Got a Cough? Try Bosnia’s Witchy Brew

Why you should care

It’s three everyday foods mixed together. Why wouldn’t you try it?

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When a cough and chest congestion hits, Americans (like me) head to the drugstore, where row upon row of foul-tasting remedies are available. Should you find yourself sick abroad, though, a harsh reality awaits: Cold medicine is hard to come by, and in many countries it’s simply nonexistent. That’s the case in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the locals don’t need Western-style cough medicine that contains ingredients you can’t pronounce (try to say dextromethorphan three times quickly). They’ve got … witchcraft.

A first line of defense for a sore throat and cough in this formerly war-torn country is honey. That’s not surprising since “research has proven honey to be just as or more effective in treating coughs than over-the-counter commercial cough syrups,” according to Dr. Josh Axe, founder of DrAxe.com, best-selling author of Eat Dirt and co-founder of Ancient Nutrition. Whether purchased in Bosnia from a local farmer or in Medex’s Apisirup mass-market version, it’d be tough to find someone who would decline the opportunity to eat delicious honey off a spoon without shame or judgment. It’s for your health, after all. (The added thyme in Apisirup is also a helpful cough expectorant, and its most active ingredient, thymol, has shown to possess antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.)

While honey is supereffective, it’s the Bosnians’ other cough remedy that could have Westerners screaming for a stake and match: milk, sugar and butter.

It’s as close as you’ll likely ever get to re-creating the chest-bursting scene in Alien.

As Westerners, we’re told that dairy is a big no-no when you have a cough. I was a firm believer until my cough wouldn’t quit and my Bosnian co-workers pleaded with me to try their magical brew. You melt sugar in a saucepan, then add milk and butter. Stir until all are combined, pour into a glass and drink hot. The buttery taste is unpleasant, making this promised expectorant hard to swallow. You’ll manage.

About 30 minutes later, the effect kicks in — it’s as close as you’ll likely ever get to re-creating the chest-bursting scene in Alien. Your chest convulses, you can’t stop coughing and all the gunk built up inside comes spewing out. This is not something you want anyone to witness. And you’ll want to be close to a sink. After the pain and discomforting sight of phlegm subsides, you’re breathing easier and the cough has disappeared.

This witchcraft-sounding cough remedy has been passed down for generations in Bosnia and the surrounding region. And it’s still widely used today by all ages to get rid of slime-causing bacteria and viruses. But exactly who came up with the idea is anyone’s guess.

As Axe points out, “There’s no good science or reasoning behind” this cough remedy. “If anything,” he says, “I would think it would add to the mucus already present and force you to cough relentlessly.”

This cough remedy is prime for debate, and the only way to know if it works is to play witch and try it at home (as I’ll happily do again). There may be some temporary discomfort, but it won’t kill you. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, try the fever-busters Bosnians swear by: Put potato slices or mustard on your feet and wear socks. You’re on your own, though — I prefer mustard on sourdough, not between my toes.

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