The irritating, tickly, and sometimes dry cough we feel during cold and flu season can linger for days and weeks. We continually clear our throats to alleviate congestion, but it only makes the coughing worse. Every year, millions of Americans reach for the cherry-flavored cough syrup to block their cough reflex and loosen up mucus in the airways, but does the OTC medicine really work?

In the video, does "Does Cough Medicine Really Work?" the American Chemical Society’s Reactions explains coughing is a natural reflex that clears our airways of anything that's not supposed to be in there. therefore, when an irritant floats into our nose or mouth, receptors in the airways send signals to the brain, sounding the alarm. A message is then sent back to our diaphragm, and suddenly we begin to cough at speeds up to 50 mph.

This is where cough medicine (ideally) should kick in. Antitussives, like dextromethorphan or DXM, are meant to block the cough reflex, and they can also make us drowsy. Expectorants like guaifenesin are designed to loosen and thin the mucus in our lungs, making it easier to cough out the gunk in our airways. Decongestants like ephedrine decongest us by narrowing the blood vessels in the nose, while antihistamines, like loratadine, reduce swelling of the nose and throat and decrease the amount of gooey mucus that our lungs secrete when we have allergies.

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There is very little evidence cough syrup is effective at treating coughs. In one review, 15 out of 19 studies analyzed showed no benefit, or the results were conflicting. Other reviews have similar findings; the researchers say there is "no good evidence for or against the effective of OTC medicines in acute cough.” There is no guarantee that cough syrup will do anything for our cough, though it could help us get a better night's sleep.

Taking larger doses of DXM can cause dizziness, uncontrollable eye movement, convulsions, and even death, and it's especially dangerous for young children — thousands of kids under 12 are sent to the emergency room every year because of accidental overdoses on cough medicine.

Rather than drinking a bottle of cough syrup, there are natural treatments that can alleviate an irritating cough. They are not only better for you, but they taste a whole lot better than most cough syrup too! Most of the time, we can manage our coughs at home with natural, accessible, and relatively inexpensive remedies:


A dose of honey could be effective when treating a troublesome cough. A 2007 study published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found a small dose of buckwheat honey given before bedtime provided better relief of nighttime cough and sleep difficulty in children than no treatment, or the OTC cough suppressant dextromethorphan (DM), found in cough medicine. Honey did a better job at reducing the severity, frequency and bothersome nature of nighttime cough from upper respiratory infection than DM or no treatment.

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The chemicals in licorice are believed to decrease swelling, thin mucus secretions, decrease cough, and even increase the chemicals in the body that heal ulcers. It's a traditional treatment for cough, asthma, and sore throat, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Licorice acts as an expectorant, helping to loosen and expel phlegm, and also provides a soothing effect on irritated mucous membranes.


Eating chocolate to cure a cough may sound too good to be true, but a compound in cocoa has a medicinal effect. A 2012 study presented at the British Thoracic Society's winter meeting in London in December found the naturally occurring chemical theobromine could treat a cough if taken twice a day for two weeks, leading patients to stop treatment early because their cough had cleared. Theobromine, an alkaloid in cocoa, is better at suppressing the urge to cough than codeine — an established ingredient in cough medicines. This simply means it is stickier and more viscous than standard cough medicines, so it forms a coating which protects nerve endings in the throat which trigger the urge to cough.

Whiskey And Hot Toddies

Strong alcoholic drinks have been known to be useful in fighting infections and prohibiting the growth of microorganisms, according to the book Disinfection, Sterilization, and Preservation.

It has also been associated with fewer colds, except among smokers. Research is still mixed about the effects of alcohol on inflammation and the immune system, but in moderate amounts, it’s unlikely to cause any negative side effects for immunity.

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