An ingredient in chocolate may provide sweet relief from constant coughing, according to new research.

The study showed that theobromine (search), an ingredient found in cocoa, was much more effective in stopping persistent coughs than codeine -- the cough medicine currently considered most effective.

Although this was a small study involving only 10 people, researchers say that if more studies confirm these results, the chocolate ingredient could be used in creating better cough medicines with fewer side effects than existing drugs.

“Coughing is a medical condition, which affects most people at some point in their lives, and yet no effective treatment exists,” says researcher Peter Barnes, a professor at the Imperial College London, in a news release. “While persistent coughing is not necessarily harmful it can have a major impact on quality of life, and this discovery could be a huge step forward in treating this problem.”

Chocolate Ingredient Has Fewer Bad Side Effects

In the study, which appears in the online edition of The FASEB Journal, researchers compared the effectiveness of a single dose of theobromine versus a placebo or codeine in suppressing coughs.

Ten healthy volunteers were given one of the three choices. The single dose was given during three study visits, each separated by one week. The volunteers were exposed to varying levels of capsaicin, an ingredient found in cayenne pepper used in research to stimulate coughing. They wanted to see what concentration of capsaicin was required to induce five coughs.

Researchers found that when the volunteers were given theobromine, the concentration of capsaicin required to cause coughing was about a third higher than when compared with the placebo. There was no difference between the placebo and codeine.

Researchers say theobromine appears to calm coughs by suppressing vagal nerve activity, which is responsible for causing people to cough.

Unlike other cough medicines on the market, researchers say the chocolate ingredient did not appear to cause any negative side effects, such as drowsiness.

“This means there will be no restrictions on when it can be taken,” says Barnes. “For example, people using heavy machinery or who are driving should not take codeine, but they could take theobromine.”

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Usmani, O. The FASEB Journal, Dec. 14, 2004. News release, Imperial College London.