A cough can be one of the most frustrating symptoms of the common cold or other seasonal ailments. But believe it or not, it’s a way for your body to clear out irritants and infections from your airways. There are several different types of coughs, depending on the underlying causes, but the most common distinction is dry cough vs a wet or productive cough.
A dry cough is a cough that doesn’t bring up mucus, but is caused by a constant irritation in the back of your throat. It can have simple underlying causes like the cold or flu, and can often persist long after you’ve recovered from an illness.
A wet cough is dubbed a productive cough because it helps push mucus out of your respiratory system. It’s the kind of cough that usually accompanies an infection like the flu or cold and can be acute (lasting less than three weeks) or chronic (lasting more than eight weeks).
When it comes to soothing a cough, a dry cough can benefit from soothing treatments like hot teas and steam baths, while a wet cough needs a remedy that will help break down mucus and make it easier for you to cough it up. “You don’t want to suppress a productive cough that is bringing up mucus. But you do want to suppress a dry cough,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD.
We’ve compiled a list of expert-recommended common foods, herbs, and home remedies that are proven cough aids, whether you have a dry or a wet cough.
“Ginger is a go-to for relieving a cough and a sore throat caused by it.” says dietitian and nutrition specialist Tatiana Larionova, MS, LDN, CNS. That’s because ginger contains compounds that dilate blood vessels and lungs and relax smooth muscles, leading to opening of the airways, she explains. Her recommendation is to steep freshly sliced ginger root in hot water, or add finely chopped ginger to brewing herbal tea for cough relief.
Most everyone is familiar with the healing properties of honey when it comes to your respiratory system. It possesses antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce intensity and duration of a cough, says Larionova.
Sandra Crawley, a registered nurse and consultant for parenting blog Mom Loves Best recommends making a tea with honey and lemon by adding two tablespoons of honey and one to two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice to eight ounces of hot water. “The lemon helps thin out and break up mucus, while the honey has a soothing effect,” she says. “Not only will this tea help break up the mucus and soothe the throat, but it will also give your body a dose of vitamin C to boost your immune system.”
The root of a marshmallow plant has been used in alternative medicine for centuries, and particularly for treating coughs and other respiratory issues. A study from 2005 found that a syrup containing marshmallow root among other ingredients was an effective cough treatment for those suffering from colds and other issues like bronchitis.
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European or Chinese licorice
Crawley notes licorice root is one of her go-tos when treating the cough of her family members and patients. Not to be confused with the candy, this plant comes from a species of pea plants called Glycyrrhiza. It can be used whole, sliced, or in tablet form, and its extract can be found in syrups, too. “Licorice is considered an expectorant and it soothes mucus membranes and irritated or inflamed lungs,” she notes. The recommended dose is between 5 and 15 grams daily, to be used for four to six weeks. “However, caution should be taken if you have heart or liver disease, and it should not be used while pregnant,” Crawley warns.
Peppermint is a variety of mint, and the menthol in its leaves is a well-known decongestant that helps break down mucus and support the health of your airways. “Peppermint has been used to ease congestion and improve breathing by stimulating receptors in the respiratory tract,” notes Crawley. You can take peppermint lozenges, tinctures, teas, or even make yourself a steam bath with the essential oils. The soothing effects of peppermint can work wonders for a dry cough.
Eucalyptus is another favorite home remedy, and part of the myrtle plant family. “It helps to decrease mucus and expand the bronchioles of the lungs, and has been shown to be useful at relieving upper respiratory issues,” says Crawley. You can take it in tea form, by steeping loose leaves in hot water, or buy an over-the-counter salve to rub on your chest. Crawley has another favorite way of harnessing the healing powers of eucalyptus, “Take the whole sprig and hang it on the back of your shower head out of the water stream—the heat and steam will release the essential oils in the stems. This will help clear your nasal congestion and expand your bronchioles, which will relieve the coughing.”
This may be a surprising cough remedy, but pineapple seems to have the right combo of characteristics to make it a potent cough aid. Trista Best, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements,
environmental health specialist, and adjunct nutrition professor, notes: “Bromelain is an enzyme found in pineapple that has substantial anti-inflammatory and mucolytic properties. These two characteristics of bromelain make pineapple an excellent food to help relieve a cough.” She further explains that the mucolytic aspect of bromelain means it is able to break down the mucus, potentially the root cause of the cough, and remove it completely. “If the mucus isn’t removed, it continues to be an irritant,” she notes. Not to mention, the extra dose of vitamin C doesn’t hurt your cause, either.
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