Homemade Cough Syrup and Other Remedies

I got a bad cold recently. One of those ones where you can’t stop coughing, and your throat gets raw and sore. All you want to do is reach for the cough syrup so you can soothe your throat and sleep. I walk to the bathroom and open the medicine cabinet. Yes! We do still have cough syrup left from last time. Damn, it’s expired. Not too expired, maybe it’s still okay (I was desperate). This time, however, I had to read the ingredients list on the cough syrup. A short scan of the list and…propylene glycol. I do a Google search, looking for other cough syrups, and propylene glycol is a pretty common ingredient. Double damn.

Honey“All right,” I think to myself, “maybe there’s something without drugs I can make. I reeeaaally don’t want to go out to the drugstore.” Much to my surprise, the same two things keep popping up in my searches: honey and apple cider vinegar. Getting even more desperate, I pounce. If one is good, both must be better, right? I mix a small amount of raw honey into a teaspoon of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar, take a tiny sip and…

It burns for a second, on my already-raw throat. But then, almost defying my logic (why throw acid on a wound?), the pain vanishes. No sore throat, and no urge to cough. None. I spent the night sleeping upright on the couch, dozing and taking small sips of my concoction if I woke up and needed to cough. That happened surprisingly less than I thought it would. The next morning, I had finished about a teaspoon and a half of vinegar-honey mix. And I was actually somewhat rested. I shared my astonishing discovery with my husband, and his reaction was as expected: “Okay.” (With a look that said, “You’re crazy, but maybe it did work for you.”)

The benefits:

  • Actually works to reduce coughing urge and soothe throat (cough any *loose* chest congestion out first)
  • Uses ingredients you already may have in your house, or can use for other things
  • Because you can use the (reasonably shelf-stable) ingredients for other things as well, you don’t have to worry about finding a half-used, expired cough syrup bottle the next time you’re sick
  • Costs almost nothing, especially compared to a $8+ bottle of cough syrup
  • No maximum dosages – use how much you need when you need it
  • You know exactly what’s in it and how safe each ingredient is for you

Glass of WaterMy daughter tried the apple cider vinegar alone the next time she had a cold, and the results were similar. My husband couldn’t stop coughing, finally got desperate enough to try the vinegar, and slept the rest of the night peacefully. The next night he switched to the vinegar honey mix because he said it soothed and coated his throat better, and tasted more palatable. Either way, I won’t be buying cough syrup or cough drops again.

To  help your body recover faster from illness like colds or flu, there are a couple of other remedies I have tried with moderate success:

1) To give your body a healthy dose of vitamin C, wash a grapefruit well and slice it into quarters.  Place two unpeeled pieces into a large cup and pour boiling water over the top.  Allow the grapefruit pieces to soften and squish the pieces to express some of the juice.  When cool enough, drink the water and eat the grapefruit.

2) To help boost the immune system when you’re starting to feel sick, swallow whole an uncut clove of peeled garlic.  Because it isn’t cut open, it doesn’t cause garlic breath, though it’s not always pleasant on the other end.  It does seem to work though.

Wondering what people in medieval times used to treat coughs? “Manuscript number 136” from the Medical Society of London lists many possible treatments. I have listed a few below, written in a more modern manner for your convenience. If you choose to try any of these, remember that medical knowledge has changed since the fourteenth century. Research the safety of the ingredients, safe dosages, and contraindications for you and use at your own risk.

  1. “Brestis to purge heme of flewme” (breasts to purge them of phlegm, or clear chest congestion): Steep coriander in vinegar for three full days and nights. Remove the coriander from the vinegar and dry it in the sun. Eat it morning and night.
  2. “Who so haue evell at the brest” (whosoever have evil at the breast, or for sickness in the chest): Take equal amounts of hyssop and sugar, and equal amounts of liquorice and horehound. Boil them in water until they have shrunk to three quarters of their original volume. Drink this liquid cold in the morning and hot at night.
  3. “For flewm and for the brest” (for phlegm and for the breast, or for chest congestion): Melt a quart of clarified honey over low heat, skimming it clean. Do not use higher heat or it will turn black. Boil it until it creates a hard lump when a drop of it is dropped on a cold platter. When it is hard, mix in a pound of rice flour, a little at a time, until it is too thick to stir. Let it cool, and when cold, grind it into a powder. Spread this powder on a smooth board. Then make a dough out of bean flour and wort. Choose coriander, anise, or dill seed, and put some into the dough. Roll pea-sized balls (or larger) of dough in the powder.
  4. “Ffor the dry cough”: Eat honey containing horehound and comfrey for three mornings and evenings.
  5. For the “cough of colde” (for the cough of cold): Wash your feet in hot water every evening rest with your foot soles toward the fire. Then take garlic and a small amount of horehound, and mash them together. Anoint the soles of your feet with this mixture while sitting in front of the fire at bedtime.
  6. “Ffor the cough off fflewme” (for the cough of phlegm): Add a handful of hyssop to a pound of figs and a quarter pound of liquorice. Mash them together and boil this mixture in a gallon of water until the liquid reduces to half of its original volume. Take often. It is improved by adding anise, clarified honey, and a little vinegar, but make sure to skim it well.

LeecherbookNote: As I can’t find a way to access pictures of the original manuscript, I have used a verbatim copy of the original manuscript wording found in “A Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century 1934,” published with translation by Warren R. Dawson, to gain access to the original language of the recipes from the manuscript. To see the recipes in their medieval language, click here.

Have you found any effective home treatments for cough and colds? Comment below.

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