Calm coughing without medication

Simply GargleWith infant cold medicine being pulled from the shelves, and the safety (and usefulness) of regular cough medicine in question, it's good to have a few cough-suppressant hacks up one's sleeve. Here are Christiane's:

Our oldest son (of three children) has terrible allergy-induced asthma. When he was younger, this presented as a chronic evening cough which would start as an "ahem" and would, by midnight, turn into a seal's bark with persistent gasping and wheezing. I know other parents might recognize this description–it is incredibly terrifying to hear your child gasp for air.

We tried several over-the-counter medicines that boasted of "surpressing" or "loosening" the coughs. None worked. Here's what has helped over the years:

Deep-breathing techniques. On evenings when we hear the cough begin (usually in fall and spring), we put on a meditation CD in the player next to his bed, and we help him take long, slow meditative breaths. The coughing is spasmodic. If we can stop it before it gets too bad, he will calm down enough to fall asleep.

A humidifier. Back when I was broke, I substituted a crock pot full of water turned on "auto" all night long in his room because I could not afford to buy the real thing. [This is your best bet for a coughing infant. — Ed.]

A warm washcloth in a Ziploc baggie. Safer and less bulky than a hot-water bottle, this helped on nights when his ear ached in conjunction with the cough, and on other nights was simply a warm distraction from the cough.

Valerian. We use a kid-friendly dose in a little water with a teaspoon of honey to chase it down with. The valerian calms the nerves and relaxes the throat muscles; the honey soothes a sore throat.

My favorite natural cough suppressant is the hot salt water gargle. In fact, I just got a note from a PR firm spreading the word about a new packaged salt water gargle — Simply Gargle. The single-serve ampules of herb-infused salt water can be thrown into a bag and used anywhere. If you can get your kid to palate the stuff, it could be a viable alternative.

As for relieving congestion, we still swear by the Vicks VapoRub -down on the chest. That, combined with a humidifier, does wonders for a cough. Parenthackers have also said good things about the plug-in vaporizers. Any other suggestions?

More: Best of Parent Hacks: Cold and flu season tips


  1. Jill says

    My favorite non-medical cold remedy, which is related to coughing, is gargling with apple cider vinegar mixed with water. The change in pH helps clear out the post-nasal drip, which helps if that’s the source of the coughing (it usually is with me). If your child can deal with the vinegar taste, I’ve always found it works wonders. (You can always adjust the strong taste via the water/vinegar ratio.)

    As for spasmodic coughing, I have mild asthmatic coughing myself occasionally, and can usually head it off if I feel it coming on by taking deep breaths and holding them as long as I can – the meditative deep breathing is definitely a better idea, but in a pinch when I feel it going too far, I just hold my breath until I can’t anymore and eventually it gets bearable. HTH!

  2. radmama says

    My best tip is to put a drop of peppermint oil on a tissue/hankie/washcloth and stick it under the pillow or sheet near the child’s head. GOod for coughs and nausea.

  3. nikki says

    Remember never give honey to children under 1 yr of age due to chance of botulism. We use vicks and vapor bath often in conjunction with a vaporizer or the humidifier.

  4. cam says

    My son (at the time 3yrs) always had terrible fall/spring evenings. Same as the gal above: evening cough turned to seal bark by late night. The DR said allergies and acute asthma due to allergies. For a few years I tried the allergy and asthma meds but they barely took the edge off. I felt so helpless.
    I was at the chiropractor for myself, and began reading those little pamphlets. One titled ‘chiropractic care for asthma’ another ‘..bronchille passage’. I asked if they thought it really worked and they said yes. I thought about it for a few days, couldn’t be worse than pumping him full of meds that dont work and I hated seeing him throw up because he ran too hard and started coughing. I gave it a shot and to my surprise, my son itsn’t even allergic to cats any more! After only a few weeks of treatment, I saw a huge improvement. After a few more, no more coughing so hard he throws up! No more usless meds! They said that your spine is the highway for your natural immunities and if it is blocked by a subluxation, then your body cant fight things naturally. I dont care why or how, i just know that my son can be normal and play sports and run etc like everyone else. 2 years later I still take him occassionaly or if allergies are high, even if he gets sick-still cheaper than the meds, missing work because he’s missing school. I swore I would throw this out to anyone who will listen and open thier minds to this possibilty. So, crazy or not here I am tell you.

  5. Jessica says

    It sounds too good to be true, but dark chocolate (or, more specifically, theobromine) is a very effective cough suppressant, moreso than OTC cough suppressants or even codeine, and with no side effects.

    For best results, use as dark chocolate as you (or your child) can find/tolerate, preferably with no milk added.

    I tried this last winter, and it really worked surprisingly well!

  6. JT says

    For babies and kids 6 mos and above, we like using a vapor bath (though the scent lingers!), and even a little Vick’s cream on the chest if necessary. I don’t love the scent, but it’s a natural way to help clear the gunk out.
    For a child who can drink something warm, a little non-caffienated, herbal tea with some honey is soothing.
    One of our sons is asthmatic, and getting a HEPA air cleaner made a HUGE difference in his nighttime attacks. The one we got was only about $100 at Target, and works beautifully (and doubles as a white-noise machine, too).

  7. Jose Luis says

    We cut an onion in two and lay it on a dish, over the bedside table. We used to do it on ourselves’ coughs, and it makes wonders on our baby’s too. Even more, we’re quite sure it helps her plugged nose too.

    But don’t cut the onion in more than two or three pieces: the smell can be so strong that it won’t allow sleeping.

  8. Veronica says

    I am curious where you would find Valerian for kids, it’s something I would try. Nosefrida has been a big help, it’s the only aspirator that I’ve found to work so far. Lemon and honey is always good, but it’s just hard to get the little ones to drink it warm enough to loosen stuff up. Great site, thank you.

  9. Alex says

    Someone beat me to the punch on the chocolate! No dairy dark chocolate is the best for coughs and kids are happy to take it.
    Also, for asthmatics -yogic breathing techniques. I know at least 2 people who have cured themselves by a daily practice of yogic breathing -myself included.

  10. Shannon says

    My Mom mentioned hearing somewhere that putting Vapor Rub on your feet & covering them with socks will help a bad cough.
    In desperation last week when my 2 yo. was having coughing fits that were keeping us all awake, my husband rubbed the bottoms of my daughters feet with vapor rub. No more coughing & we slept the rest of the night. Something to be said for aromatherapy!

  11. hedra says

    Huh. One of the girls had a bad cough, and was just going NUTS on the dark chocolate (70%, dairy-free, Costco, mmmm)… and the cough got better, but I didn’t make the connection (but maybe she did, since she begged for some and then snuck some more after that last fit… chocoholic, or self-medicating the cough?). Cool.

  12. hedra says

    Oh, and ditto the breathing exercises. Just read an article on asthma and they said that resistance-type breathing exercises cause a 70% drop in severity AND frequency of wheeze in asthma.

  13. Michelle Crosby says

    I got a Nosefrida aspirator after reading about it on Parenthacks many months ago, and it is like magic. At this point, my son even goes and gets it for me, that’s how much relief it brings him when he can’t breathe. Thanks for that advice.

  14. Whitney says

    I will double backup the Chiropractor advice. At a year old my baby got RSV, Pneumonia and bronchiolitis all at the same time. The doctors said there was almost a 100% chance she would end up with asthma. Sure enough we spent the next two years using a nebulizer and having huge coughing fits all night or anytime she got too active. We took her into a good chiropractor and after just a month She stopped coughing. A year later and we haven’t had one single asthma outburst since then. Some people think it’s a little crazy, but I have personally seen chiropractic help with this and several other things. We also had problems with earaches. The doctors wanted to do antibiotics (yuck!) The chiropractor adjusted her ears and within 24 hours it was gone.

  15. Christy says

    I think it’s important to remember that coughing due to asthma is not the same as coughing due to congestion. Cough medicine is designed to soothe the throat and break up phlegm. That does you no good if the reason you’re coughing is because your airway is constricting. On the same note, calm breathing isn’t going to help if your lungs are filled with fluid. I realize that most of the posters probably know this, but people who don’t have asthma (or have someone close with it) may not know the difference.

  16. barbex says

    In addition to all the great advice (chiropractic! Who would have thought!) I want to add that for a quick solution a wet towel hanging close to the bed can be enough to humidify the air and stop the cough.

  17. dadthehero says

    My babies have a cough now, and we use homeopathic remedies to help deal with them. It is amazing! I recently used Aconite to calm a coughing fit. I would recommend doing some research before you start this if interested, but when done right it is really effective. I say this so that you get the best results, but I wouldn’t worry about ill effects much, as with other medicines. I use a book called Homeopathic medicine at home, by the authors Panos and Heimlich. We also see a homeopath, if we are really feeling sick and we are blessed by having one nearby. What ever you all choose, good luck with the coughing ones it goes right to your soul doesn’t it?

  18. Mamma J says

    I recently took my 18 month old to a naturopath because his cough has lasted for several months now. This doctor suggested something I’d never heard of for relieving congestion: at bedtime or nap-time, putting on a pair of wet cotton socks followed by a pair of dry polar fleece or wool socks, then making sure the room temp is warm enough not to catch a chill. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s supposed to increase body circulation enough to help with the congestion. Anyone else heard of or tried this? We haven’t tried it yet (due to not having polar fleece or wool socks – I know, it’s a silly reason not to try something!).

  19. naosmama says

    This might sound a little odd, but when I was little, instead of using vicks on my chest and on my feet then covering with socks, my mom would use saliva – it works though! :)

  20. Joy says

    We’ve found that using castor oil (buy at health food store) with a few drops each of eucalyptus, lavender and one or two of peppermint essential oils really helps a lot. Essentially, it’s homemade vaporub.

  21. Sue Liberto says

    Vapor Rub on your feet & covering them with socks will help a bad cough. I was skeptical when I heard this but have tried it on myself (as well as my husband and kids) and it works!!! For us, it reduced the cough intensity and frequency by about 90%, not bad for an easy, non-prescription, non-invasive treatment.