How To Treat a Cough

When my wife was in the hospital after having our first daughter, her roommate was an immigrant from somewhere in Eastern Europe. The hospital staff was freaking out that she hadn’t been seeing a doctor regularly during her pregnancy. She asked them, “Why would I see a doctor? I wasn’t sick, I was pregnant.”

We’re so conditioned growing up in the U.S. that “good prenatal care” means regular visits with a doctor. For every expecting mother who has a problem that is caught early, this is absolutely worth it. But it was interesting to remember that for most of the world, and for most of history, pregnancy was something that women pretty much got through with the help of the older women in the family.

It used to be the same way with colds and flu. Mom would make you chicken soup — also known as “Jewish penicillin” — for dinner, and a hot toddy before bed. And according to the doctor we saw today, that’s not such a bad idea.

Busy week

Regular readers might have noticed I didn’t post much last week. Winnie went to the doctor the previous Friday and got an inhaler and an antibiotic for the chest cold that she just couldn’t shake. Then Jenn came down with it on Monday. It landed on her with both feet.

Because she believes she should be the one taking care of us, she tried to tough it out. Until the weekend, after the third night of not being able to sleep because of the coughing, when I finally got her to go to the urgent care clinic. Until then, I was taking care of the kids and the cooking. I’m not complaining, just saying that’s a full-time job, which is why I didn’t post anything until Friday.

Medical terminology

After listening to her lungs, the doctor said Jenn had “sludge” in them. He ordered a treatment, but before he left I asked about traditional methods. Specifically, the hot toddy: whiskey, honey and lemon. His learned medical advice was, “Leave out the lemon, and that’s probably the best thing you could do.”


It seems our mothers (or grandmothers, depending on how old you are) knew what they were doing after all. The honey coats the throat so it isn’t as irritated, and the alcohol numbs it. Both are good for suppressing the cough. Lemons, though — or any acidic food: citrus, tomatoes, vinegar — are irritants, so you should avoid them. Sorry, tomato soup lovers, gotta go with the chicken.

Local variations

Our doc was Greek, so he said in his family it was Ouzo and honey. And they always called chicken and rice soup “Greek penicillin”.

How about your family? What did your mother give you when you were sick? Was it different for a cough vs. the sniffles?