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Foods to Eat and Avoid When You Have a Cough

Foods to Eat and Avoid When You Have a Cough

We take a look at what foods to try and what to steer clear from when battling with some of the symptoms of a cold.

Lifestyle insight
Reading time: 6 minutes

Did you know that eating certain foods can make your cough worse? And that some foods can make it better?

The old “feed a cold” does have some truth to it - but that doesn’t mean you should eat anything and everything when you’re coughing and spluttering.

Here’s a quick overview of the foods that might trigger or worsen a cough, and the foods that can help you recover faster.  

What Causes Coughs?

Coughs are annoying and can be quite debilitating, but we cough for a reason! Coughing can be voluntary or involuntary, but it’s usually your body’s way of clearing irritants, fluids, mucus or microbes out of the throat and airways.  

The coughing reflex is initiated when the peripheral nerve receptors in your airways are triggered by an irritating substance, like mucus or dust. Your body tries to expel the substance by making the muscles in your chest and abdomen to contract and forcing air out of your mouth.1 

Coughs that last a few days or a few weeks are generally referred to as acute or short-term. These are usually caused by the common cold, flu, or other throat infections such as laryngitis.  

A cough becomes chronic if it lasts for more than four weeks in children, and more than eight weeks in adults. Chronic coughs may be caused by asthma,  bronchitis, chest infections, smoking, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD).2  

Can certain foods trigger coughing? 

Some research has suggested that certain foods can increase mucus production, which can lead to a cough with phlegm (also known as a chesty cough).  

Milk and dairy products are commonly associated with increasing mucus production. However, a number of scientific studies have shown that milk doesn’t actually increase mucus production or trigger coughing.3 That said, if you personally find that milk and dairy makes your coughing worse, it’s best to avoid it.  

For those who suffer from GORD, eating spicy foods or foods high in fat may trigger coughing, as can drinking coffee and/or alcohol.4 

Fruit drinks and soft drinks that contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) have been shown to trigger asthma symptoms.5 

Eating a lot of high sugar foods may also contribute to developing or prolonging a cough. A high-sugar diet has been shown to impair immune system function, which could slow down your recovery.6 

A diet rich in meats, sodium, and refined carbohydrates has been shown to increase mucus production, which can lead to a higher likelihood of developing chesty cough.7 

Foods that are high in histamine may also cause coughing along with sore, watery eyes and sneezing.8

High-histamine foods include processed meats, eggplant, dairy, soy sauce, citrus, pineapple, and some dairy products. Food additives and chemicals are thought to contribute to rhinitis, nasal congestion, or post nasal drip.9 

Allergies and cough 

Coughs can also be caused by allergies such as hay fever (allergic rhinitis). Irritants such as pollen, dust, pet dander, and mould can trigger a dry cough. If you have asthma, allergies can also make your symptoms worse. 

Avoid these foods when you have a cough 

How you react to certain foods may be a personal thing, so take note of the foods that cause coughing for you. These are the foods that many people find make their cough worse.  

Vegetables to avoid when coughing 

Starchy vegetables such as corn, potatoes, and squash can raise blood sugar levels. Some research has suggested that higher blood sugar levels can increase the risk of congestion-related diseases that can worsen cough and are eventually linked to lungs, which may in turn have something to do with the high consumption of starch over a period of time. Thus sources high in starch may be considered foods to avoid during cold and to prevent the condition in the long term. 

Vegetables high in histamine (which can trigger coughing if you have a histamine intolerance) include eggplant, and fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut. 

Fruits to avoid when coughing  

Some anecdotal evidence suggests that citrus fruits such as grapefruit, oranges, and lemons can irritate a sensitive throat, causing you to cough. Although there is little research to support this, it may be best to avoid citrus fruits if they have this effect on you.  

Food you should eat when coughing 

Many plant foods and teas are known to help relieve respiratory ailments, including coughs.10  

These are some foods good for cough and phlegm.  

Best food for chesty cough 

Honey is both a food and a medicine, and it’s especially effective for coughs. Honey harbours important antibacterial and antiviral properties that can help relieve the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections.11 When added to a cup of hot water or herbal tea, honey can soothe an irritated throat and chest.  

Best food for dry cough 

Peppermint is a cooling herb that contains menthol, which can help to calm a dry, tickly cough. In fact, peppermint is shown to have antibacterial, antiviral, and antitussive properties.12 Drink as a tea or suck on peppermint lozenges.  

Best food for persistent coughs 

Spicy, warming ginger has been used to treat coughs, colds, flu, and other ailments for centuries. Along with its anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial properties, ginger can help relax the smooth muscle of the airways and make breathing easier.13  

Tips to change your diet and habits to relieve a chesty cough 

Let food be thy medicine - or at least part of your medicine! Eating a diet rich in fresh, natural foods will support your immune system and energy levels. Fruits and vegetables are rich in the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that will help your body recover from a chesty cough.  

Avoid or minimise foods that are high in sugar, salt, saturated fats and trans fatty acids. These foods are known to contribute to low-grade inflammation that not only slow your recovery, but can lead to further health issues.14 And as we’ve explained above, processed foods and fried foods can also increase mucus production, making a chesty cough hang around for even longer.  

Drinking plenty of fresh, filtered water will also help to support your body’s natural detoxification process and keep your cells hydrated. Swap out sugary drinks and alcohol for herbal teas such as peppermint and ginger, as well as upping your daily water intake to at least 2 litres. 

Get active!  

While it’s important to rest when you’re unwell, it's also important to make physical activity a part of your daily routine. Exercising regularly can bolster your immune system so that you’re less likely to get sick again. Research has shown that exercise not only improves general health but may be effective in reducing the occurrence, severity, and duration of acute respiratory infections such as coughs.14 So - take a walk, go for a jog, ride your bike to work, or join the gym.  

Try Prospan cough formula 

If you’ve gone searching for something to treat your cough, you’ll know that there’s no such thing as a “quick fix” - although many products may claim that! There are hundreds of cough treatments available these days, but not all of them are backed by scientific evidence. One that IS backed by scientific evidence is the Prospan range.

Prospan cough formulas contain an exclusive extract of ivy leaf called EA 575® which has been shown in numerous clinical trials to provide five-action relief for coughs. First, it helps to thin out mucus in the chest so that it's easier to “cough up” that irritating congestion. It then soothes those irritated airways and makes breathing easier for both kids and adults. EA 575® also helps to reduce inflammation in the respiratory tract so that you feel better faster.  

In fact, Prospan helps to relieve a chesty cough 2x faster than when left untreated. Check out the whole range here and Prospan for children here!   





01 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493221

02 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6966942

03 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7488715/

04 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15591498/

05 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4609055/

06 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9471313

07 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447591/

08 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7463562/

09 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6682924/

10 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3604064/

11 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32817011/

12 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2967840/

13 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3604064/

14 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7127736/

15 Lang C, et al., Planta Med 2015;81:968-974. Supported by Engelhard Arzneimittel GmbH & Co. KG.

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