If cough medicines are unavailable, honey may be a good alternative. Picture: Needpix
If cough medicines are unavailable, honey may be a good alternative. Picture: Needpix

Can’t find cough syrup? Try these expert-approved home remedies while on lockdown

By JO WATERS Time of article published Mar 24, 2020

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London - Pharmacy and supermarket shelves in the UK have been stripped bare of the basic over-the-counter remedies many of us rely on, as customers panic-buy and stockpile, fearing supplies will soon run out.

So what can you do to ease pain, coughs and sore throats if you’re struggling to get your hands on these essentials?

Good Health asked experts to give their very best evidence-based suggestions.

For aches and pains


If you can’t buy painkillers, applying heat via a hot water bottle, for example, may give localised pain relief for muscular aches, and applying ice wrapped in a tea towel might help with pain from an acute injury such as a sprain.

To relieve sinus pain from a cold-like illness, paracetamol works best. If you can’t find this on your pharmacy shelf, ask the pharmacist as they may have an alternative.

An authoritative Cochrane Review in 2014 produced high-quality evidence that adding caffeine (100mg or more) to a standard dose of commonly used painkillers (most often paracetamol or ibuprofen) increases the pain relief for conditions such as headache and toothache.

Caffeine is believed to improve pain relief by increasing absorption of the drug. If you can’t get your hands on painkillers combined with caffeine, drink a cup of coffee with your usual painkiller.

A mug of coffee contains around 100mg caffeine and should have the same effect as some combination remedies, and be cheaper.

To soothe a cough


A cough is a symptom of respiratory illnesses, including the common cold and flu - and covid-19.

Most people who have this symptom won’t get a confirmed diagnosis, as the current advice is to stay at home unless the symptoms become unbearable.

Cough medicines are one of the over-the-counter remedies that are reported to be fast disappearing from pharmacy shelves.

"Most cough medicines combine ingredients such as a decongestants [including pseudoephedrine] and antihistamines [such as triprolidine], and have been shown to be effective against coughs generally," says Dr Lynda Ware, a former GP and a senior fellow in general practice at Cochrane UK, an organisation that looks at the evidence base for medical advice.

"If cough medicines are unavailable, honey may be a good alternative," she suggests.

A 2018 Cochrane Review looked at six trials and concluded there was evidence that honey may help children who have a cough - though honey is not recommended for children under 12 months.

"Honey is thought to have properties that work against bacteria, viruses and inflammation and it’s an ingredient in many cough syrups," says Dr Ware.

"It has also been suggested that, due to its viscous nature, honey coats the throat and this has a soothing effect."

Unblock waxy ears


Earwax can get too hard to leave the ear canal naturally. This can be caused by people putting cotton buds and earphones in their ears.

Some people use liquid or spray products that contain safe forms of hydrogen peroxide, which softens and loosens earwax so it is expelled.

If these aren’t available, then "water or olive oil will work just as well", says Professor Martin Burton, director of Cochrane UK. Use a pipette to put a few drops in your ear, while lying flat.

Vitamin C boost


There’s a lot of interest in vitamin C for boosting immune function, but evidence is mixed, says Professor Burton.

A 2013 Cochrane Review looking at vitamin C for the common cold found evidence that it may reduce the likelihood of getting a cold only for people who are doing short periods of extreme physical activity, such as marathon runners and skiers.

"More clarity is needed from better studies on the impact of vitamin C on the length and severity of colds," says Professor Burton.

Nevertheless, supermarket shelves are being emptied of supposed immunity-boosting tablets, such as Berocca, which contain vitamin C and B vitamins, for energy.

Look instead for vitamin D supplements. "There is reliable evidence from a 2017 review in The BMJ that vitamin D supplementation helps prevent respiratory tract infections, with the most benefit for people who have vitamin D deficiency," says Professor Burton.

How vitamin D helps is unclear, but one theory is that it induces the release of proteins by the immune system in response to bacterial and viral threats, to help kill off the microbes.

Sore throat


Sore throats are usually caused by viral or bacterial infections and there are over-the-counter sprays, mouthwashes and lozenges to help ease the discomfort.

These usually contain anaesthetics to numb the pain and antiseptics to clear the infection.

Most sore throats get better on their own within seven days, but if you feel like you need something to soothe the pain and these over-the-counter options aren’t available, Sultan Dajani, a pharmacist based in Eastleigh, Hampshire, recommends gargling with a solution of salt water.

"Salt is nature’s antiseptic: put two teaspoons in a 400ml tumbler of water and gargle with it - but don’t swallow," he says.

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