trained professional it can be hard to determine which preparation is the right one.

Enter: Stodal Homeopathic Cough Syrup by Boiron: this is a combination product containing a number of different homeopathic preparations in one easy, sweet tasting liquid. Studies on this particular product have shown a reduction in the severity and frequency of a cough within the first 4 days of treatment as well as a marked decrease in sputum. (Zanasi A, 2014)

Rumex is a homeopathic remedy specific for the kind of cough that is just a little tickle in the pit of the throat that leads to constant coughing to try and alleviate it. A common affliction in my house. Works instantly.

Supplements: N-Acetyl Cysteine, aka NAC is derived from an amino acid. It is essential for anti-oxidant processes in the body. (Foschino BMP, 2005) It has a tremendous variety of uses, most famously it is used in hospitals to treat liver failure caused by drug or alcohol overdose – such as acute Tylenol overdose, which incidentally is one of the most common causes of liver damage worldwide. (Chun LJ, 2009) Please!! Always check your dosages when taking/administering Tylenol. In the case of a cough, NAC is a very effective anti-inflammatory for the lungs as well as being an excellent mucolytic – meaning mucus thinner. It is especially effective in coughs due to flu, having the ability to prevent, stop replication and even kill the influenza virus (Geiler J, 2010) (De Flora S, 1997) This is one of the few options on this list that is good for both acute but also chronic coughs due to COPD, Bronchitis and Asthma. (Pirabbasi E, 2016) (Tse HN, 2013) (Reichenberger F, 2002)

Probiotic – Yet another area in which probiotics have a remarkable benefit. Reduction of incidence when taken as prevention, shortens the duration of the cough allowing the patient to get better quicker, resulting in less days off work or school and fewer antibiotic prescriptions (Garaiova I, 2015) (Leyer GJ, 2009) (Rerksuppaphol S, 2012)

Vitamin C – the great anti-oxidant and famous cold treatment, one of the first interventions to be studied, with research dating back to the 1960s. Great for prevention, but also of note – Vitamin C is depleted by smoking, so if a cough is caused, or exacerbated by smoking or second hand smoke - this vitamin is the way to go. (Omenaas E, 2003) (Garaiova I, 2015). Also specifically effective for exercise induced coughing, (Hemila H, 2013)

Topicals: Castor oil chest & back rubwith added Essential Oils - Working on the same principles that Vicks Vapo-Rub does, but with less ingredients and you can make it yourself on the fly. Castor oil is one of those all purpose magical ingredients that should be in everyone’s medicine cabinet. Look for a future post all about the wonders of Castor oil. The downside – it’s a sticky mess, so keep it controlled. Adding a scant 1-3 drops of essential oils to this highly absorbable carrier oil is a therapeutic bonus. Choose essential oils wisely, quality varies. My favourites for cough are Eucaluptus and Thyme – both anti-microbial, anti-spasmodic with expectorant properties. (Hoffmann D, 2003) Massage into chest and upper back before bed, cover with blankets and let it work its magic. Safe for kids, adults, during pregnancy and breastfeeding. **Castor oil & Essential oils are for external use only, please do not use internally without the express recommendation of a licensed health care practitioner. **No essential oils for kids under 2 years of age for optimal safety

Magic Socks - Strange but true… magic socks boost immunity, kick start the body’s natural defense system, improve circulation, clear congestion & encourage lymphatic drainage. My instructions below...

The Wet Sock Treatment, or Magic Socks are warming socks that can be used to clear congestion in the head, sinuses or lungs, to reduce edema/swelling, reduce inflammation anywhere in the body, and to improve overall health. An easy, free and non-invasive method of boosting your immune system.

Directions: 1. Ensure feet are warm before beginning the treatment. This may be a warm bath or foot soak, or simply keeping them warm under the covers or in socks before beginning.

2. Soak one pair of thin cotton socks with water. Wring the socks out thoroughly so they do not drip and are just damp.

3. Optional: rub a little essential oil on the feet – eucalyptus, thyme or oregano mixed with a carrier oil such as castor, olive or almond. If you have some kind of decongestant chest rub, this works great at well.

4. Place wet socks on feet and cover immediately with thick, preferably wool socks. Make sure no part of the wet sock is exposed. Go directly to bed, cover with blankets. Avoid getting chilled.

5. Keep the socks on overnight. The wet cotton socks will be dry in the morning.

This treatment is safe for babies (without the added essential oils), children and adults who are feeling under the weather, congested, run down, etc. Safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It is not appropriate for anyone with a circulatory disorder, advanced stages of diabetes, certain cancers and other immune deficiencies. If the socks are still wet in the morning or if you have a pre existing chronic condition, please contact your ND before commencing or continuing with this therapy.

I hope this helps you and your loved ones recover from cough faster. Let me know what works for you!


  • If a cough has lingered for longer than 3 weeks please check in with your health care provider

  • None of this information is a replacement for individualized medical advice. Please see your Personal Health Care Provider for advice regarding your particular needs.

  • This post may contain affiliate links, I may receive a small commission from sales of certain items if you link to them from here, but the price is always the same for you

  • Castor oil & Essential oils are for external use only, please do not use internally without the express recommendation of a licensed health care practitioner

  • No essential oils for kids under 2 years of age for optimal safety


Abrahamsson TR, W. R. (2015). Gut microbiota and allergy: the importance of the pregnancy period. Pediatric Research , 214-219.

Chun LJ. (2009). Acetaminophen hepatotoxicity and acute liver failure. The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology , 342-9.

Cohen HA. (2012). Effect of honey on nocturnal cough and sleep quality: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Pediatrics , 465-71.

De Flora S. (1997). Attenuation of influenza-like symptomatology and improvement of cell-mediated immunity with long-term N-acetylcysteine treatment. The European Respiratory Journal , 1535-41.

Foschino BMP. (2005). Oxygen therapy at low flow causes oxidative stress in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Prevention by N-acetyl cysteine. Free Radical Research , 1111-8.

Garaiova I. (2015). Probiotics and vitamin C for the prevention of respiratory tract infections in children attending preschool: a randomised controlled pilot study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition , 373-9.

Geiler J. (2010). N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC) inhibits virus replication and expression of pro-inflammatory molecules in A549 cells infected with highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza A virus. Biochemical Pharmacology , 413-20.

Hemila H. (2013). Vitamin C may alleviate exercise-induced bronchoconstriction: a meta-analysis. BMJ Open .

Hoffmann D. (2003). Medical Herbalism, The Science & Practice of Herbal Medicine. Vermont: Healing Arts Press .

Kamei J. (2003). Antitussive principles of Glycyrrhizae radix, a main component of the Kampo preparations Bakumondo-to (Mai-men-dong-tang). European Journal of Pharmacology , 159-63.

Leyer GJ. (2009). Probiotic effects on cold & influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children . Pediatrics , 172-9.

Nosalova G. (2013). Herbal polysaccharides and cough reflex. Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology , 47-51.

Oduwole O. (2014). Honey for acute cough in children. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews .

Okhuarobo A. (2014). Harnessing the medicinal properties of Andrographis paniculata for diseases and beyond: a review of its phytochemistry and pharmacology. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Disease , 213-222.

Omenaas E. (2003). Dietary vitamin C intake is inversely related to cough and wheeze in young smokers . Respiratory Medicine , 134-42.

Pirabbasi E. (2016). Efficacy of Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) and/N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) Supplementation on Nutritional and Antioxidant Status of Male Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Patients. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology , 54-61.

Reichenberger F. (2002). N-acetylcystein in the therapy of chronic bronchitis. Pneumologie , 793-7.

Rerksuppaphol S. (2012). Randomized controlled trial of probiotics to reduce common cold in schoolchildren. Pediatrics International: The official journal of the Japan Pediatric Society , 682-7.

Saha S. (2011). Structural features and in vivo antitussive activity of the water extracted polymer from Glycyrrhiza glabra. International Journal Biological Macromolecules , 634-8.

Tse HN. (2013). High-dose N-acetylcysteine in stable COPD: the 1-year, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled HIACE study. Chest , 106-118.

Wagner JB. (2013). Chronic cough in children . Pediatric clinics of North America , 951-67.

Wagner L. (2015). Herbal Medicine for Cough: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Forschende Komplementmedizin , 359-68.

Wang J. (2013). Glycyrrhizic acid as the antiviral component of Glycyrrhiza uralensis Fisch. against coxsackievirus A16 and enterovirus 71 of hand foot and mouth disease. Journal of Ethnopharmacology , 114-21.


Zanasi A. (2014). Homeopathic medicine for acute cough in upper respiratory tract infections and acute bronchitis: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Pulmonary Pharmacology & Therapeutics , 102-108.

Dr Dori Skye Engel,
Naturopathic Doctor & Doula

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