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People’s Pharmacy: How to calm a cough – drugstore vs. grandma

At this time of year, when folks squeeze into crowded shopping centers, gather for holiday parties or lift their voices for seasonal songs, viruses can travel fast.

What doctors term “upper respiratory infections” and the rest of us know as colds and coughs are spread through the air as well as by direct hand contact. Frequent hand-washing is a smart precaution, but it is not foolproof. One sneeze can send thousands of viruses throughout a room.

If you catch a viral infection, the runny nose, sneezing, headache and nasal congestion usually clear up in about a week. But the chest congestion and cough may last much longer. If it keeps you awake at night, healing becomes harder.

What can you do to ease a persistent cough?

Most people reach for over-the-counter cough medicine. Everyone assumes that the Food and Drug Administration has determined that such products are safe and effective.

How well do these products work in reality? That turns out to be an awkward question. A highly trained panel of volunteer doctors reviewed the medical literature on this topic and applied strict guidelines for analyzing placebo-controlled trials (Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews online, Nov. 24, 2014). There were just 29 trials (19 in adults, 10 in children) that met their criteria as well-done studies. The Cochrane investigators concluded, “There is no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of OTC medicines in acute cough.”

That was for the studies in adults. In children, most of the studies did not show a benefit, although one indicated that honey works better than placebo to help calm a child’s cough.

It is discouraging that an in-depth analysis was unable to establish that OTC cough medicines are helpful, given that Americans spend billions of dollars on them every winter.

Home remedies have not undergone testing, and the FDA certainly does not sanction their use. But many readers of this column have found that old-fashioned approaches often work wonders.

One remedy that readers like is Vicks VapoRub, but not on the chest: “I’ve just tried Vicks on the soles of my husband’s feet, and I’m shocked at how well it worked. He’s been coughing for two weeks, and now he’s stopped!”

Vicks VapoRub contains several herbal oils, including thymol. Many readers have found that thyme right off the spice rack makes a soothing tea: “I’ve had a good old-fashioned cold this past week, and when the cough started on Wednesday, I reached for your book and brewed up some of your thyme tea potion. Just two doses on Thursday stopped the coughing completely.”

Another favorite is onion syrup: “My grandmother used to make this for us when I was a child. I just made it for my 5-year-old son, who was never sick before starting school and now has a bad cough. It still works like a charm.”

You will find details on such remedies and more in our Guide to Colds, Coughs and the Flu. Anyone who would like a copy, please send $3 in check or money order with a long (No. 10), stamped (70 cents), self-addressed envelope to: Graedons’ People’s Pharmacy, No. Q-20, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027. It also can be downloaded for $2 from our website: