Natural cough remedies: 9 expert tips to cure a cough - including some surprising foods

Treat a pesky cough with these natural cough remedies, from herbal teas to tasty snacks

Family in bed with a cough
(Image credit: Alamy)

Natural cough remedies are a great way to get rid of an annoying tickle without reaching for the medicine cabinet, and these treatments are suitable for all the family.

Those with young kids will be familiar with coughs and colds doing the rounds in the winter months - and often throughout the rest of the year too - leaving many searching for natural cold remedies as well as natural headache remedies and natural flu remedies.

Dr Deborah Lee, from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, explains, "Coughing is a reflex needed to protect your lungs. When you cough, it may be because you have a dry irritated throat, an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI), or a chest infection. Dampening down a cough reflex may not always be in your best health interests, however, coughing is exhausting and many people just want a period of relief, if only overnight, to help them sleep."

Fortunately, coughs can also be treated without the help of over-the-counter relief - and some of the remedies you'll probably already have in the back of your cupboard. We've listed the best natural cough remedies below, along with some advice on age suitability too.

9 natural cough remedies

1. Honey

We've all heard that honey does a great job of soothing irritated throats - it's one of the best known cures out there. But new research published in the British Medical Journal has said that honey is "superior to usual care for the improvement of symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections."

Researchers analysed studies that compared the effects of consuming honey with antibiotics and cough syrups, looking at the impact on cough symptoms including the severity, the frequency of coughs and the length of time the symptoms persisted. They found that honey had a significantly greater effect in reducing symptoms - especially when it came to the severity of the cough and the frequency of coughs - revealing that honey is both a superior and cheaper treatment.

“Honey has been used as a natural health remedy in various different cultures for thousands of years - and rightly so - given its wealth of medicinal properties,” says Dr Hussain Ahmad from Click2Pharmacy. "Honey has some great antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which help to protect against oxidative stress and help the body to deal with and manage symptoms of inflammation, such as a sore throat and cough.”

Dr Deborah Lee, from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, adds “Due to its thick, viscous consistency, honey can coat and soothe the back of the throat. The use of hot lemon and honey for adults and children aged over 1 with an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) is endorsed by the British Thoracic Society and NHS Choices.”

Try this remedy by adding some honey and a squeeze of lemon juice to hot water, or simply drizzle some honey over your morning porridge, put some into a smoothie or try a tasty recipe such as honey chicken or honey glazed parsnips

However, bear in mind that honey should never be given to babies under one-year old. 

A honey dipper in a jar of honey

(Image credit: Getty Images)

2. Fresh garlic

Dr Ahmad says “Garlic’s primary biologically active ingredient (allicin) has been found to be extremely useful when it comes to decreasing inflammation and reducing oxidative stress in the body, both of which can often present in the form of coughs. When we crush or slice garlic, it activates an enzyme called alliinase, which, when left to sit for a few minutes, can further increase the medicinal properties of the garlic.”

Several studies have shown that garlic has immune system-boosting properties, and one clinical trial tested this by giving half of its participants a placebo pill and the other half a garlic capsule for a period of 12 weeks. In the group taking the placebo, 65 participants suffered from the common cold, whilst in the group taking the garlic capsule, just 24 reported symptoms of a cold.

However, Dr Ahmad offers a word of caution “One thing to bear in mind is that garlic powders and garlic salts do not contain allicin, so if you want to try this remedy I’d recommend using real, raw garlic - although you may have to have a breath mint afterwards!”

3. Ginger

For centuries, ginger has been hailed as a cure-all for everything from heart diseases to the common cough. Dr Ahmad says “This spice has a wealth of powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antiviral benefits which help the body to release and flush out toxins.”

A study released in December 2020 showed that fresh ginger could stimulate our cells to move towards sites of inflammation, infection and trauma in our bodies, helping us to recover from a cough or cold. In addition, the study showed that ginger was effective in preventing viruses from attaching to our airways and stopping the cough in the first place.

To benefit from this remedy, Dr Ahmad says “One of the most popular ways of consuming ginger is to drink it in tea. I’d definitely recommend this to those who are struggling with a cough, as the steam from the tea can also help to loosen up the airways and the warm fluids will help to soothe the throat and keep you hydrated, which is really important for the immune system.”

We love Pukka Organic Three Ginger Tea 20 Tea Bags - £4.75 | Tesco. But, note that herbal teas shouldn't be given to children under two - and even then, should be avoided if they contain caffeine.

4. Thyme

Thyme has antibacterial, anti-fungal and expectorant (ridding the body of excess mucus) properties. One study showed that a fluid extract containing thyme herb and ivy leaves helped to reduce coughing fits in a group of adults suffering from acute bronchitis with productive cough. 

Dr Lee says “Thyme has been used for centuries as a herbal medicine to treat URTIs. It contains terpenes, thymol and carvacrol, which have antitussive, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral properties.”

Try steeping thyme leaves in hot water for 15-20 minutes to make a tea that may help to ease your cough. That said, this remedy is not one to try with younger children, as hot water could burn their more sensitive skin.

5. Liquorice root

One study from 2015 has suggested that liquorice could be effective at preventing the growth of bacteria, fungi and even some viruses, alongside having anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.  Another study from 2018 relays the results from a study on mice, where it was discovered that some components in liquorice could reduce the frequency of coughs by between 30% and 78%.

Dr Ahmad says “Both liquorice extracts and liquorice flavonoids have been found to play a vital role in aiding recovery from respiratory disease and fungal infections.” However, he adds “More research is needed in order to fully support this.”

To try this remedy, place one teaspoon of the dried herb into two cups of water and boil and allow it to steep before drinking. Bear in mind, however, that liquorice root is not suitable to give to children or those pregnant or breastfeeding. In addition, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends an average adult should not consume more than 100mg of liquorice a day.

6. Pineapple

Pineapple might not seem like a conventional cough remedy, especially if it’s a dark winter evening where you'd much rather have a cup of hot chocolate than a pina colada.

“Pineapple has been used as a medicinal plant for hundreds of years,” says Dr Lee. “The fruit contains bromelain, which is thought to thin out bronchial mucous, and also has antibiotic properties.”

Bromelain has been proven to suppress coughs and loosen mucus in the throat, making pineapple a great remedy. 

Dr Ahmad adds “Pineapples are packed with a wide variety of vitamins and minerals which help support the immune system, from vitamin C to manganese, vitamin B6, potassium and iron. I’d definitely recommend pineapple and other citrus fruits to those suffering from a cough.”

He explains that one study found a link between using honey and pineapple extract and a reduction in coughing episodes and intensity. Dr Ahmad recommends adding some pineapple to your honey chicken recipe or your smoothie, or enjoying the tropical fruit drizzled with honey at breakfast. But remember, as noted above, honey should not be given to children under one year old.

A woman slicing pineapple on a chopping board

(Image credit: Getty Images)

7. Gargling with salt water

We've all heard of this one before, but is it actually true? Well, in 2005 researchers surveyed 400 healthy volunteers and tracked their progress for 60 days during the cold and flu season. While some of the participants in the study were told to gargle three times a day, others didn’t gargle at all. By the end of the study, the group that regularly gargled had almost 40% fewer infections in their upper respiratory tract that those who didn't gargle at all.

According to Dr Ahmad, gargling with salt water is a great cough remedy. He says “As unpleasant as it may be, gargling with salt water could actually do the trick when it comes to relieving coughs caused by sore throats. Salt water, particularly when it's warm, can help to kill bacteria, ease pain and loosen mucus in the throat - just try not to swallow it!”

To make a saltwater gargle, Dr Lee advises ½ teaspoon of salt to dissolved in an 8-ounce glass of tepid water. Try and gargle for 30 seconds and repeat several times a day to feel the benefit of this remedy.

This remedy should be avoided for very young children, as too much salt can be dangerous. Be aware, the NHS recommends salt levels of less than 1g for 0-12 months old and up to 6g for those aged 11.

8. Probiotics

Multiple studies have show that probiotics are helpful in relieving coughs and colds, because they help our gut bacteria to keep our immune system working optimally throughout the body.

A 2015 study found that probiotics worked better than a placebo in reducing the number of participants experiencing upper respiratory infection, while a 2022 study found that probiotics reduced symptoms of coughing in people of all ages when taken on a regular basis.

While you can buy probiotic food supplements, the most natural way to up your intakes of probiotics is to eat fermented food. Foods that will help you get probiotics include:

  • Yogurt
  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kombucha
  • Miso 
  • Tempeh
  • Kefir

9. Breathe in steam

Breathing in steam or trying to create a humid environment can help ease a persistent cough, because dry air can exacerbate symptoms. You could do this by taking a hot shower or bath, sitting with you face above a bowl of hot water, or you may want to invest in a humidifier.

Humidifiers emit water vapor, so they will add steam to your room. Over-the-counter medication company Vicks says "Warm steam opens and moisturizes stuffy breathing passages, and helps thin the mucus so you can cough it up and get phlegm out."

If you choose to invest in a humidifier, make sure you keep other doors shut to keep as much steam in the room as possible, and change the water frequently to make sure it stays clean.

Vicks Warm Mist Humidifier VH845E1 - £49.89 | OnBuy

Vicks Warm Mist Humidifier VH845E1 - £49.89 | OnBuy

This humidifier releases up to 95% bacteria-free mist into the air to help easy breathing. You can choose between 2 mist output levels (high or low), depending on the amount of moisture you want to add into the room. 

When to see a doctor

The NHS advises making an appointment with your GP in any of the following circumstances:

  • You've had a cough for more than 3 weeks (persistent cough)
  • Your cough is very bad or quickly gets worse – for example, you have a hacking cough or cannot stop coughing
  • You feel very unwell
  • You have chest pain
  • You're losing weight for no reason
  • The side of your neck feels swollen and painful (swollen glands)
  • You find it hard to breathe
  • You have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or diabetes
  • See a GP urgently if you're coughing up blood

We spoke to the following experts:

A headshot of Dr Deborah Lee
Dr Deborah Lee

Having worked for many years in the NHS, mostly as Lead Clinician within an integrated Community Sexual Health Service, Dr Deborah Lee now works as a health and medical writer, with an emphasis on women's health, including medical content for Dr Fox pharmacy. She has published several books and remains passionate about all aspects of medicine and sexual health.

Profile photo of Dr Hussain Ahmad
Dr Hussain Ahmad

Click2Pharmacy’s Dr Hussain Ahmad has over 10 years experience working with patients across Europe and most recently in the North of England. He is an experienced hospital doctor working primarily in A&E in the North West and has helped covid patients that have been admitted to hospital.

As a consultant practitioner, he’s provided support and advice for a wide range of patients who struggle with a variety of different health issues. From high blood pressure to diabetes, nutrient deficiencies, sleep problems, mental health conditions and everything in between.

Looking for more natural remedies? We've asked the experts about the best natural remedies for travel sickness and insect bites, and we've taken a look at natural anxiety remedies too.

Grace Walsh
Features Writer

Grace Walsh is a health and wellbeing writer, working across the subjects of family, relationships, and LGBT topics, as well as sleep and mental health. A digital journalist with over six years  experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace is currently Health Editor for and has also worked with Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more. After graduating from the University of Warwick, she started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. 

With contributions from