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Coughs can be painful, annoying and even keep us from sleep. That is probably why our first instinct when we have a cough is to reach for a cough suppressant. Some people may choose over-the-counter syrups to stop their coughing while others may reach for home remedies for cough.
But as annoying as coughs can be, suppressing them can lead to a prolonged illness or further complications.
What is commonly missing from mainstream thought is that there are many types of coughs and, while we may want to suppress some types of coughs, others are beneficial.
Yep, that's right. Coughing can be beneficial!
Coughs are the body’s mechanism for clearing the lungs of pathogens and excessive phlegm. Most of the time we do not want to suppress the action of coughing because to do so would trap unwanted mucus or particles in the lungs.
Instead of simply thinking about cough suppressants, natural or otherwise, we need to first determine the type of cough and, only then, determine how we can best use herbs to support our body.
Here are some ways that herbalists use herbal remedies for coughs
Determining what type of cough someone has will dictate what home remedies for cough are used.
Productive coughs expel mucus from the lungs. This is a beneficial cough that helps to clear the lungs of congestion and we rarely want to outright suppress this type of beneficial cough. If we stop our body’s ability to clear the lungs of mucus then we could prolong an illness or, in a worse case scenario, leave our lungs more susceptible to pneumonia.
Instead, when we have a wet, productive cough we want to support our body by thinning the mucus so that we can more readily expel it from our lungs. By clearing out the congestion, we support healthy lung function and ultimately stop our coughing.
In the case of a productive cough with excessive phlegm, stimulating expectorant herbs are used to thin and expectorate mucus, making it easier to expel from the lungs. In this way we support the cough by aiding the body’s natural function, not by suppressing the cough.
Stimulating expectorants include elecampane, ginger, bee balm, horseradish, cayenne, evergreens like pine and Douglas fir, mustard, and poplar buds.
Generally, stimulating expectorants are taken when there is a large amount of mucous present. They especially excel at boggy or clogged mucus.
However, if mucous membranes are dry, stimulating expectorants can exacerbate the problems and relaxing expectorants should be used instead.
There are at least two ways of understanding unproductive coughs.
The first type is a cough that has little to no mucus expectoration but there are obvious feelings of mucus congestion in the lungs. The person may feel like their breathing is “tight”. Or they may have occasional expectoration but the sense is that there is more trapped in the lungs. In this case the mucus could be stuck in the lungs but it is not coming up. Both stimulating and relaxing expectorants or demulcent herbs can be used to help thin the mucous, making it easier for the body to expel.
Another type of unproductive cough is the insistent dry hacking that keeps someone from sleeping and burns the throat. I use a two pronged approach to treat dry spasmodic coughs.
Demulcent herbs can be used throughout the day to moisten the lungs. Marshmallow, licorice, linden, plantain and slippery elm are some of my favorites. I generally recommend these as a tea.
The second part is to use antispasmodic herbs for when the coughing is too excessive or the person is trying to sleep. (Often times this type of cough becomes more pronounced at night or when the person lays down.)
Antispasmodic herbs for coughs include california poppy, valerian, mullein, thyme, and red clover. I often prefer these as a tincture.
Although I have done my best to organize these herbs into well-defined categories, in reality plants don’t really behave in this manner. They often have several actions and a myriad of ways of working within the body. Also, home remedies for cough are often formulated to include herbs with different herbal properties. So although these herbs are introduced singly, as your herbal knowledge grows you may find yourself combining herbs to get more broad-spectrum results.
The following are some of my favorite home remedies for cough along with their indications. Some of these help to thin the mucus so it can be easily dispelled. Others outright suppress a spasmodic cough so that you can get some relief.
The color of mucus and phlegm can be an important diagnostic tool for the herbalist. This can be both the color of mucus that is expectorated as well as the color of the tongue coating.
Yellow indicates heat: herb formulations should be more cooling.
White indicates cold: herb formulations should be more warming.
Honey for coughs
Often times home remedies for cough are delivered in a honey or sugar base. I personally prefer honey as it offers a wide range of beneficial properties and I can also get it locally. (It is not recommended to use honey for children under the age of 2.)
Honey and sugar are both expectorants in themselves and they also have the ability to soothe inflammation in the respiratory tract. Honey is antimicrobial, making it even more beneficial during times of illness. It’s also delicious.
Vinegar for coughs
Vinegar has a long history of being used for sore throats, coughs, and other lung issues. William Cook, a physiomedicalist, writes that vinegar by itself has a concentrated effect on the respiratory passages. He suggests that herbal preparations with a vinegar base focus their actions to the respiratory tract.
Oxymels for coughs
Oxymels are preparations using both vinegar and honey. These mixtures have a long history of use in western herbalism, dating as far back as the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates was an advocate of oxymels for coughs but cautions against its use for people with a cold and dry constitution (these people are commonly always the coldest in the room, wearing sweaters when others have on t-shirts, and may have dry skin, dry eyes, etc.). He also suggested heating these mixtures gently when they are being consumed during cold weather. Oxymels are perfect for boggy, congested coughs with lots of expectoration.
There are a variety of ways to make oxymels:
Oxymel variation #1
Decoct one ounce of herb in one quart of water, simmer until 1⁄4 of the liquid remains. Strain and add four ounces of vinegar and four ounces of honey. Mix until it forms a syrupy consistency. This preparation works best with roots or leaves. Because of the long decoction it is not well suited for aromatic herbs because the simmering will boil away the aromatic properties. Pine needles, plantain and elecampane work well with this preparation.
Oxymel variation #2
If wanting to use aromatic herbs you can simply combine an herb-infused vinegar with an herb-infused honey. I would suggest the commonly given ratio of one part of vinegar to five parts of honey. Bee balm, thyme and other aromatic mints work well with this preparation.
Oxymel variation #3
Lastly, another variation of oxymels is to simply decoct the herb of choice with vinegar and then add 5 parts of honey to each part of vinegar.
This recipe is a combination of stimulating and relaxing expectorants that is combined with the immune supporting qualities of elderberries and boneset. This herbal cough syrup works well for productive and unproductive coughs. It probably won’t stop a strong spasmodic cough.
Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan and add two cups of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 30 minutes. Strain off the herbs and add an equal part honey, or to taste. By adding an equal part of honey you’ll preserve the syrup for a longer period of time. Once the mixture is combined you can simmer it further to create a thicker consistency. Store in the fridge.
Elecampane has a strong affinity for the lungs. It has powerful stimulating expectorant qualities that can loosen stuck phlegm or help to dry out copious amounts of phlegm. It is a warming, stimulating and bitter herb.
Elecampane root is especially pungent and bitter, so making an infused honey really helps the medicine go down. To make the honey, fill a jar with sliced fresh elecampane root, cover in honey, stir to get the air bubbles out, and let sit for at least three days for best results. I like to turn my jar over a couple times a day to help with mixing. This will keep in the fridge indefinitely and is a good thing to have on hand. I use elecampane honey for sore throats and coughs - a teaspoonful as needed.
Elecampane can also be taken as a tea or tincture. It works very well infused into port wine.
Garlic and onions are warming, antimicrobial, and stimulating expectorant herbs. You can make syrup or honey out of one or both of these spicy herbs for coughs and sore throats. Simply mince the herbs finely, fill a jar half full with them, then cover them with honey. In a couple days the honey will become more of a syrup consistency. Keep it in a cool place to avoid it fermenting. There is no need to strain the herbs but after a while they will be rubbery in texture. It’s best to make this up in small amounts so that you can use it as fresh as possible.
Slippery elm can be made into a gooey substance that can soothe an inflamed throat and lungs. To make gruel, place a tablespoon of powdered slippery elm into a pint of water and stir well. Occasionally stir this mixture until it has reached a thick slippery consistency. This nutritive gruel is an easily digestible food for those too weak to eat normal foods. Slippery elm can also be added to cooked oatmeal.
Slippery elm is an at risk plant. Look for sustainably cultivated sources or consider using Siberian elm as a substitute.
To make marshmallow tea put 1⁄4 cup of marshmallow root in a pint size jar. Fill this jar with cold to lukewarm water and let sit for a minimum of four hours. You will notice that this brew will get more mucilaginous and slippery with time. Strain when ready and drink as desired.
You can also simmer marshmallow root, although a lukewarm water extraction is considered to be a more pure extraction.
A popular remedy in Europe, especially in France where my mother in law drinks this daily, Linden flower tea is delicious and cooling to an inflamed throat and sore cough. Its antispasmodic qualities quell relentless coughs and Linden’s gentle nervine qualities can soothe the mind as well. Besides drinking linden flowers when sick, I love this sweet drink iced on hot dusty days. To make it I put one ounce of linden in a mason jar. Fill with freshly boiled water and let sit for two hours before straining. If using for a cough, I warm it before drinking.
In the herbal world plantain is most well known for its ability to draw poisons from the skin, as well as to heal rashes, eczema, and psoriasis. Besides being a magical healer externally, plantain tea internally can sooth a cough and help to bring up phlegm. It is also a demulcent herb that soothes inflamed mucous membranes – helpful when you’ve spent the last hour coughing so much your insides hurt.
Often thought of as only a culinary herb, thyme has a strong affinity for the lungs. It’s a stimulating expectorant that is great for wet congested coughs. I take my thyme or bee balm tea after it has infused for five minutes (covered).
Although mullein has a long list of varied uses, I primarily think of its leaves for those with chronic or acute respiratory problems. It’s been used for bronchitis, asthma, coughs, lung congestion, and throat inflammation for thousands of years. One of the best attributes of mullein is that it probably grows close to your front door. I gather the first year leaves of mullein (before a flower stalk springs from the center of the leaves) in the spring and summer while they are looking vibrant. Its thick woolly leaves can be hard to fully dry in a humid environment and they may need to be placed in a dehydrator.
I use the dried leaves for infusions – filling a mason jar a quarter of the way and then filling with freshly boiled water. To strain off the leaves I pour the mix through a finely woven stainless steel strainer additionally lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter. The abundant hairs on mullein leaves can actually irritate the throat and lungs if not properly filtered out.
Mullein leaves were traditionally smoked for lung issues. Although this may seem counterintuitive to the health of your lungs, this has been shown to be very effective, especially for deep spasming coughs. One way to do this is to burn mullein balls as incense and inhale the smoke (thanks to jim mcdonald for that tip).
California poppy is a fabulous antispasmodic herb that can effectively stop the dry spasmodic coughing that often gets worse at night. It can be used for children and adults and it is one of my most used herbs for people with whooping cough. I prefer it as a tincture, titrating the dose up until it is effective.
California Poppy can stop spasmodic coughing and promote sleep.
Wild cherry bark is famous for stopping those dry spasmodic coughs. I've used our local Prunus virginiana with great results. You can also commonly buy wild cherry herbal cough syrup such as this one.
Herbs are phenomenal at supporting a person when they have a cough. Rather than throwing in a “kitchen sink” of herbal remedies for coughs, the real effectiveness of herbal remedies for cough comes in the diagnosis of what kind of cough it is. Productive cough? Unproductive cough? Heat? Cold? Spasmodic?
By looking closer at the energetics of the mucus and the cough itself we can more effectively use home remedies for cough. Herbal formulas can be created to fit the person and the cough even more precisely. While our goal isn't always to stop coughing outright, it is to bring more comfort and, by supporting the natural functions of the body, shorten the duration of illness.
Finally, take a look at Sue Kusch's new article on natural cough remedy.
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Healand co-author of the bestselling book Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and has taught thousands of students through her online courses. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.