It’s winter and you have been walking around in the cold. You were wearing warm clothes but, alas, you still got a cold and a cough that won’t quit. Someone recommends that you take a cough drop and you think “how do cough drops work?” Should I give them a chance?
No matter whether you’re in the below zero range or your little one developed a crazy cough after dancing in the rain, cough drops are an age-old sort of remedy. Not only do they actually work, but they also take you back to your own childhood and to someone taking care of you.
Cough drops hold, for me, dear memories of loved ones and the feeling of comfort when I’m unwell. But they have always felt like a little bit of a mystery to me— almost miraculous.
That is why I asked myself “What are cough drops and what do they really do?”. After asking professional friends and researching far and wide, I have a pretty good understanding of the topic!
So I decided to put all of my discoveries in the same place and bring them to you! After reading this article, you will know how cough drops are made, what they contain, and how they relate to your body. I will also show you some alternatives to using cough drops. Here we go!
The history of the cough drop
Cough drops, also called throat lozenges (which means medicinal tablet), have been making sore and coughing throats happy for a really long time!
The earliest indications of cough drops being used have been found in Egypt. The archaeological and literary findings send the first documented instances of cough drop use back to around the year 1000 BC Incredibly early!
Here, cough drops were used to relieve discomfort caused by the ever present sand. Also, to try to treat a very common ailment: tuberculosis. These cough drops were made of honey, citrus, and a mysterious blend of herbs with medicinal properties.
Later on, our society developed the modern cough drop, which follows— essentially— the same principles: to soothe the irritation of the throat and suppress the uncomfortable coughing reflex.
These new products were developed in the nineteenth century and— oddly enough— some of them contained opioids, which are drugs that are nowadays considered illegal in most countries. These were, thankfully, later dropped from the formulation because of the risks of addiction!
Menthol was introduced as a crucial ingredient in cough drops in 1922 (and we are all happier for it!).
Cough drops are, in our modern setting, very similar to commercial hard candy! However, they do contain more active natural ingredients that aim to relieve pain and might even have analgesic components.
How are cough drops made
The earliest mass producers of the modern cough drop were the Smith Brothers Cough Drops, which came out as early as 1852, and Luden’s cough drops, which saw the light a few years later, in 1879.
What are cough drops? Commercially available cough drops and lozenges are, today, made in automated industrial facilities by producers who specialize in them. They may be marketed as medicinal or as pure and simple hard candy, but the production process is very often the same!
Here are the basics:
- The ingredients are selected. They will be, usually, of two types: a base ingredient to make up the candy, and an active ingredient that will treat a sore throat and coughing.
- Trained personnel puts together all the ingredients in large batch containers, usually made of sterile stainless steel.
- Water is added to the mix.
- All the ingredients are blended together until they are ready to get cooked.
- The cough drops are cooked, reducing the moisture content to produce candy that is hard in consistency. There are three main ways to do this:
- The slowest way is batch cooking— basically the same as if you cooked them in a pot over your stove, only on a larger scale. The water content evaporates into the air.
- Continuous cooking: this means cooking under low pressure conditions and is a faster process.
- Semicontinuous cooking: a quicker, more complicated process that involves a vacuum chamber which can cook the drops in mere seconds
- The cooked candy is cooled off in slabs and the active ingredients are added to the dough-like material.
- Finally, the forming: machines shape and cut the cough drops into their final shapes and they are left to finish cooling off before packaging.
What elements are in a cough drop
As you already found out above, cough drops contain at least two different kinds of ingredients:
- The base ingredients that form the body of the candy. These are the ones that are cooked through the methods that were explained above.
- The active ingredients that have an expectorant (helps you expel all the nasties from your lungs and air passages), analgesic (pain relieving), or antitussive (prevents or relieves your coughing) effect. These can be either wholly natural, like herbs, menthol, or Vitamin C, or processed in pharmaceutical labs as medical drugs, like the anaesthetic benzocaine.
- Ingredients that are added for flavor, like corn syrup or (often artificial) berry flavoring. These are added because the active components of the cough drops often have quite an aggressive, unpleasant taste on their own.
- Ingredients that are added to help the cough drops look nice and last in good condition. These are preservatives, colorings, and artificial scents.
The most important bit is made up by, for all medicinal purposes, the biologically active components that work to expel fluid, soothe discomfort, and calm the throat’s natural coughing reflex.
How does a cough drop work
Now we know exactly what is in numbing cough drops, but not yet how they get the job done. So how do cough drops work to calm your pain and discomfort? What do all those active ingredients do?
Well, there are lots of ingredients and even more ways they work to soothe your cough, but here are some of the main mechanisms:
- Pectin: This element can be found in fruit ingredients, often used in cough drops such as Luden’s. Pectin is a sort of starch in gel form that sticks on the throat’s surface, coating it. This action makes it feel smoother and less irritated, effectively reducing the cough!
- Honey: This natural ingredient is great for the throat— you can even use it alone or in a warm cup of tea. Like pectin, it coats the throat to reduce discomfort, but also has the added benefit of being an analgesic antiseptic: it closes open wounds, reduces pain, and prevents infection.
- Menthol: This is one of the most often used ingredients in commercial cough drops— think the classic Halls. Menthol does not only freshen your breath considerably, though that is a nice bonus. As an analgesic, it acts to relieve the pain your throat may feel. It is, essentially, a mild local anaesthetic: menthol numbs the area it comes into contact with and makes it feel cool and nice for some quick relief.
- Benzocaine: This is a lab-produced drug that is synthetically created to be a numbing— anaesthetic— agent. It acts on the nerves connected to the area that feels pain, not allowing them to send the discomfort signals to the brain. It is a remedy for pain, but not a cure for your sore throat.
Alternatives to commercial cough drops
If you don’t want to buy commercial cough drops so often or just like making your own medicine, here’s what you can do to relieve throat pain and coughing:
- Use honey: Suck on it as a lollipop, slowly letting it drift down your throat. You can also add it to your matcha tea.
- Drink warm, home brewed tea, preferably with freshly grated ginger.
- Eat fresh pineapple. Scientific research shows that its enzyme, bromelain, can help relieve coughs.
- Use peppermint: either throw it into your tea or just smell it at regular intervals. So refreshing!
Rest and get well soon!
Remember, no cough drop or remedy is effective if you keep doing the stuff that caused the illness in the first place. If you have a cold and flu or a cough, you have to— first— consult a medical professional (I am not one, and this post is not medical advice) and— then— commit to resting for a few days. This will give your body time to recover and make the cough drops more effective!
If you or a loved one have a cough, no matter how mild, it can be quite distressing. How do cough drops work? Now you know it and can take or recommend them in good conscience! So take those drops, rest up, and get well very soon!