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Does a hot toddy help a cough?

Coughing is one of the most common symptoms that lead people to seek medical care. A nagging cough can disrupt sleep, interfere with work and daily activities, and generally diminish quality of life. When over-the-counter cough medicines don’t seem to help, many people look to home remedies like hot toddies to find some relief.

What is a hot toddy?

A hot toddy is a classic warm drink made with liquor, hot water, honey and spices. Traditional toddy recipes call for whiskey, brandy or rum, but some modern versions use apple cider instead of liquor. The basic ingredients in a hot toddy are:

  • 2 ounces liquor, brandy or rum
  • 8 ounces hot water
  • 1-2 teaspoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1-2 cloves

To make a hot toddy, heat up water until steaming but not boiling. Add the liquor of choice, honey, lemon juice and spices to a mug or heatproof glass. Pour in the hot water and stir well to dissolve the honey. The traditional way to serve it is near a fire or in bed right before going to sleep.

What does research say about hot toddies for coughs?

There is limited scientific research on hot toddies specifically. However, some of the ingredients in hot toddies have been studied for their potential effects on coughs and cold symptoms:


Alcohol is thought to help thin mucus and provide a soothing sensation. One small study found that whiskey cut cough severity from around a 5 on a scale of 0 to 10 down to about a 3.[1] However, other studies have not shown a significant difference between alcohol and placebo for cough.[2]


Honey has antimicrobial, antioxidant and cough suppressant properties. For children over one year, honey may provide greater cough relief compared to common cough suppressants and placebo, especially for nighttime coughs.[3]


Lemon contains vitamin C and polyphenols that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. There is not much evidence that lemon improves coughs specifically, but the antioxidants may support immune system health.


Spices like cinnamon and cloves add flavor, but they also have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that could help soothe coughs. However, their effects when consumed in food and drink are likely small.

Table summarizing evidence on hot toddy ingredients for coughs

Ingredient Potential benefits for cough Evidence level
Alcohol Thins mucus, provides soothing sensation Limited – few small studies
Honey Antimicrobial, antioxidant, demulcent, antitussive properties Moderate – some positive studies in children
Lemon Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory from vitamin C Minimal – no cough studies
Spices Antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory effects Minimal – minimal doses used in food/drink

Other evidence-based tips for managing coughs

While the evidence for hot toddies is limited, there are some evidence-based strategies that can help calm coughs:

  • Stay hydrated – Keeping the throat moist with plenty of fluids can thin out mucus.
  • Use cough drops/lozenges – Cough drops provide a soothing coating for the throat and temporary relief.
  • Try honey – For adults and children over 1 year, honey has proven cough-suppressing effects.
  • Use a humidifier – Moistening the air can ease coughs caused by dryness and irritation.
  • Rest – Getting adequate rest allows the body to put energy towards recovery.
  • Stop smoking – Smoking irritates the throat and lungs, making coughs worse.
  • See a doctor – If a cough lasts beyond 3 weeks or comes with concerning symptoms like fever, seek medical attention.

Precautions with hot toddies

While hot toddies are generally considered safe and may help subjectively, there are also some precautions to keep in mind:

  • Alcohol can interact with medications, so check with a doctor.
  • Alcohol should be avoided in cases like pneumonia or bronchitis where excess fluids could worsen congestion.
  • Honey should not be given to infants under 1 year due to risk of infant botulism.
  • The heat can exacerbate symptoms for coughs due to allergies or asthma.
  • Alcohol can impair judgement and make sleepiness/drowsiness worse.
  • Drinking alcohol before bed can potentially worsen quality of sleep.
  • Too much alcohol can actually irritate the throat and worsen cough.


There is limited scientific evidence that hot toddies can significantly improve cough symptoms. However, the honey, spices and soothing heat can provide some temporary subjective relief. The alcohol may help thin mucus but can also come with risks if over-consumed or interacts with medications. While a hot toddy may act as a nice short-term comforting drink, it should not replace proper rest, hydration and medical care for chronic coughs. As with any folk remedy, take precautions and see a doctor if symptoms persist or worsen.