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Does whiskey clear cough?

Whiskey is a popular distilled alcoholic drink that is often used as a remedy for cough and other respiratory ailments. Many people believe that drinking whiskey, especially when mixed with honey or herbs, can help soothe a sore throat and quiet a cough. However, there are conflicting opinions on whether whiskey actually helps clear cough or provides any real medicinal benefit. In this article, we’ll explore the evidence behind using whiskey as a cough remedy and see if science supports this folk cure.

Does whiskey have any medicinal properties?

Whiskey does contain some compounds that could potentially have medicinal effects, but the overall evidence is quite limited. Here are some of whiskey’s ingredients and their proposed benefits:


Whiskey contains ethanol, the same type of alcohol found in beer, wine, and spirits. In theory, alcohol could help thin mucus and provide symptom relief for some respiratory infections. However, there are no studies confirming this effect specifically for whiskey. Additionally, alcohol can cause dehydration and irritate the throat, exacerbating cough symptoms over time.

Plant compounds

Whiskey contains phenolic compounds from the grains, fruits, herbs, and wood barrels used during production. These plant compounds have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties in lab studies. However, the concentrations found in whiskey may be too low to have a significant medicinal impact.


Honey is sometimes added to whiskey to make “hot toddies” and other cough remedies. Honey does have proven antimicrobial and cough-suppressing effects. However, simply adding a teaspoon of honey to whiskey is unlikely to provide enough medicinal honey to make a difference.

Overall, any beneficial compounds in whiskey are likely overshadowed by the high alcohol content. There just isn’t strong evidence that the ingredients in whiskey can effectively treat cough or infection when consumed in normal drinking quantities.

What does science say about using alcohol as a cough remedy?

Here’s what scientific research reveals about using alcohol as a cough suppressant:

Short-term relief

A few studies show a small, temporary decrease in cough reflex after consuming alcohol. A 2006 study gave volunteers with viral upper respiratory infections either vodka or placebo. The vodka group reported improved symptom scores for up to 2 hours after drinking.

However, the amounts needed for even minor symptom relief were significant – around 100 ml vodka (2-3 shots) in this study.

Increased risks

Other studies caution against using alcohol to self-medicate cough. A 2003 review found several risks of using alcohol for cough relief, including:

– Impaired ability to evaluate and treat more serious illnesses
– Interactions with prescription and over-the-counter medicines
– Excessive drowsiness and impaired motor skills
– Worsening of asthma symptoms in sensitive groups

The reviewers concluded that any short-term benefits were outweighed by increased adverse effects and recommended avoiding alcohol for treating cough.

No lasting benefits

Importantly, scientific studies do not show that alcohol provides any lasting relief for cough or infection. In fact, over time alcohol seems to worsen cough symptoms. A 1991 study found cough severity increased after drinking 5-7 units of alcohol.

Any immediate soothing effects are transient, but the negative impacts persist and accumulate. This makes alcohol an unsuitable treatment for chronic or persisting cough.

What are the risks and side effects of using whiskey for cough?

While moderate intake of whiskey is unlikely to cause major harm in an otherwise healthy adult, taking large doses as a cough remedy carries safety risks including:


Whiskey contains about 40% alcohol, so drinking multiple shots creates intoxication. This leads to impaired judgment, coordination, and drowsiness. Intoxication increases the risk of falls, car accidents, and other injuries. It’s especially dangerous when combined with cold and cough medicines.

Worsened symptoms

Whiskey can irritate mucous membranes and promote dehydration. This dries out and inflames the throat, potentially worsening cough and throat pain over time. The sedative effects also suppress the cough reflex, which can be risky with certain illnesses.


Drinking whiskey while taking over-the-counter or prescription medications could cause interactions. For example, combining alcohol and cough syrup containing dextromethorphan has risks. Alcohol also interacts with antibiotics, antihistamines, sleep aids, and other common medicines.


Frequently drinking hard liquor like whiskey to manage cough may lead to physical and psychological dependence. People with certain health conditions like liver disease are at an even higher risk for alcoholism.

Other risks

Excessive alcohol weakens the immune system over time, increasing susceptibility to infections and pneumonia. Alcohol can also worsen conditions like asthma, sleep apnea, acid reflux, and ulcers. For people with these pre-existing illnesses, whiskey could make cough and other symptoms much worse.

Are there any situations where whiskey is an appropriate cough remedy?

Given the lack of proven benefits and potential harms, whiskey should not be considered an effective or safe cough treatment in most situations. However, there are a few cases where whiskey in moderation may be appropriate:

Adults without health conditions

An otherwise healthy adult who infrequently drinks alcohol may get minor temporary relief from whiskey’s sedative effects. They may “feel better” for a short time even though cough reflex is only suppressed. This should be limited to 1-2 ounces of whiskey, and not combined with any medicines.

Social/cultural traditions

Many cultures have traditional practices of drinking hot whiskey with herbs or honey to treat cough and sore throat. When consumed carefully in moderation by healthy adults, these rituals pose minimal risk and may provide a placebo effect. However, the focus should be on comfort and tradition rather than medicinal use.

Emergency situations

For chronic alcoholics with severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, whiskey could be used as an emergency treatment while seeking medical help. This potentially life-threatening situation requires professional care and monitoring. Whiskey should not be used as an at-home remedy in these cases.

Palliative care

Terminally ill patients already prescribed narcotic pain relievers may get modest relief from adding small amounts of whiskey. However, other ingredients like honey or licorice root likely contribute more than the alcohol itself. This should only be done under medical supervision.

Aside from limited scenarios like these, whiskey should not be used to self-treat cough or respiratory infections. The risks outweigh any potential benefits for the vast majority of situations.

What are safer, more effective alternatives to treat cough?

If you’re suffering from an annoying cough, there are several remedies and medications that are safer and more proven than whiskey:


Pure honey coats the throat, eases cough, and has antimicrobial effects. Adults can take up to 2 tablespoons straight or in tea or warm water. Not safe for infants.


Gargling with warm salt water helps reduce throat irritation and loosen mucus. Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon salt in 8 ounces warm water and gargle several times daily.


Using a humidifier adds moisture to dry air, keeping your respiratory tract hydrated and less irritated. This helps suppress cough from viral and post-nasal drip cough.

Cough drops

Cough drops containing menthol, throat coat, or demulcents create a soothing film that temporarily suppresses cough reflex. They are useful for short-term relief. Avoid menthol if you have asthma.

OTC cough medicine

Non-prescription cough remedies like dextromethorphan provide longer relief for annoying coughs. They are reasonably safe when used as directed in adults. Avoid in children.

Prescription drugs

For chronic cough from conditions like COPD, ACE inhibitors, or lung infections, prescription cough medications reduce symptoms more effectively and safely than whiskey.

Treating the underlying cause

For prolonged coughs, see your doctor to identify and properly treat the underlying cause, such as pneumonia, asthma, allergies, acid reflux, or bronchitis. This provides the best long-term cough relief.


Despite being a traditional folk remedy, whiskey is not considered an effective or scientifically-proven treatment for cough or upper respiratory infections. At best, whiskey provides very temporary symptom relief in healthy adults when consumed in moderation. However, the risks likely outweigh any benefits. There are several safer, more effective alternatives to try for cough relief.

While an occasional sip of whiskey may seem comforting when you’re feeling unwell, it’s not wise to rely on hard liquor as an ongoing home remedy. Be wary of any claims that whiskey acts as a powerful medicinal cough suppressant. Talk to your doctor about evidence-based ways to find cough relief and treat any underlying illness. With safer alternatives available, whiskey should be avoided as a cough treatment for children and adults with chronic health problems.