By Barbara Heller (BHpurple.aol.com) and Carolyn Mohney (Ccmoherb.aol.com)
Coughs are one of the main signs of a respiratory tract disease and also a very common symptom associated with a variety of physical problems. For example, a cough may be the result of an infection, or a defensive response to inhaled irritants like cigarette smoke, or an allergy symptom. Coughs may also signify a more serious illness like chest tumors or lung congestion from heart insufficiency. Chronic coughs, like any chronic symptom, should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
In this article we will discuss the herbal treatment of "ordinary, common" coughs. Coughing, itself, may be beneficial since it helps clear the airways for us to breathe better. We generally treat the cough symptoms when the cough is unproductive or it becomes irritating to the throat or chest. We are partial to herbal treatments which are easily available and have few cautions associated with them.
Herbal treatment will include teas and tinctures, steams, and cough drops and syrups. The latter have more direct contact with the throat and are locally soothing. Some are store-bought; others can be made at home from garden or wildcrafted plants.
Common-sense aids for coughs include reducing ones exposure to irritants like smoke, drinking more fluids and increasing moisture throughout the household. Individual steam inhalation can be very helpful too:
- Fill a basin with hot water and a handful of fresh or dried herbs (or 3 drops of an appropriate essential oil). "Tent" a towel over your head and the basin so you can carefully breathe in the healing warmth and aroma. Suggested herbs include sage, eucalyptus, peppermint, or hyssop.
Some of the medicinal properties we look for in cough remedies include the following: anti-tussives, which prevent coughing; suppressants, which limit the coughing reflex; expectorants, which help remove excess mucous from the respiratory system; and demulcents, which heal inflamed tissue. Herbal antihistamines are helpful in the treatment of postnasal-drip coughs due to allergies. Immunostimulants and antibiotics may be used to build up the system and fight infection.
Echinacea (angustifolia or purpurea), primarily in tincture form, is highly recommended at the first sign of a cold, flu, or cough. Considered "the herbalists herb" it receives high praises as an immunostimulant and antibiotic. Revered by Native Americans, it is easy to grow in the garden where its common name is the purple coneflower. (Note: wild echinacea is being overharvested; consideration to its source is important.)
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is my specific favorite for coughs. Dr Weil, in Natural Health, Natural Medicine, recommends tincture of mullein to relieve chest congestion and dry, bronchial coughs. He also states that the plant has no known toxicity. So it is a remedy I feel confident using with my family. Whenever my adolescent daughter gets a cold or flu, it seems to settle in her chest as a cough. This year we have treated the coughs with mullein tincture and the symptoms diminished quickly. Mullein is a beautiful biennial plant that grows wild in the Eastern US. In present-day herbal medicine its primary form is as a tincture. Historically, Native Americans smoked dried mullein and coltsfoot cigarettes as a remedy for asthma and bronchitis. If used as a tea, it should be well-strained because the small hairs of this fuzzy plant can be irritating.
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), whose botanical name Tussilago means "cough dispeller", is not surprisingly another very popular cough remedy. A nice image of the flower is evoked by Grieve in her statement that it was painted on the doorpost of the apothecarie's shop. This is the first blooming wildflower in our area of upstate NY; it flowers before its leaves appear. The flowers and leaves are used medicinally for their demulcent and expectorant properties. Coltsfoot has traditionally been used to treat coughs, whooping cough, asthma, excess mucous, bronchitis, and laryngitis. Because of its low-level of livertoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (the same controversial substance found in comfrey), coltsfoot is recommended for only short-term use. Use as a tea or a tincture.
Herbalist David Hoffmann (in his book The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal) recommends a cough tea made of equal parts of mullein, coltsfoot, and licorice:
- An infusion of 1 tablespoon of the mixed herbs is steeped in one cup of water. Sip 3 cups of this brew throughout the day.
Licorice(Glycyrrhiza glabra) and marshmallow (Althea officinalis) are included in cough remedy recipes for their demulcent qualities. They are soothing herbs that reduce inflammation and add flavor. In additon, licorice itself may have an anti-tussive effect similar to codeine for cough suppression, without the side-effects of codeine. A reminder here to be aware of the cautions of the various herbs added to a mix - in this case, licorice may have its own side-effects. Specifically, it is not recommended for continued use by people with high blood pressure.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), a very common culinary herb also has medicinal properties qualifying it as a wonderful cough remedy. Thymol, thyme's volatile oil with antiseptic, antibiotic, and expectorant properties, is used in commercial cough syrups. At home, one can benefit from these properties by drinking a hot tea of thyme or a mixture of thyme and plantain; or by drinking a small amount of water with a few drops of thyme tincture. Do not use thyme oil as a home remedy. Even a few teaspoonfuls can be toxic. In Germany, thyme is used to treat coughs, whooping cough, and emphysema.
"German medical herbalist Rudolph Fritz Weiss, M.D. writes: 'Thyme is to the trachea (windpipe) and the bronchia what peppermint is to the stomach and the intestines.'" (Quoted in M Castleman, The Healing Herbs).
Elecampane (Inula helenium) is also considered an important resource as an expectorant and anti-tussive. It can be taken on a long-term basis and is helpful for healing the irritating bronchial cough as well as for asthma. Elecampane is a wonderful garden plant of tall stature that bears bright yellow, sunflower-like flowers (one of its "nicknames" is wild sunflower); it can also be harvested wild. A tea or tincture is made from the dried root gathered in the fall.
Most contemporary herbalists recommend horehound (Marrubium vulgare) and hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) for treating minor respiratory problems - coughs, colds, and bronchitis. In addition to horehound's expectorant and demulcent qualities, as an antispasmodic it helps to relax the coughing spasms so common with bronchitis. The added sweetness of horehound candy/coughdrops that are available commercially make the very bitter herb more accessible. Or one can obtain horehound's healing qualties with a tea, tincture, or syrup. Hyssop is similar in chemical makeup and function to horehound but is much less bitter. Both of these herbs mix well with peppermint. Tea formulas for colds might also combine them with yarrow and elder.
Some other herbs that can be helpful in treating coughs are: wild cherry bark, violets, osha, bee balm, slippery elm, nasturtium, red clover and plantain.
Wild cherry bark (Prunus serotina) continues to be a favorite ingredient in cough and cold remedies, primarily due to its sedative effect on the respiratory system. Susun Weed suggests a homemade violet flower syrup (Viola tricolor, Viola odorata and others) for cough treatment which turns a beautiful lavender shade but is a very labor-intensive remedy to make. Bee balm (Monarda didyma and other Monarda species) was another Native American remedy for coughs and headcolds, drunk as a tea three times a day. The Peruvian Indians utilized the natural antibiotic qualities of nasturtium leaves (Tropaeolum majus) to treat coughs. The leaves were eaten fresh daily or drunk as a tea. And last, Native Americans also used slippery elm bark as a tea, gargle, or by chewing on small pieces of the bark to soothe the annoying symptoms of a cough.
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) and plantain (Plantago major and lanceolata) are two very common wild plants in the area we live and write, the Northeastern US. Red clover is an expectorant and anti-spasmodic especially good for children (over the age of 2) with whooping cough. A tea of the dried flower tops is the most convenient; a tincture may also be used. The expectorant and demulcent qualities of plantain are often used in teas for bronchitis and whooping cough.
One cough syrup you can make at home is Kathy Kevilles Homemade Honey Cough Syrup:
1 tablespoon licorice root
1 tablespoon marshmallow root
1 tablespoon plantain leaf
1 teaspoon thyme leaf
1 pint water
4 tablespoons honey
4 ounces glycerin
1/8 teaspoon anise essential oil (optional)
Prepare a triple-strength tea by simmering the herbs in water for 10 minutes, then steeping for 20 minutes. Strain the tea, then stir in honey and glycerin while the tea is still warm. Add optional essential oil. Take 1 tablespoon at a time. Stored in a cool place, this syrup will keep for 2 weeks. In the refrigerator, it will keep for several months.
This recipe is suitable for children, but not for infants, who should not have honey.