Every cold and flu season many children come down with a head cold that results in a cough. Coughing can be uncomfortable and downright irritating if it’s strong and persistent or keeping everyone up at night. It may be annoying, but it is the body’s way of trying to expel all the bugs that make us sick and clear out phlegm that clogs our breathing tract. Hearing your child cough night after night can be enough to tempt you to give them over-the-counter cough medicine.
I’m not going to sugar coat this: Over-the-counter cough syrup doesn’t work for children. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend the use of cough medicine at all in children under age 6 because they don’t work and are unsafe (1). Most cough and cold medicines contain dextromethorphan (DXM) which can be harmful and even fatal in about 5% – 10% of children who can’t properly metabolize it.(2) Don’t take my word for it, here is what the AAP has to say on over-the-counter cough & cold medicines for kids:
…research has shown these products [over-the-counter cough and cold medicine] offer little benefit to young children – and can have potentially serious side effects. Many cough and cold products for children have more than one ingredient, increasing the chance of accidental overdose if combined with another product (3).
Even though children’s cough medicine doesn’t work it’s still on drug store shelves today! (I’ll refrain from inserting some snide, but funny, comment here). Rather than take these ineffective and unsafe products off the market, drug companies have relabeled them with a warning that they shouldn’t be used in children under 4. You may not easily find this warning since the front of the box usually says, “Children’s Cough Medicine,” meaning most people are going to assume it is safe for their kids. Unless you turn the box over and check the dosage information you may not realize it.
As if to prove my point, while I was taking pictures of the cough medicine at the drugstore for this post, a mom and her three children (all clearly under the age of 4) came down the cough and cold aisle and the mom quickly grabbed a box of children’s multi-symptom cough and cold medicine and plopped it into her cart.
Stop a Cough Naturally
If medicine doesn’t work what else can parents do to help treat a child’s cough beyond rest, fluids, humidifier and cough drops? Here are seven natural ways calm a cough your pediatrician won’t tell you about.
1. Pediatric Tuina Massage for Cough
Whether your child has a wet, dry, hacking or croupy cough these massage techniques work by stimulating the body to heal itself while simultaneously treating the cough. Please see my post Treating Cough with Pediatric Tuina Massage for instructions on how to do this massage on your child. I also have a video so you can see how to do it. Kids love it, it feels great and it makes them feel better. The best part is it’s safe, effective and can be used at any age.
2. Honey & Lemons
Ok, you’re pediatrician might tell you about honey because it is officially recommended by the AAP for cough, but you don’t want any ordinary highly processed honey bear. What really works is raw, dark amber honey. Buckwheat honey has received the most research for cough, but you can use any dark amber raw honey like avocado or blackberry. Local dark honey is great, too. I use local raw Uvas Gold Apiary Honey for coughs in the winter and allergies in the spring.
Honey Dosage for Cough
For children ages 2 to 5 years use 1/2 teaspoon, children between 6 – 12 use 1 teaspoon and children 12 year and older use 2 teaspoons. It can be given 2 – 4 times daily as needed for cough. CAUTION: For children 12 months or younger do not give them honey.
Lemon and Honey tea is a great way to soothe a sore throat and calm a cough. Honey helps to break up mucous and the astringent nature of lemon juice does the same thing while also providing vitamin C. Here is a recipe from NourishingJoy.com for a Homemade Cough Syrup . NourishingJoy.com also recommends an easy-to-make cough syrup using a ratio of 1 TBS honey & 1 tsp lemon juice.
TIP: Don’t buy honey cough syrups from the drug store. They may contain honey and herbs but most also have preservatives and “natural flavor” which is food industry code for “a long list of chemicals we aren’t required by law to reveal on the label.” Honey is yummy and it shouldn’t require natural flavors to be palatable!
Why give up dairy? It creates or adds to mucous production. Even if your child can normally tolerate dairy, take it out of their diet while they’re sick, especially if they have a wet phlegmy cough. It will lessen the phlegm and the burden of getting rid of it through coughing.
Herbs like licorice root, mullein, sage leaves, wild cherry bark and slippery elm can be made into a tea with a little honey to calm a cough. If you’re in a rush or you don’t have these herbs on hand you should be able to pick up a tea called Just for Kids Throat Coat by Traditional Medicinals. Throat Coat has many of the herbs recommended above and it’s formulated with kid’s safety and tastes in mind. It’s usually available in grocery stores and it has a very pleasant taste for a medicinal tea. It’s not only good for cough but works for sore throats too.
Essential Oil Chest Rub
Essential oils can help break up chest and nasal congestion when used in a chest rub. But if you’re like me you don’t want to use petrochemicals, like those contained in Vick’s Vapor Rub. Instead you can mix a drop each of eucalyptus, peppermint and sage essential oils in about 2 TBS of organic olive oil and make your own herbal oil. If you prefer a salve, then try this recipe from NourishingJoy.com for a “vapor rub” or you can pick Gaia’s Warming Vaporous Rub, a safe pre-made chest rub, available at your local health food store.
Essential Oil Steam Bath
A warm steamy bath can also help a nighttime cough. Start a hot bath using the shower, close the bathroom door and let the room get steamy. Add a few drops of eucalyptus or sage into the tub to soothe a cough and open up the chest.
Organic Poached Pears with Cinnamon
This is a personal favorite for dry, tickley coughs. Eat 1/2 to 1 pear before bed. It is so delicious and it feels great on a dry, scratchy throat.
- Wash & core pears
- Halve pears lengthwise
- Sprinkle flesh with cinnamon and put a cinnamon stick in the core.
- Put in a pyrex glass baking dish with the fleshy part + cinnamon stick down
- Add about 1/2” water to the pan
Bake at 350 until the pears are soft and the skins are easy to pull off (20-30 min). Will store in the fridge for 3 – 4 days.
Recommendations from other Doctor Moms
Here are more suggestions on how to treat cough, colds and flus naturally from moms on the front lines.
- For older children where cough drops do not pose a risk of choking, here are a couple recipes for homemade cough drops from NourishingJoy.com. and sore throat drops from DIYNaturals.com
- DIYNaturals.com offers a deliciously simple recipe for herbal tea to treat colds and flus.
- OhLardy.com recommends this “vapor-rub” salve applied to the feet at night to stop nighttime cough in it’s tracks. I’ve only heard of this recently and haven’t tried it myself, but from what I can tell, crazy as it might seem, parents say really works. Next time my kids have a nighttime cough I’m going to try it.
- Need more ideas? How about a anti-viral cinnamon-honey elixir or a recipe for honey-lemon-ginger tea. You’ll find a round up of natural cold and flu remedies at the end of this post from the bloggers at Village Green Network.
Common Sense Caution
If you have questions or concerns about your child’s cough you should contact a medical doctor or qualified health care provider like an acupuncturist or naturopathist specializing in pediatrics.
RED FLAG: Coughing may be due to another more serious illness. If a cough comes on suddenly with high fever, restlessness, difficulty breathing, wheezing, lethargy, chest tightness and/or difficulty swallowing your child may need immediate medical attention.
If a lingering cough is associated with wheezing, chest tightness, difficulty breathing it may be a sign of asthma.
Rarely, but sometimes, a chronic cough may be caused by tuberculosis.
What Kitchen Remedies Do You Use for Your Child’s Cough?
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Paul, IM, KE Yoder, KR Crowel, ML Schaffer, HS McMillan, LC Carlson, DA Dilworth and CM Berlin Jr.. “Effect of dextromethorphan, diphenhydramine, and placebo on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents..” NCBI Pub Med. Pediatrics, Jul 2004. Web. 18 Jan 2013. .
Magarey, Jim. “Dextromethorphan (PIM 179).” IPCS INCHEM. In Chem, 1996. Web. 19 Jan 2013. .
“Cough and Cold Medicine Not for Children.” Www.aap.org. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2004. Web. 19 Jan 2013. <http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/aap-press-room-media-center/Pages/Cough-and-Cold-Medicine-Not-for-Children.aspx>.
Paul, IM, J Beiler, A McMonagle, ML Schaffer and CM Berlin Jr.. “Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents..” Http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, Dec 2007. Web. 19 Jan 2013.
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