By Dr. James T. Belanger
Botanical medicines can be very effective for treating coughs. A cough, however, could indicate a serious condition such as pneumonia or whooping cough and should be diagnosed before proceeding with herbal treatments. This article is for information only and it is best to see a practioner trained in herbal medicine rather than trying to treat yourself.
There are many kinds of coughs and there are specific herbs to treat every kind. Some coughs are dry and irritable and others are wet and productive. Some are located above the voice box and some are deeper in the chest. Certain coughs may be spastic in nature and produce soreness in the chest. Other coughs may produce thick, sticky mucus which is difficult to expectorate.
Selecting the proper herb(s) based on the quality of the cough is important. Dry, irritating coughs which are above the voice box are best treated with a class of herbs called demulcents. These include plants such as Althea officinalis (Marshmallow root), Ulmus fulva (Slippery Elm bark), Plantago lanceolata (Plantain leaf), Tussilago farfara (Coltsfoot leaf & flowers) and Verbascum thapsus (Mullein leaves & flowers).
These plants contain a substance called mucilage which coats the upper respiratory tract relieving the inflammation and soothing the irritation.
All of these herbs should be prepared as teas in order to be effective. The active components from Marshmallow root and Slippery Elm bark should be extracted with cold water and one should use the fresh juice of Plantain leaves. Coltsfoot should not be used long term.
Dry, irritating coughs which are at or below the voice box can also be treated with the demulcent herbs. In addition, these types of coughs can be treated with the plant Prunus serotina (Wild Cherry bark) or with a class of herbs called sedative expectorants. Wild cherry bark contains a substance called prunasin which can relieve irritation in the air passages. It should only be used in small doses.
The class of herbs called the sedative expectorants relieve dry, irritating coughs at or below the voice box by increasing the amount of respiratory fluid. These herbs are also very good at moistening thick, sticky mucus and helping expectoration. Plants in this class include Cephalis ipecacuanha (Ipecac), Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot), Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice root) and Lobelia inflata.
Ipecac in small, frequent doses is very effective in relieving the cough and clearing the mucus from croup, pertussis and childhood bronchitis. The doses needed are much less than the dose required to produce nausea and vomiting. Bloodroot is more indicated for dry coughs in adults which produce a sense of constriction in the throat or a tickling sensation.
It is used primarily for acute bronchitis or laryngitis after the active inflammation has subsided. Licorice root can be added to any one of these herbs to make them taste better and it also has the ability to relieve the irritation and quiet the cough. It should not be used
long term because it may cause high blood pressure.
The sedative expectorant herb, Lobelia is not only good at moistening thick phlegm associated with whooping cough and acute bronchitis, but it can relieve any sense of tightness in the chest associated with the cough. This herb and several other herbs are categorized as bronchial antispasmodics. They can help reduce bronchial tightness produced as a reflex to respiratory tract irritants.
These herbs include Asclepias tuberosa (Pleurisy root), Sticta pulmonaria (Lungwort), Grindelia robusta (Gum plant), Drosera rotundifolia (Sundew), Trifolium pratense (Red Clover flowers) and Ephedra sinica. Each one of these plants has specific indications. Pleurisy root, Lungwort and Grindelia, for example, are good for tight, painful coughs with sore chest muscles. Lungwort is especially indicated if there is also wheezing and soreness in the back of the neck and shoulders.
Sundew and Red Clover are most indicated for the hacking, explosive coughs associated with whooping cough and measles and for the dry, irritable coughs from bronchitis. Ephedra is best for coughs associated with bronchial asthma or emphysema because of it’s ability to dilate the air passages and increase the inflow of oxygen. Ephedra should not be taken in patients with high blood pressure or heart problems.
Wet, productive coughs associated with large quantities of purulent mucus and a persistent high fever may indicate pneumonia and require antibiotics. In all types of wet, productive coughs, however, herbs can help the body overcome the infection.
Plants such as garlic and thyme contain substances called volatile oils which go to the lungs and can help facilitate expectoration. These plants also have an antiseptic action. Other herbs such as Inula helenium (Elecampagne), Eriodictyon californicum (Yerba santa) and Verbascum thapsus (Mullein) are also excellent for coughs associated with abundant expectoration. Elecampagne is especially useful if there is vomiting associated with the coughing and pain beneath the sternum.
In conclusion, there are many types of coughs which can be effectively treated with properly selected botanical medicines. These herbs, especially if used in combination, can help lessen the symptoms of the respiratory tract infection and speed up the recovery process. In addition, if used correctly, these plant medicines have no side effects. For best results, the cough should be properly diagnosed before beginning any herbs and be treated by a doctor trained in botanical medicines.