No need to panic over a shortage of medicines as homemade treatments are just as efficacious, writes Sophie Morris


A sugar-free and sober January is all very well until a sore throat kicks in. The obvious solution is a truckload of Lemsip and Lockets, but with nationwide shortages of a range of cough and cold medicines, we may have to look further afield than the pharmacy for relief this year.

According to the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), there are supply issues with throat lozenges, cough mixtures and some painkillers. “This isn’t just the branded medicines,” says AIMp chief executive Leyla Hannbeck. “Pharmacists are struggling to obtain the very basic, most common cold and flu medicine.” Boots, however, insists that while it may be running short on certain branded products, it has good availability of alternatives.

But is it worth shelling out for hot drinks and throat sweets? The NHS advice on dealing with a cough is clear and unequivocal: rest, drink plenty of fluids, stay home if you have a temperature. Treat pain with paracetamol or ibuprofen. It says that hot honey and lemon has a similar effect to cough medicines, and it can be used from the age of 12 months while many medicines are only suitable for older children. Drink lots of water and suck on ice cubes or lollies as well as hard sweets.

If it’s the soothing qualities of a hot drink or sucking on a sweet that can ease our cough or sore throat, rather than actual medicine, why don’t we save money and turn to the kitchen cabinet instead?

Whether in a drink or lozenge form, honey and lemon is the classic combination in the fight against a sore throat. Honey is a well-known anti-inflammatory, but you don’t have to shell out for the expensive manuka sold in health food shops.

“All honeys help with immune function,” explains medical herbalist Sorrell Robbins. She also recommends cold lemon juice over hot, as the heat kills off the vitamin C, and says we should drink lemon water during the day and add the rind to honey (eat or drink in water) to cut through phlegm.

Why is lemon so effective and regularly recommended for fighting colds? “The rind contains a chemical called limonene which can moderate phlegm production in the nasal cavity,” explains Robbins.

Nutritionist and PhD psychologist Dr Naomi Beinart recommends prepping her “lemon, lime and ginger slurry” by blitzing the ingredients together in roughly equal quantities and freezing in an ice cube tray ready to pop each morning in a hot drink.

“This is my favourite winter health hack,” she says. “Ginger is anti-inflammatory and helps to relax membranes in the airways, which helps to reduce coughing. The lemon contains vitamin C which helps fight infections and might contribute to reducing the duration of your cough. And honey has been found to work well to reduce night coughing, helping you to get better sleep, which gives your body some much needed recovery and healing time.”

Nutritional therapist Kate Cook points out that rosehip was given to children during the Second World War. There was a national foraging effort to collect enough to give out daily doses of rosehip syrup, which contains 20 times as much vitamin C as orange.

“Vitamin C forms a huge part of our immunity and we should consume as much as possible, even though it can be harder to find fresh sources in the winter,” says Cook. “We are so familiar with its immunity enhancing properties, that there is a tendency to understate it.”

While we can only find rosehip in late summer and autumn, you could drink a tea instead, or increase your vitamin C intake with more readily available fruits antimicrobial properties which means they can actually kill off a virus. Have it in a tea or add it to your cooking. Robbins says remember to have another dose a couple of days after you’re feeling better, as there’s often a little bit of the virus hanging around, which could flare up again. She says cardamom and coriander will help to clear out any phlegm. “These spices work to reduce the amount of phlegm produced by the body via their effect on the digestive system,” says Robbins. “Viruses often cause digestive problems as well as respiratory symptoms.”

It sounds disgusting, but rinsing out your nasal passage and throat can ease nasal congestion and runny nose. The NHS says gargling with salt water can help a sore throat. Dissolve half a teaspoon in warm water, gargle and spit out.

You can buy Neti Pots to flush out your sinuses, which might be a suitable approach if you work in bug-ridden places such as nurseries or schools or in large buildings where germs are carried around by the air con. “It’s like a nose enema.” says Robbins.

“You don’t want to be taking pharmaceuticals on a long-term basis,” says Dr Beinart. “But I would say they are worth the money. Lemsip Max cold & flu capsules contain three active ingredients. Paracetamol, for pain relief, a decongestant called phenylephrine, and caffeine.

“The phenylephrine relieves a blocked nose by causing the blood vessels in your nasal passages and sinuses to contract. This decreases blood flow into the linings of the nose and sinuses, which reduces the production of mucus. As coughs often are a result of excess mucus trickling down the back of the throat, this certainly may help relieve a cough in some people. Lockets Medicated Lozenges contain menthol and eucalyptus, as well as honey. All of these ingredients are useful to help relieve coughs.”

The NHS agrees with herbalists and nutritionists that DIY remedies like honey and lemon are as effective as many bought treatments, but the placebo effect is also high with any kind of cough or cold.

For this reason, I’d turn to chicken soup, a classic remedy - and based on bone broth, which has been shown to help repair damaged lungs.

A sore throat is rarely a reason to call your GP - just as well given the current perfect storm of high levels of Covid, flu, coughs and colds and a lack of GP care - but there some reasons to call the surgery, including a persistent cough lasting over three weeks, a very bad cough, chest pain, difficulty breathing or a swollen neck. See a GP urgently if you’re coughing up blood.

such as kiwis, or stock your freezer with frozen berries.

Robbins recommends a number of store cupboard remedies. She says sage is the best herb for a sore throat. “Medicinally, it has astringent, antiseptic and antibacterial qualities,” explains Robbins, “and has been used for centuries to treat sore throats, coughs, and inflammation in the mouth.” Whether bought dry or picked fresh, chop up a teaspoon and infuse in hot water, or leave overnight, strain and drink cold.

Maybe I’ve escaped a cold so far this season because of my daughter’s obsession with “yellow porridge” - she stirs turmeric into our morning porridge to turn it golden, which is apparently more fun to eat. “Try warm milk or almond milk with a teaspoon of turmeric and honey,” says Robbins. “Turmeric is really helpful for reducing inflammation.”