Growing up, we used warm water salt gargles for sore throats and cough relief, but I turned to cough and cold medicine in adulthood. After hearing Dr. Gustavo Ferrer speak at an integrative medicine conference two years ago, I was interested in reading his book, Cough Cures: The Complete Guide to the Best Natural Remedies and Over-the-Counter Drugs for Acute and Chronic Cough. A pulmonologist and founder of the Chronic Cough Center at the Cleveland Clinic Florida, Ferrer’s book is filled with natural remedies recommended for different types of cough.
Co-authored with homeopath Burke Lennihan, it’s challenging to decipher who is writing each chapter of the book. Lennihan offers dozens of herbs and plants for a myriad of ailments while Ferrer discusses natural remedies and traditional medicine.
Ferrer grew up in Cuba where they had little access to doctors. “We only visited the doctor in dire emergencies. For everything else, it was grandma to the rescue. And rest assured, she had a homemade remedy for just about anything.”
Research on cold and cough over-the-counter medications (OTC), especially in children, shows cause for concern. A 2014 review found “there was no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of OTC medicines in acute cough.” Consumers often don’t realize that they are taking several OTC products with the same ingredients, like acetaminophen, which increases the risk of overdosing.
Ferrer writes that he often finds dried mucus in noses and throats during patient examinations. He discusses saline nasal rinses, drops, NeilMed sinus rinse bottles, and the neti pot.
Chicken soup has been used for centuries to cure colds and flu. A special report in Chest, the journal for chest physicians, suggested that chicken soup may have an anti-inflammatory effect but that commercial soups varied in inhibitory activity. Ferrer recommends homemade chicken soup and includes his mother’s recipe. She uses a whole hen and a package of wings.
There is a recipe for Fire Cider, a traditional nasal-passage clearing drink that you can keep for several months. My digestive system couldn’t handle it, but if you like things hot, it may work for you. A version is available commercially but making it at home is less expensive.
Ferrer writes about the Buteyko breathing method developed by a Russian doctor in the 1950s. The theory is that when we breathe too deeply, we drive out too much carbon dioxide. As we’ve all experienced, trying to take a deep breath when you have a cough, usually results in more coughing. “Nose-breathing benefits anyone with a cough because it moistens and sterilizes the airway and reduces the irritation that causes coughing.” For acute cough, Ferrer recommends sipping water whenever you feel a cough coming because “a swallow is less traumatic to the tissues.”
“The less you cough, the less irritated the vocal folds are, the less mucus they produce, then they can heal, so the less you have to cough.”
Ferrer’s mother often uses Vicks VapoRub on his children but he has a cautionary tale of a patient who used it in her nose at night for 20 years. After she described shortness of breath and a dry cough, he found scar tissue in her lungs and said she was “on the verge of a lung transplant.” There’s no real research showing the effectiveness of camphor, but it definitely should not be put in the nostrils.
Another OTC favorite is nonmedicated throat lozenges, which he calls “the most widely used placebos in America.”
Of course, you should check with your doctor about the safety of adding any home remedies. And don’t forget to keep a list of any supplements you are taking.
Dr. Ferrer’s recipe for cough relief:
Lemon and Honey cough syrup
Sip all day when you have a cough
Cup of boiling water, squeeze as much juice from half a lemon as possible, add a spoon of honey to taste (preferably local to reduce the risk of additives). Remember that children under 2 cannot consume honey.