Whether you've been busily flitting from wildflower to wildflower this past summer to gather your herbs or you are looking for a good local supplier of freshly dried and tinctured herbs, this is the time of year to take stock of your herbal supplies. The season of colds, coughs and flu brings infections, seasonal light deprivation, slumps in immune function and other problems that modern medicine has difficulty solving is at hand.
I dread taking my kids to a doctor for a checkup at this time of year because we're sure to catch something in the waiting room. And if someone in our family is sick with a viral infection, we're much better off staying home to rest with a cup of tea than we would be exposing ourselves (and others) to more problematic infections. As hard as doctors and nurses try (and they do try mightily) to combat bacteria, serious infections from antibiotic resistant bacteria are widespread in hospitals and spreading to all types of medical facilities. When you are already weakened by a virus, your chances of contracting a life-threatening resistant bacterial infection are higher.
As much as I love having a good doctor nearby, I would rather chat with her in line at the grocery story than visit her office. And one of the most important ways to avoid that office at this time of year is to know how to handle a cough on your own. Here are my tips:
Know your cough
There are two basic types of cough--a productive cough (where you are actually coughing up mucous) and a dry cough. And these different types need different approaches. While most of the pharmaceuticals sold over the counter attempt to suppress a cough at all costs, this can actually lead to worse infection and often simply doesn't work. With a productive cough, you don't need to be hacking and coughing all the time to get the troublesome mucous out. If you can loosen up the mucous a productive cough doesn't have to be a too unpleasant or last more than a few days.
In these posts, I try to stay away from terms that aren't clear to lay people, but there are two herbalist terms that are really worth learning. The first is "expectorant." An herb or a chemical compound that is an expectorant has the property of helping to loosen mucous and make it easier to cough out. You may feel like your cough is suppressed after taking an expectorant herb because you will not have to cough so many times in order to release the mucus, but in reality this type of herb does nothing to suppress a cough. It does, however, make it easier to breathe, prevent further infection, hasten the end of the cough and often reduce the frequency of coughing.
Herbs for a phlegmy, mucousy cough:
- Mullein leaf (good as tincture, syrup and tea and it's soothing as well)
- Thyme (my all-time favorite--makes a delicious tea and a good tincture as well)
- Ginger (a tasty and helpful addition to any cough tea)
- Eucalyptus (use one drop of essential oil in a steam bath to clear up congestion)
- Hyssop (a pleasant tea)
- Horehound (extremely bitter as a tea but can be made into taste cough drops)
- Garlic (fresh garlic is good sprinkled on soups and salads whenever you're sick)
- Horseradish root (It's possible that just smelling the fresh root will cure what ails you! Caution!)
- Elecampane flowers (good for cough syrups)
- Anise Seed
- Black Cohosh root
- Colt's Foot
For a dry, irritating cough
The other important term is "demulcent." An herb or compound that is demulcent will sooth mucous membranes and help get rid of irritations that cause dry, hacking coughs. This second type of cough--the dry cough--is the kind you do want to suppress. The cough itself doesn't do much to rid your body of mucous or infection. It simply serves to further irritate already inflamed places in your throat and airways. That's why this type of cough can go on for months and become chronic. It is often self-perpetuating and it disrupts sleep, further harming the body's ability to heal.
My husband has battled dry, chronic coughs in the winter for years and the remedie that has finally brought some relief is a combination of thyme, mullein and ground ivy tinctures along with syrup made from mullein leaves, plantain leaves, elecampane flowers and marshmallow flowers. You may have to experiment to find the right combination for a chronic cough but the most common demulcent herbs are:
- Mullein (For chronic coughs I find regular tincture to work best but if you can ensure that you drink the tea every day, that could work as well)
- Marshmallow flowers (not made into candy but rather into syrup)
- Plantain (helps to sooth whatever it can physically touch, so it is good for irritations close to the throat)
- Coltsfoot (another good tea)
- Lungwort (the flowers particularly make a nice tea)
- Slippery Elm
- Wild cherry bark (It's said to be a strong cough suppressant but I don't have personal experience with it.)
- Lemon, and honey (Drink a warm lemonade made with honey. It may only provide temporary relief but sometimes temporarily relief is all your body needs to recover.)
- Onion (you can make a syrup from cooked onion that is used widely for coughs in some parts of Eastern Europe.)
- Sage, peppermint and rose hips are good additions to many of these teas and syrups for the nutrients they provide when you are dealing with a chronic cough.
Another kind of cough is whooping cough and this is quite different from a the two other kinds of coughs. True whooping cough (pertussis) is a dangerous bacterial infection that can sometimes be fatal in infants. The signature sound of whooping cough is a cough followed by a whooping noise. The noise comes from the sick person (usually a small child) trying desperately to pull air in through swollen tissue. You can see the hollow at the base of the throat depress as the child strives to take a breath and this is a critical sign of danger.
My son had a cough like this when he was two and again last winter, although he wasn't treated with antibiotics at the time. Sometimes a whooping-type cough comes even when a child has been vaccinated against pertussis and it is frightening and possibly very dangerous. One of the ways that whooping cough is treated in an emergency room is to put the child into a cool steam tent. The reason is that the cool steam soothes the swollen tissue that makes it so difficult to breathe. This is also why many people start out to bring a child with a terrible whooping cough to an emergency room, only to have it disappear by the time they arrive, because of the exposure to the cool, damp air (given that most attacks of whooping cough occur at around 10:00 pm to midnight).
I learned this the first time my son had such a coughing attack and couldn't breathe. After trying several things that work with other types of cough (to no good effect), I took him out at night and the cough subsided within a half an hour. I didn't get much sleep the rest of the night but he did. The second time it happened, I didn't wait but immediately bundled him up and went outside, where I held him until the attack stopped. Interestingly enough, as a child of barely four, he cried and insisted that he didn't like the cold air. The cough was so powerful, he though he would vomit but couldn't and within ten minutes it passed.
Please be aware that I'm not a doctor and this isn't medical advice for any specific ailment. My experience shows that the only thing you can do at home for something resembling whooping cough is cool steam or night air. Otherwise, I would seek out professional medical attention.
Other times to seek out professional help with a cough
Coughs can be a symptom of a number of bacterial infections or other breathing problems. Beyond whooping cough, there are times to leave the home herb cupboard and find professional medical help, particularly if...
- There is a fever for more than several days,
- A fever, wheezing or headaches are severe or get worse rapidly,
- you develop fast breathing or chest pain,
- it is difficult to get a breath,
- you cough up blood or rusty-colored phlegm,
- you become sleepy or confused,
- a cough lasts for longer than four weeks or keeps coming back.
Please feel free to add your comments and experiences with herbal cough remedies in the comments.