Everything You Need to Know About Chinese Cough Medicine

People of all cultures have been drawn to traditional remedies like Chinese cough syrup. Sushitsky Sergey/Shutterstock

Traditional Chinese medicine dates back more than 2,500 years and includes many practices that have gradually become more mainstream in the United States. From acupuncture and tai chi to herbal remedies, some of these ancient practices are becoming more accepted, even though there's not always a lot of science to back the effectiveness of every practice.

It's difficult to find exact figures, but the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health estimates that there were about 10,000 practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine or TCM serving more than 1 million patients in the U.S. back in 1997. According to 2007 surveys, more than 3 million adults used acupuncture and about 2.3 million American practiced tai chi.

The latest ancient remedy to spark interest is Chinese cough syrup. Likely because of last winter's taxing flu season, New Yorkers kickstarted the trend, hoping to find relief from their hacking. Chinese cough medicine is called nin jiom pei pa koa, also known as loquat syrup. The herbal remedy has historically been used for coughing and sore throat.

Made and sold by Shenzhen-based Kingworld Medicines Group, nin jiom pei pa koa is composed of honey and herbs. Reportedly, the recipe was created during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of the Qing dynasty, when Yang Xiaolian, a Chinese provincial commander, visited doctors all over the land trying to find a cure for his ailing mother. "Nin jiom" means "remembrance of mother."

Although the product has been commercially manufactured since the 1940s, it garnered attention recently after a story in the Wall Street Journal.

Architect and professor Alex Schweder told the newspaper he had been "sick for a week and half and couldn’t stop coughing." But after taking the syrup, "This started working in 15 minutes," he said. "I’ve probably gotten about five people to try it, but I’ve told many more."

The syrup is sold on Amazon for about $12 for a 300 milliliter (10 ounce) bottle and for about $8 a bottle at Chinese markets in New York.

Does Chinese cough syrup work?

Chinese cough medicine
Chinese cough medicine can be purchased online or in specialty markets. Kai Hendry/flickr

There are 16 ingredients listed in the cough syrup including honey, Sichuan fritillary, Chinese licorice, apricot seed extract and loquat.

"Of all the ingredients, honey has the best evidence supporting its use for cough," writes Philip J. Gregory, PharmD, in a piece about Chinese cough medicine for Medscape. "A Cochrane review of clinical trials that evaluated honey for cough in children found that it was more effective than diphenhydramine or placebo but not as effective as dextromethorphan for reducing cough frequency. Largely on the basis of these findings, a recent expert panel report also suggested honey as an option for cough in pediatric patients older than 1 year."

The other most common ingredients have some history of use to solve throat issues.

  • Sichuan fritillary (Fritillaria verticillata) — Long used traditionally for cough and phlegm, however human trials haven't confirmed these effects
  • Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza uralensis) — Also used for cough and as an expectorant, some research shows that using licorice lozenges or gargles can reduce sore throat or cough after surgery
  • Apricot seed (Prunus armeniaca) — Traditionally used to fight cough; can produce cyanic acid in the gut, which can be dangerously toxic for children
  • Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) — Used traditionally for cough, bronchitis and asthma, but effects have not been documented clinically

Although the syrup is very popular in traditional Chinese medicine, it's not considered a cure-all and only works for some colds, a TCM expert told The Telegraph.

"People commonly have a misunderstanding about it," said Dr. Zhao, a retired doctor from Heilongjiang provincial TCM hospital in China.

As with all remedies — natural or otherwise — it's always a good idea to check with your doctor before trying them.