Tis the Season: DIY Cough Syrup for your Sore Throats and Snot Demons


     Tis the season for everyone in my house to have chest rattling phlegm monsters trying to escape their ribcages with painful sounding, gravelly coughs.  It started with my oldest.  She started coughing Wednesday evening, just a little hem, and by Thursday night my husband and I were watching her in shifts, propping her up with pillows while she battled her snot demons.  On Friday morning, she was diagnosed with pneumonia.


     Fortunately, we live in the age of antibiotics and she was back to school by Monday.  I’m not one for throwing antibiotics at every runny nose, but luckily neither are the majority of doctors these days.  My children have seen a handful of pediatricians over the years and they have all been very respectful of the power of the body’s natural immune response.  They often have more confidence in it than I do, assuring me that even though my child is puking and miserable, I am doing everything right and the illness will run its course.  Watchful waiting is always harder than being handed a medicinal quick-fix.


     When Friday’s chest x-rays revealed pneumonia in my daughter’s little left lung, I went straight to the nearest pharmacy and picked up the prescribed bottle of bubble-gum flavored Amoxicillin.  Three doses later, she was back to being herself, dancing through the living room and rugby tackling her younger sister.  Meanwhile, the rest of the family began to succumb to the cold. First came the persistent and continuous clearing of throats, evolving into what we’re living with today – the chest rattling phlegm monsters.


     While I’m quite positive that no one enjoys taking cough syrup, I especially loathe the stuff.  I can’t help but anthropomorphize the cloying suspension, imagining that it is being disgusting intentionally just to spite me.  I turned to an all-natural alternative not so much for the sake of being all-natural, but in a desperate attempt to evade the nauseatingly bittersweet of store-bought cough medicine.  It tastes like detergent and sadness.  I was not about to spend five minutes of my life shuddering and suppressing my gag-reflex while that deep crimson ooze clung to the walls of my mouth and throat, laughing at my cringing like that tar monster from Fern Gully.  I know I should be a grown up and just deal with it, but I don’t wanna.  So I made my own.


     There is a chance that I’ve convinced myself that this homemade cough syrup is awesome because the alternative is actual cough syrup.  My opinion is going to be biased.  The opinion of my husband, however, definitely carries some substantial weight.  He shares what I’ve found to be a commonly held prejudice against what he calls “that hippie witchcraft.”  I can understand this widespread skepticism against folk medicine.  Considering it was not all that long ago that we were giving people brain piercings to cure their “hysteria” and swaddling them in wool blankets to break fevers, it only makes sense that people put more faith in the tested and regulated remedies delivered by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. I am not here to make an argument for either side of the debate over homeopathy vs pharmaceuticals.  I am here to tell the world that I hate cough syrup and that we don’t have to live under its sticky, tyrannical rule any longer.  


     Back to my husband.  I spent a good day and a half nagging this croaking, hacking man to try a spoonful of my “hippie witchcraft” before he finally caved.  I would like to say that it was my suave sales pitch that got him, but I know he just wanted the harping to end.  He swallowed one heaping tablespoon, grimaced and said, “That’s disgusting.”  Five minutes later he came into the living room singing its praises.  I’m proud to say that I didn’t gloat out loud, but there was a lot of internal high-fiving happening as he gushed about his surprise at how effective it was and how fast it worked. I did give him a brief lecture covering the following points, explaining that just because something is “hippie witchcraft” doesn’t mean it won’t work.


Honey has been used in traditional medicine for longer than people have been able to write about it.  It has been used as a wound dressing by ancient cultures and recently a sterile, medical grade honey (MediHoney, http://www.dermasciences.com/medihoney) was approved by the FDA to treat chronic wounds, ulcers, and burns.  An article on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website explains honey’s magical healing and protective properties thus:  

     “… honey is hygroscopic, which means that it can draw moisture out of the environment and dehydrate bacteria, and its high sugar content and low level pH can also prevent the microbes from growth.(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3609166/)


     It is true that not all honeys are created equal, and that bacterial spores can contaminate honey and cause serious illnesses in an immune system that isn’t prepared for such invaders (read: infants.)  Whatever antibacterial magic may or may not be present in my generic brand, store bought honey, one thing is for certain: it is a sticky, viscous fluid that creates a nice, protective barrier for itchy, sore throats.


     Clove trees are native to Indonesia and their aromatic flowers have been used for everything from flavoring food to repelling insects.  Eugenol, a chemical component found in cloves has been used in dentistry as a topical anesthetic but was recently downgraded by the FDA due to lack of sufficient evidence of its pain-relieving abilities.  While cloves are a common culinary spice, clove oil is very powerful. I have seen information on both holistic health websites and WebMD on how to take clove oil internally for everything from gas pains to yeast infections, but I do not have enough experience with the oil to recommend its use here.  However, a little bit of the dried spice goes a long way, and this recipe calls only for one tablespoon of the ground magic.


     Thyme has been used as an antifungal, antibiotic agent in food, topical acne treatments, and Listerine.  There is not a huge body of literature on its anti-inflammatory properties, but there is enough to suggest a strong link between the use of thymol, a component of thyme commonly extracted for use in antiseptics, and a reduction of inflammation in test subjects. 


     In closing, while my kitchen chemistry can’t cure pneumonia, it can bring a bit of relief to a sore throat.  And despite my husband’s humbug complaints, I find this homemade cough syrup delicious.  Especially on toast.




¼ c. honey

1 tbsp ground cloves

1 tbsp powdered thyme and/or basil (or as powdered as you can get it)

2 tbsp lemon juice *optional

Originally appeared on the Medicine People of the World blog