Treating a cough 

There's no quick way of getting rid of a cough caused by a viral infection. It will usually clear up after your immune system has fought off the virus.

If there is an underlying condition causing a cough, this will need specific treatment.

The simplest and cheapest way to treat a short-term cough may be a homemade cough remedy containing honey and lemon. The honey is a demulcent, which means it coats the throat and relieves the irritation that causes coughing.

Cough medicines

There's little evidence to suggest cough medicines actually work, although some ingredients may help treat symptoms associated with a cough, such as a blocked nose or fever.

Some contain paracetamol, so don't take more than the recommended dosage. Cough medicines should never be taken for more than two weeks.

They can be used for any type of cough and are generally safe, but diabetics should note that they're usually sugar-based.

Treating children

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has recommended that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines shouldn't be given to children under the age of six.

The MHRA is the government body responsible for ensuring medicines are safe and effective.

The agency has made this recommendation because it feels there's a potential risk of these medicines causing unpleasant side effects, such as allergic reactions, sleep problems or hallucinations (seeing and hearing things that aren't real). These would outweigh any benefit provided by the medicines.

Instead, give your child a warm drink of lemon and honey or a simple cough syrup that contains glycerol or honey. However, honey shouldn't be given to babies under the age of one, due to the risk of infant botulism.

For more information, see child cold medicines Q&A.

Cough suppressants

Cough suppressants, such as pholcodine, dextromethorphan and antihistamines, act on the brain to hold back the cough reflex. They're used for dry coughs only.

  • Pholcodine and dextromethorphan have few side effects or interactions with other medicines.
  • Antihistamines sometimes cause drowsiness, which can be helpful if your cough is disrupting your sleep. Other possible side effects are a dry mouth, constipation, difficulty in passing urine and blurred vision. Antihistamines might interact with other medicines, such as antidepressants and those that cause drowsiness.

Check with your GP or pharmacist before taking cough suppressants.


Expectorants help bring phlegm up so that coughing is easier, which may help chesty coughs. They include:

  • guaifenesin
  • ammonium chloride
  • squill
  • sodium citrate
  • ipecacuanha

These compounds are all found in small quantities in cough mixtures, so they're unlikely to have any side effects or interact with other medicines.

Quitting smoking

If you have a cough caused by smoking you'll quickly start to notice the benefits of quitting. Three to nine months after you stop smoking, your breathing will have improved, and you will no longer have a cough or wheeze.

Giving up smoking also increases your chances of living a longer and healthier life. Other health benefits include:

  • after one month your skin will be clearer, brighter and more hydrated
  • after one year your risk of heart attack and heart disease will have fallen to about half that of a smoker

Read more information about quitting smoking.


Antibiotics are not used to treat coughs because they are only effective in killing bacteria, not viruses.

Therefore, unless you develop a secondary bacterial infection, such as pneumonia, antibiotics will not usually be advised.

Page last reviewed: 20/06/2013

Next review due: 20/06/2015