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How to Stop Coughing: Home Remedies and Over-the-Counter Medications

Sherry Haynes is currently pursuing a PharmD degree and has experience in both the clinical and management sides of pharmacy.

A mild cough can be treated at home effectively.

A mild cough can be treated at home effectively.

The Body's Mechanism to Clear the Lungs

A cough is the body’s reflex reaction to try to rid the airways of mucus, phlegm, a foreign body, or other irritants and blockages. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can stop your cough right away, even of the pharmaceutical variety. But, there are many proven ways to stop your cough on some days, and there are ways to help you never have it this often again.

A cough is called productive or wet when it brings up mucus or phlegm, and it is called unproductive when it does not. Sometimes a cough accompanies an infection or a cold, and other times it does not. The division is important in determining the cause and appropriate treatment.

For example, for a cough with respiratory tract inflammation, medicines that suppress a cough should not be used, especially if the cough produces phlegm. In such cases, coughing is the body’s mechanism to clear the lungs.

Seek Medical Attention Immediately If . . .

Your cough is chronic (a cough is said to be chronic if it lasts for several weeks).

The phlegm appears thick, yellow, or green.

Your temperature is higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit.

You are wheezing when you cough or breathe.

You experience shortness of breath.

You are losing weight.

You are coughing blood.

You are having drenching sweats at night.

Home Treatment

Home treatment is safe and effective for minor coughs that are of short duration and or accompanied by a minor infection. It is always best to seek a physician’s advice, even in these cases.

1. Topical Ointments Containing Camphor, Menthol, or Eucalyptus

A topical ointment is applied as a thick layer rubbed into the throat or chest. A warm, dry cloth may be used to cover the area. Repeat the application 3 times daily or as directed by the physician.

Camphor is a mild pain reliever. Menthol provides a cooling sensation to the skin when applied topically.

Some effective topical ointments are

  • Vicks VapoRub
  • Care all
  • Mountain falls chest rub
  • Eucalyptus vapour rub with lavender and rosemary

Use as directed on the label. Do not apply to sunburned, dry, chapped, irritated, or broken skin. These are intended for external application only. These products should not be used in teas or oral preparations.


2. Steam Inhalants Containing Camphor and Menthol

Add the steam inhalant directly to water in a hot steam vaporizer or a bowl (usually one tablespoon per one quart of water). Breathe in the vapours.
Vicks VapoSteam liquid medication may be used in any steam vaporizer.

Vicks warm steam vaporizer

Vicks warm steam vaporizer

3. Oral Lozenges or Compressed Tablets

Menthol in oral lozenges provides a soothing antitussive effect. It may come in combination with benzocaine or dimethoprim in most lozenges for cough.
There are also lozenges with herbal ingredients like honey or wild cherry in them.

Some commonly used cough lozenges are

  • Cepacol sore throat
  • Flanax cough relief
  • Ricola honey herb
  • Luden’s throat drops
  • Thayer’s slippery elm lozenges

Use as directed by the physician or as directed on the label.

A menthol lozenge may contain glucose or phenylalanine. Talk to your doctor before using a lozenge if you have diabetes or phenylketonuria.

Note: Products containing camphor or menthol splatter and cause serious burns to the user if these are used near a flame, in hot water, or in a microwave.

Treatment for Dry Cough

Home and Herbal Remedies

If you are on medications, do not take herbal medicines without asking your doctor. Many medications interact with herbs causing serious adverse effects.

1. Liquorice Root Tea

Add one teaspoon of dried licorice root to a cup of water. Simmer for 10 minutes and strain. Drink up to three cups daily.

Or, take a little amount of liquorice and add water. Boil and strain. Take a teaspoon of this decoction with an equal quantity of honey mixed three times a day to obtain relief.

Note: Do not take liquorice on a long-term basis. It can cause headaches and result in water retention, among other symptoms.

2. Apricot Seeds

Use 3 to 9 grams of crushed apricot seeds. High doses could be poisonous, and they should not be used for diarrhea.

3. Slippery Elm Tea

Add a teaspoon of slippery elm to a cup of water. Simmer for 10 minutes and strain. Drink up to three cups daily.

4. Mulberry

It acts as an anti-inflammatory substance and quiets a cough. Prepare a decoction of 6 to 15 grams of mulberry.


Pharmacological Agents / Prescription Drugs

Read how to use OTC medications (guidelines at the end of this article) before using any OTC meds.

1. Dextromethorphan

Dextromethorphan is an antitussive that acts by increasing the cough threshold in the brain’s medulla.

Dextromethorphan is found in these medications. All of the below medications are available both Over-the-counter and over the prescription from a physician.

  • Benylin
  • Delsym
  • Robitussin

2. Codeine Cough Syrups

Codeine is a schedule C-V drug in cough syrups. It works in the same way as dextromethorphan by increasing the cough threshold in the medulla of the brain.

It is not recommended for children below six years of age.

Codeine is one of the most abused drugs. An overdose of codeine may cause death from respiratory depression and cardiovascular collapse.

3. Camphor and Menthol

Camphor and menthol ointments, steam vaporizers, and menthol lozenges are effective cough relievers.

Treatment for Productive Cough

Home and Herbal Remedies:

If you are on medications, do not take herbal medicines without asking your doctor. Many medications interact with herbs causing serious adverse effects.

1. Simple Cough Elixir of Onion and Honey

Honey has antimicrobial properties and acts as an expectorant. Slice an onion and put the slices in a bowl, covering them with honey. Let it stand overnight. In the morning, strain this honey-onion juice mixture and throw away the slices. Use one teaspoon of this mixture four to five times daily.

2. Ginger and Ginger Tea

Ginger in a regular tea not only tastes good but is also useful in keeping your throat clean. Adding a pinch of black pepper to the tea is even better for a cold cough.

Alternatively, you can peel ginger and chew small pieces slowly. This reduces the cough impulses.

3. Garlic

Garlic is an immune booster. Some studies say that it can be used for coughs. It expels the phlegm and clears the throat. It is best for chronic coughs. Use it in salad dressings or crush it in soups and stews.

4. Fenugreek Seeds

Fenugreek seeds cooked in water dissolves the phlegm.

Cooling Expectorants

Cooling expectorants are used for hot, yellow, or blood-tinged phlegm and difficult expectoration.

  • Comfrey moistens lungs and helps dissolve mucus. It is available as a tincture of three to nine grams dosage.
  • Bamboo is used for lung inflammation and phlegm difficult to expectorate. It is especially useful for treating cough in children.

Warming Expectorants

Warming expectorants are used for a cold condition which is indicated by clear, whitish phlegm, coldness, and a pale complexion. These should not be used for dry coughs or inflammatory conditions.

  • Yerba santa: It is an excellent expectorant, especially when combined with grindelia. 3 to 9 grams made into a tincture is used for 10 to 30 drops daily.
  • Grindelia: A 3 to 6 grams tincture is useful in combination with other herbs.

Over-the-Counter and Prescription Drugs

Read how to use OTC medication guidelines at the end of this article before using any OTC meds.


Guaifenesin is the only expectorant approved for patients two years and older. It works to loosen mucus and thin bronchial secretions by irritating gastric mucosa and stimulating secretions of the respiratory tract.

Guaifenesin is found in the following medications sold both over-the-counter and with a doctor's prescription.

  • Mucinex
  • Bidex 400

Foods to Eat and Avoid

Foods to Eat

  • Foods high in vitamin C. Some easy sources of vitamin C are oranges, strawberries, and lemons. To get your vitamin C dose, squeeze a lemon in a glass of warm water and add a teaspoon of honey.
  • Hot liquids act as cough suppressants.

Foods to Avoid

  • Foods that can form mucus such as dairy, eggs, and junk food.
  • Cold liquids. Cold liquids might feel soothing to the throat, but they are actually not helpful for a cough.
  • Deep-fried foods.

Effective Home Remedies

For Spasmodic Cough of Tuberculosis, Asthma, and Bronchitis

Wild Cherry Bark

Prepare a tincture of 3 to 9 grams of wild cherry bark and drink 10 to 15 drops daily.

Clove Oil

Take a mix of 3 to 5 drops of clove oil, honey, and a garlic clove before going to bed. Chewing a burnt clove is also effective for a relaxed throat in pharyngitis.

For Cough with Blood


Broil quince, remove pips, and stuff with honey to use for cough of hemoptysis type.
Clear or white phlegm means that the cough is caused by cold, whereas yellow or blood-tinged phlegm is indicative of heat and stagnation.


Do not give any OTC cough and cold medication to children under four years of age.

How to Use OTC Medications for Cough

  1. Select an appropriate active ingredient depending on your cough type. Is it productive? Is it dry? Do you see clear white phlegm or thick yellow phlegm? Seek a doctor's advice if you are not sure how to decide or you cough blood.
  2. Read the label carefully to decide if it is appropriate for you. Before even making a purchase, you can check if an OTC drug is fit for you by reading about it on this government's website for label information.
  3. After purchase, read the label for the directions on how to use, dosage, and storage.
  4. Keep away from the reach of children.
  5. Do not use it for more than seven days. If the cough persists even after seven days, look for physician advice.

Exercise to Get Rid of Coughing Fast

Cough could be a symptom of respiratory diseases or other serious infections. The information in this article is a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Do not take the herbal medicines without consulting your doctor because you could be on many medicines that interact with herbs. Consult your physician if the cough persists for more than two weeks.


  1. Monte T. The complete guide to natural healing. Penguin (1997) 108:110
  2. Hoffman D. Easy Breathing: Natural Treatments for Asthma, Colds, Flu, Coughs, Allergies, and Sinusitis. Storey Publishing (2017)
  3. Shargel L., Mutnick A. H., Souney P. F., et al. (Eds). (1997). Comprehensive Pharmacy Review. (Third Edition). 351 W. Camden Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-2436: Williams & Wilkins.
  4. Dailymed drug information website

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Sherry Haynes


Liz Westwood from UK on August 30, 2018:

You give great advice in this article.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 30, 2018:

Hello, Sherry, thanks for stopping by, and commenting.

Sherry Haynes (author) on August 30, 2018:

Hi Meibakagh! Natural remedies are safe and should be absolutely given preference over medicines. However, there is a need to use precaution when taking most herbs.

I am aware of FDA recommending home remedies than meds for younger children as most medicines for cough might have serious side effects. I have not heard the same for adults though. It is usually said so because most cough meds have codein and other opiods which can be abused and have very serious toxic effects when taken in large doses. Thank you for the note.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 29, 2018:

Hello, Sherry, this is another useful and informative article. Thanks a lot. Nevertheless, I prefer natural or herbal remedies for a cough and cold issues. I also maintain a healthy state to avoid a cough or cold, or both, via regularly eating limes and lemons, my favorite citrus fruits. I couple this with regular exercises.

Medication is good. But they are easily abused. More so, the WHO has recommended home remedies for coughs and colds then medical treatment. I hope you are aware of this fact? Thank you.