No, Chocolate Isn't the Best Cure for a Cough

A British study found that a medicine containing cocoa can be effective for cough suppression, but that doesn't mean a candy bar will help you feel better.

When you fall victim to a cough that just won't quit, it can be tempting to scour the internet for solutions. If you have done this, then you may have come across at least one of the many cure-a-cough-with-chocolate articles that circulate online, most of which are based on a 2016 column in the Daily Mail.

The column, written by an international cough researcher, said that cocoa is "stickier and more viscose than standard cough medicines, so it forms a coating which protects nerve endings in the throat which trigger the urge to cough."

These headlines certainly seem promising, but are they too good to be true? Health dug into the research and checked in with the source of this rumor. Here's the truth behind this suddenly viral claim.

Can Chocolate Really Help?

According to a 2015 study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology, research as far back as 2005 has suggested that theobromine—which is present in cocoa—might help suppress the cough reflex. However, most of the hubbub around chocolate and coughs comes from the 2016 Daily Mail article written by Alyn Morice, MD, head of respiratory medicine at Hull York Medical School and a founding member of the International Society for the Study of Cough.

In the article, Dr. Morice described exciting research that suggested Unicough, a medication that contains cocoa, is more effective at reducing cough frequency and sleep disruption than the traditional syrup. However, it was not more successful at significantly reducing cough severity after three days. Moreover, Dr. Morice clarified that a cocoa-based medication is certainly not the same thing as a chocolate candy or drink.

Health reached Dr. Morice by email, and when asked about the Daily Mail article, Dr. Morice expressed regret that the story "has now taken on a life of its own." Unicough did reduce coughing in that 2017 study, Dr. Morice told Health, but this was largely due to the fact that it contained diphenhydramine—an antihistamine found in Benadryl and several other cough and cold medicines.

Unicough, which is sold in the U.K. as a syrup and a lozenge, also contains ammonium chloride (an expectorant) and levomenthol (which gives medicines a minty, cooling sensation). A similar cocoa-based cough syrup called Doctor Cocoa is available in the U.S. but marketed for children.

Dr. Morice said that the Daily Mail article has been fodder for other misleading stories on this topic. "Now every year the story reemerges and gets more and more embellished," Dr. Morice said. As to whether chocolate itself reduces cough, Dr. Morice called the assertion "a complete fabrication."

What To Try Instead

Coughing can be notoriously difficult to treat. In fact, a 2019 review published in Lung noted that many over-the-counter cough medicines don't work much (or any) better than placebos. But the placebo effect can be powerful, so cough medicine may still be worth including in your get-well-soon regimen.

Per MedlinePlus, cough experts typically recommend drinking plenty of fluids and running a vaporizer—or taking steamy showers—to keep airways moist. Sucking on cough drops may also provide some relief and help keep a scratchy throat lubricated, but cough drops shouldn't be given to children under the age of 3.

Many doctors still swear by honey and lemon too, in hot water or tea. Leslie Mendoza Temple, MD, medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program at NorthShore University HealthSystem, previously told Health she recommended mixing cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, and powdered ginger into raw, local honey and coating your throat with half a teaspoon at a time.

Overall, there are plenty of home remedies and over-the-counter drugs for coughing that may help you feel a little bit better, but science still suggests that rest and time are really the best cures.

Talk to your healthcare provider if your cough doesn't go away on its own after about three weeks, if you're unable to pinpoint its underlying cause, if it brings up blood or yellowish-green phlegm, or if it is accompanied by symptoms like fever or shortness of breath. You could have allergies, an infection, or another more serious condition that needs medical attention, warns the American Lung Association.

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