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How to Treat a Cough From Cold or Flu

You can’t cure colds or the flu, but you can relieve the cough and sore throat that sometimes comes with them.

  • Use cough drops or hard candy.. Menthol and certain herbal cough drops can slightly numb and soothe your sore throat. However, sucking on plain hard candy may work just as well.

  • Try a teaspoon of honey. This traditional remedy for sore throat may help soothe coughs, too. Try adding a spoonful to your tea, but don't give honey to kids under 1 year old.

  • Hydrate. Sipping on drinks will keep your throat moist and comfortable. When your throat doesn't hurt, you may not cough. Just about any drink is OK except alcohol or caffeinated drinks. Those can dry you out. Also avoid orange juice and other acidic citrus drinks if they bother your throat.

  • Heat up that drink. Sip some warm tea or chicken soup to heat up your airways. Not only will it hydrate you, but the warmth helps break up mucus and makes it easier to cough up.

  • Use cough medicine. Sometimes you need to cough to get out nasty mucus. But other times you need to calm your cough, like when you want to sleep. Over-the-counter cough medicine can help. Expectorants help you cough up mucus. Cough suppressants reduce your urge to cough. If you're not sure which kind you need,  ask your doctor or pharmacist.      

When to See a Doctor  

You don't need medical care for the average cough or sore throat. You often just need to give your body time to recover. Most are caused by viruses, which antibiotics can’t treat.

However, some coughs and sore throats do need help from a doctor. You could be dealing with something more serious. 

If you have a cough with any of these symptoms, see a doctor:       

  • Shortness of breath       

  • Coughing up blood, bloody mucus, or pink foamy mucus       

  • Coughing up green, tan, or yellow mucus       

  • Fever, chills, or chest pain when you breathe deeply     

If you have a sore throat lasts longer than a week or a sore throat with any of these symptoms, see a doctor:         

  • Severe pain       

  • Trouble Swallowing       

  • Fever over 100.4 F       

  • Swollen glands       

  • White patches on your throats or tonsils       

  • Rash     

These are signs that it might be a bacterial infection like strep throat, which can be treated with antibiotics. Or it could be another condition, like acid reflux, and you may need additional treatment.  

WebMD Medical Reference     


American Academy of Family Physicians: "Sore Throat Treatment," "Sore Throat Symptoms," "Sore Throat Causes & Risk  Factors," "Colds and the Flu: Treatment, "Cough Medicine: Understanding Your OTC Options," "Cough."    

Lisa M. Asta, MD, spokesperson, American Academy of Pediatrics; associate clinical professor of pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco; pediatrician, Walnut Creek, Calif.   

CDC: "Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work: Sore Throat," "Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work: Symptom Relief."   

Norman H. Edelman, MD, Chief Medical Officer, American Lung Association; professor of medicine, Stony Brook University Medical Center, N.Y. "Coughs and Colds: Medicines or Home Remedies?"    

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: "Alcohol and the Immune System," "Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines."  

NHS: "Treating a Cough."   

Paul, I.Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, December 2007. UpToDate: "Symptomatic relief of sore throat in children and adolescents," "Symptomatic treatment of acute pharyngitis in adults." 

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 20, 2012   

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