Many Americans are quick to try over-the-counter cough syrups, but most coughs will get better without any treatment. In most cases, coughing is simply the body’s attempt to clear irritants (dust, pollen or pet dander) or infectious agents (viruses and bacteria) from the airways. It is a very effective process that usually stops on its own when the job is done.

If you have a cough with a cold or sore throat, your doctor may tell you to stay home (to avoid infecting others) and let the cough run its course. Caution: If you have a fever over 101°F, chest pain, shortness of breath, sputum that is pink or contains flecks of blood…or if your cough persists for more than a week without these symptoms, see a doctor immediately. You could have pneumonia, emphysema or another serious illness. Otherwise, consider trying these natural medicines…

Honey-orange-lemon syrup. This soothes the throat and reduces the cough reflex. What to do: After washing them, cut three oranges and two lemons into quarters. Put the fruit with rinds into a pan and add one cup of honey and enough water to just cover the fruit. Simmer, covered, until the fruit has become very soft (usually about two hours). Remove the fruit pieces, store the liquid in a glass jar and refrigerate. Take one tablespoon every three hours. Alternative: An herbal cough syrup that contains honey and wild cherry bark…zinc lozenges…or slippery elm lozenges.

Onion poultice. The beneficial compounds in this remedy help ease inflammation associated with a cough. What to do: Chop up one large yellow onion and gently sauté it in vegetable oil until transparent. Then add two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and one-half cup of cornmeal. Cover and let it sit for five minutes. Place a 12″ x 12″ piece of clean flannel or soft cotton under hot tap water and wring it out. Have a dry second piece of cloth, a hot water bottle or heating pad, and a helper nearby. Lie down (facedown and barebacked) with pillows under your face and chest. Your helper should put the moist, warm flannel over your back, from the shoulders to the mid-back (over your lungs). He/she should then spread the onion/vinegar/cornmeal mix over the wet cloth and cover it with the dry cloth. A hot water bottle or heating pad (set at moderate heat) should be placed on top of the dry cloth. If you are suffering from a cough, applying this remedy for 20 minutes at night will help you get a good night’s sleep. Alternative: Vicks VapoRub ointment or cream, applied to the back or chest.

Hydration. Soothing herbal tea can both hydrate you and curb coughing. What to do: Mix together herbs that help thin mucus and make it easier to cough up from the respiratory tract—elecampane, marshmallow root, mullein, wild cherry bark and anise—in equal amounts. Add one tablespoon of the herbal mix to 12 ounces of water. Gently simmer, covered, for six minutes. Strain, sweeten with honey and sip up to four cups daily. Alternative: A premixed blend containing some or all of these herbs.