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?


  1. Sorry to hear about the recent illnesses. I had the “Jewish penicillin”, of course, something I share with my own children. I was also a fan of the “sizzling rice soup” from a local Chinese carry-out joint.

    Oh, wait this reminds me of a conversation in college I had the first time I made my mom’s chicken soup and served it to some friends. Amongst the crowd was a Chinese native, who declared that my soup tasted just like HER mother’s soup and I was taken aback.

    We’ve also given our tea-sipping son a cup of hot tea with lemon dipped in honey, but from what you are saying that sounds like a zero-sum game. Couldn’t the acidic lemon help zap a few bugs or something? Hmmmm.

  2. My mom believed wholeheartedly that the doctor’s pills were superior to her mother’s home remedies. But Grandma used mustard plasters. The skin was rubbed with petroleum jelly (supposedly to protect it, although I personally use a non-petroleum product) then a slurry of powdered mustard in water was painted on the chest. Mustard leaves, if in season, were laid on top, followed by a hot, damp towel. The towel was replaced when it cooled off and the patient laid still for 20 minutes. The same application was made to the back then wiped off carefully. It’s sort of a non-mentholated herbal version of Vicks Vaporub, if you will, but it helps!

  3. I have heard of hot toddy’s for years, but never made one. What is the mixture?
    How much whiskey and how much honey? Do yo thing tequila and honey would work?
    My mom wouldn’t use them because she didn’t drink, and Grandma wouldn’t tell me what was in them!

  4. MO In Minnesota says:

    My mom would administer hot Tang (orange drink mix) with a shot of brandy for the colds and of course chicken spaetzle soup. We got 7-up and red wine in equal parts when we had stomach flu. I don’t remember if either worked, but I think the goal was to help us rest, which it did.

  5. We’re big believers in hot drinks with honey. Both alcoholic and non. Also, whenever my husband gets a cold that moves into his chest, he demands a mustard plaster. Because he was really born in 1880.

    Okay, no, he was born in 1980, but his grandmother was born in 1908, and she helped to raise him, so she always made him a mustard plaster when he got sick as a boy. The MiL has taken over the mustard plaster preparation and it really does seem to work, but be warned if you want to try it: You should absolutely NOT put it on bare skin. And even with a protective layer (I was surprised that Peggy’s grandma only used petroleum jelly–the MiL sandwiches the mustard mixture in layers of muslin, I think), if you leave it on too long it can really irritate your skin. Best for a short duration. I’m too delicate to even try it, but my husband swears by it.

  6. @Kim, he was pretty adamant about citrus being bad for a cough. Which really sucks when you’re trying to get your vitamin C from OJ.

    @Peggy and @Kristin, I’ll have to look up a recipe for the mustard plaster. We’ve tried just about everything else.

    @Karen, I’d go about one shot of whiskey and a half-shot of honey. Tequila should work, but I hate the taste.

    @MO, are you sure Mom wasn’t the social director for a frat house? Seriously, Tang and brandy? 7-up and red wine? I think I went to that party once. And by the way, it wasn’t so you could rest, it was so she could rest.

  7. karen – ha! tequila fixes everything

    Drew – i just made up a big pot of turkey and noodles for my hubby who was a bit under the weather. between that and the chicken soup later today he should be right as rain.

    someone may have said this.. but dont forget honey has great antibiotic properties.

  8. Wow, I hadn’t thought of this in maybe forever. When I was a child, and had a sore throat, my mother made what we called “Guggle Muggle”. It was a raw egg yolk, beaten with sugar until no more would dissolve. When it was thick and creamy, she would mix it in hot tea, or when I was older, coffee. I don’t know what medicinal properties it had, but it tasted wonderful.

  9. Hot toddies. Grandma and great grandma swore by them. I still make them when I get a bad one. And of course the chicken noodle soup or chicken and rice soup. Around Thanksgiving it was turkey noodle soup. First time I have heard of the mustard wrap. Think I will have to look that one up!

  10. My mom would do a hot honey and lemon water. The theory behind it being that the lemon would cut the mucus and the honey would soothe the throat.

  11. stargazer says:

    dont remember any hot toddy’s, but always had chicken soup. Fudgicles were always requested for sore throats and I can remember being put in a bathtub full of ice for high fevers. Still go to the chicken soup when sick but now my “go to” for coughs is cinnamon tea (2 sticks in a small saucepan of water and boil until it turns tea colored) – it also makes the house smell wonderful and is also works for UTI’s until you can get to the dr.

  12. 2 oz Blackberry (flavored) Brandy every 4 hours for adults for upper
    respiratory distress. From my grandfather who was a General
    Practitioner in rural east Texas. He also said more than that was
    for more than sickness, less was ineffectual.

  13. This isn’t for a cough, but when I was little (and before we knew I had Crohn’s Disease) I used to get REALLY bad stomach aches and (eww.) Diarrhea. So bad that I would curl up in a ball in serious pain, then pass out. My Grandpa (Born and raised in Cork, Ireland) told me to keep a piece of black licorice in my pocket for when things got bad and gnaw on it. It was the only thing that helped. The intense chewing took my mind off of the pain a little, and the licorice helped lessen the inflammation.

    For the ‘other’ problem, I didn’t want to drink. It seemed like nothing could stay in me for more than an hour. To keep me from getting super dehydrated (and to help with the runs) my Mama used to give me hot Jell-o water. The flavor made me want to drink it, and the gelatin helped hold my ‘stuff’ together. It made me a lot more comfortable.

    Boy… that sure was a lot of information. LOL

  14. Now that I’m pregnant, and had not one but two horrible coughs during the 1st & 2nd trimesters, I am becoming a master of improvising. Hot liquids are the big key, although these last 2 colds I tried honey that had had garlic steeped in it and it did help — at the cost of repelling vampires and decent people for days.

    Hot, honeyed peppermint tea seems to work — probably because the menthol in the mint is soothing and the heat helps. I am also a big believer in kimchi soup (filled with irritants as it might be) for clearing the head if it’s a stuffy nose kind of illness. And I used to make a cranberry soup sweetened with honey or sugar, and full of cranberries and apples — it has to be strained after pureeing –that did wonders. It was the elephant gun of vitamin C and pectin, both effective in fighting colds/coughs.

    I get chicken-averse when I have a cold, so I’m no good with Jewish penicillin — though I love it other times. :)

  15. My grandmother made the best potato soup to help calm an upset stomach. When I was younger (even up to about age fifteen) I would pretend to be sick just so she would make it for me.

  16. I find the avoidance of lemon/citrus juice to be surprising. My mother often made me a mixture of honey and orange juice (I refused lemon), for nagging coughs, under the same theory stated above, the acid of the juice cuts through the phlegm and the honey coats the throat. Seemed to work for me.

    Though these days it’s usually hot tea dosed with honey and a squirt of lemon. I will live off this stuff when cold/flu comes around.

    Ginger ale would be for bouts of nausea. Chicken broth is also welcome. Shamefully I do have a fondness for the chicken broth in Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. I know it’s basically a liquid salt-lick, but I don’t care.

    If I’m not the one nailed with illness (or haven’t been nailed yet). A big pot of chicken soup using all the leftovers from a previous dinner of Roast Chicken and Veggies will be made. And there will be great rejoicing.

  17. I thought the same thing about the citrus. In my wife’s case the coughing was making her throat really raw, so not irritating that any more was probably more important than cutting through the phlegm.

    The salt lick isn’t entirely bad, either. When one of us is nauseated, we like plain tortilla chips. The salt seems to settle things down.

  18. Since we are allergic to corn, conventional medicines are not an option for us (bet you didn’t know that 99.9% of meds -OTC and Rx- contain corn derivatives). It is possible to get some pharmaceuticals compounded without corn but it is expensive and not always reliably corn-free. For the flu last winter, we made it through using only hot ginger tea sweetened with organic honey and an occasional compounded ibuprofen. The ginger tea was heavenly for throat irritation and chest congestion and the spiciness of the ginger also cleared our sinuses and relieved the cough. I don’t believe I’ve ever used an OTC or prescription med that worked as well and certainly never had one that was so pleasant to take. (Make sure you use ORGANIC honey because some of the conventional ones contain corn syrup – not listed on the label. Scrub the ginger and slice it for tea, peeling isn’t necessary)

  19. Here’s what I use for a cough. I just got the recipe a year or two ago, and it really, really works. I think the principle is that it irritates the heck out of your entire body, including your lungs, which respond by producing lots of nice, clear mucus to carry all the nasties out when you cough. Whatever the reason, it really works. And it tastes like barbecue sauce.

    1/4 tsp cayenne
    1/4 tsp ground ginger
    1 tbsp honey
    1 tbsp cider vinegar
    2 tbsp water

    Drink it right down every 3 or 4 hour hours.

  20. Come to think of it, I believe that recipe makes 2 or 3 doses. So, try one or two tablespoons every 3 or 4 hours.

  21. My mom used to make us a mixture that worked miracle and even bettre, tasted soooo good. She digged a hole in a celeriac (rave in french), filled it with brown candied sugar and let it rest for some times. The sugar melts and the celeriac gives sirup which stops the cough and help to heal a sore throat. It’s a classical nanny remedy of Switzerland.

  22. @Betsy, that does sound like barbecue sauce. I just came back from the grocery store with some ginger to make ginger tea. I’ve already got the honey and cider vinegar. I bet chipotle will work in place of cayenne. Now to convince her to try it …

  23. @Marie, over here we call that “celery root”. (I had to look it up.)

  24. Drew – your comment about tortilla chips reminded me about my husband’s “cure” for an upset stomach: pickle juice. Personally, I wouldn’t be able to drink the stuff when I’m sick, but he likes the saltiness for settling his stomach. Maybe the vinegar or dill has something to do with it also?

  25. Well, I don’t have any home remedies myself, but I have a good friend who insists that her father (first generation Italian American living in Reno at the time) cured EVERYTHING with aspirin and a shot of crown. She now keeps aspirin and crown in her desk at work, although I haven’t ever seen her use the crown portion of the remedy at work…

  26. I’m from the South, so my grandmother’s cough remedy of choice was bourbon and honey.

  27. I’ve always sworn by “Onion Tea” for bad chest colds. Basically take a chopped up white onion and simmer in water until it becomes translucent, add more water to make it soupy and add about three tablespoons honey. It’s actually pretty tastey and the cooking makes the onions sweet rather than oniony. It’s a sweet onion soup. You know it’s working when you start to sweat.

  28. Chicken Soup is my thing…My mom just gave me Campbell’s however, my daughter gets home made everything….she would rather have a can. It just isn’t going to happen. She hates the veggies…. Rice or noodles work for me, so does dumplings.

  29. ok my Mother was Jewish and my Father was Greek. Growing up it was a Lemon Chicken and Rice soup from my Father . My Mother would would give us a glass of warmed orange juice after a shot of apple cider vinegar. not sure what it did but it always made us feel better.


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