The only cough "syrup" that really works

Dr. Frank Shallenberger, MD

December 20, 2021


It's the time of year when colds and flu can really drag you down. They're even worse when a cough develops. A bad cough can keep you from sleeping, give you headaches, and make life miserable.

If a cough is causing you to lose sleep, I often recommend a cough syrup, just so you can get some rest. But I always wince when I tell someone to take these over-the-counter drugs.

Most of them are terrible for your liver. And they can cause side effects in some people.

Now a new study suggests the best cough syrup may be completely natural – and it's probably in your kitchen cabinet. While this natural medicine is not technically a syrup (syrups are a processed food), it is safer than regular cough medicine. And it's also more effective.

Researchers at the Department of Pediatrics in the College of Medicine at Pennsylvania State University conducted this study. They wanted to compare the effects of a single dose of buckwheat honey (a dark, almost black honey made from the buckwheat plant) versus a dose of the most common cough medication — dextromethorphan (DM).

To do this, they looked at 105 children between the ages of 2 and 18 years old. Doctors had diagnosed all of them with upper respiratory tract infections involving significant coughing.

The researchers divided the children into three groups. The first group took a single dose of buckwheat honey 30 minutes before bedtime. The second group took a single dose of honey-flavored DM at the same time. The third group did not take any treatment at all.

The researchers then assessed how often the children coughed, how severe the cough was, and how much sleep both the parents and the children were able to get.

Here’s What They Found

The authors of the study found "significant differences in symptom improvement" between the groups. The group taking the honey consistently scored the best. The group taking no treatment consistently scored the worst. In paired comparisons, honey was significantly superior to no treatment for cough frequency.

Not surprisingly, the group taking the DM scored no better than the group taking no treatment for any outcome.

In other words, the results indicated that the medication (DM) was no better than giving a placebo. But the honey was very effective. The authors concluded that using honey as a cough treatment was better than taking a medication.

So Why Is Honey So Good?

Like with many natural remedies, no one really knows. Remember that there is no incentive for science to study natural remedies because there's no profit in it. But there are several things that we do know about honey.

One is that it kills germs. This is especially true of raw honey, and particularly true of the raw manuka honey (leptospermum scoparium) that comes from New Zealand.

The other quality of honey is that it's anti-inflammatory.

Finally, anyone who has ever taken a teaspoon of honey will tell you that it's very soothing to the throat.

So the next time you or your child struggles with a cough, think sweet. Combined with vitamin A, zinc lozenges, fluids, and rest, honey should be a part of your treatment program. It really works!


Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, Shaffer ML, Duda L, Berlin CM Jr. Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med., 2007 Dec;161(12):1140-6.

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