Fiann Ó Nualláin looks at the natural ways to suppress, expel, or just sooth a cough
The original sign for a pharmacy or chemist shop, before the green cross, was an illustration or carving of coltsfoot aka Coughworth (Tussilago Farfara)
That plant has a long herbal tradition of suppressing coughs, expelling mucus and soothing irritated membranes. The roots as well as the buds, flowers, and leaves were all utilised in preparations to deliver mucilage and a demulcent action.
Tussilgo is included in some traditional Chinese preparations to alleviate asthma, bronchitis, laryngitis, lung congestion and even influenza. It has fallen out of favour with modern herbalists due to the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids and potential hepatotoxic and the discovery of more effective medicines and herbs.
So what else is there out there worth looking at as a replacement? Well first, lest look at what a cough is. It is fair to say that a cough is more often than not the consequence of a condition than a condition itself, though we often rush to treat it in isolation from underlying symptoms and triggers.
Really a cough is just a natural reaction to irritation of the throat, trachea or bronchial tubes, helping to expel any irritating material or mucus accumulations.
Coughing can also be triggered by swallowing dust or animal hairs (whether you’re allergic or not), the catching of too dry food or the bronchial impact of cold or infection. Sometimes a glass of water is the cure; other times you need to address the asthma, cold or flu causing the cough.
To deal with the cough itself, we have many routes to take, be it prescription, over the counter, herbal or kitchen concocted. To choose the most effective remedies, it’s worth understanding the terminology around them.
Antitussive means cough suppressant; expectorant means to loosens mucus and expel; demulcents are soothing to irritated bronchial tubes. Many cough sweets and syrups, apart from having a medicinal value (suppressive or expelling), do good by being demulcent.
One of my favourite plants and a most effective yet gentle herb is Heartsease — a tea of the aerial parts is somewhat expectorant and a petal smoothie (a few heads blended with a strawberry and green tea) has both mucilage properties and phytochemicals soothing to the chest.
Most bronchial herbs are either antitussive or expectorant by action but also somewhat demulcent in their delivery if used in syrup or saliva-stimulating if rendered into sucking sweets. All are great as sipping teas.
In the bronchial herbs cannon, those with antitussive action include angelica, liquorice, horehound, hyssop, thyme, goldenseal, wild cherry bark, garlic and ginger. The best
expectorants include elderflower, elecampane root, fennel, fenugreek, black cohosh root, bloodroot, couch grass, slippery elm, peppermint, horseradish root and speedwell. While the elite demulcent herbs include aloe vera, burdock, marshmallow, couch grass, liquorice, coltsfoot, goldenseal, elecampane, slippery elm and hyssop. Note the overlap.
Herbs that are more applicable to dry coughs include mallow, mullein and liquorice root while mucus or congested coughs benefit from cowslip or thyme added to the preparation of teas, syrups or cough drops.
Thyme is great to infuse in honey and have straight from the spoon — the honey being antimicrobial will work to rid you of the viral or bacterial cause, without you trying to even figure which one you have.
A friend of mine swears by garlic syrup but we know he is there before the doorbell rings, and so if don’t fancy the idea of that, then honey and lemon is a powerful staple to soothe the throat and boost the immune system.
Grapes are somewhat expectorant but also have a tonic effect on your lungs – the juice of grapes can be made into a cough syrup. Raw or cooked onions are also recommended for removing phlegm.
I myself like the mucus busting effects of ginger tea and homemade ginger ale — the former heating the system and clearing the airways too. Aniseed and cinnamon are also two good spices to soothe sore throats and alleviate
coughing and can be used in any of the recipes below for extra flavour and extra health kick.
Grape Juice and Honey Cough Syrup
Grape juice and honey are brilliant soothers with clearing potential.
Method: Bring to a frothy boil three parts by volume of honey to one part by volume of grape juice.
Simmer for five minutes to reduce.
Decant to a container and allow to cool before use.
This stores for a week in the fridge. Can be taken from a spoon several times daily to ease symptoms and soothe the throat.
The ingredients reduce phlegm, suppress cough spasms and decrease irritation and inflammation.
Method: In a saucepan bring the grape juice and spices to a frothy boil, then add the lemon juice, honey and sugar, stirring constantly.
Simmer for 10–15 minutes or until a thick syrupy texture forms. Remove from the heat.
Spread out a sheet of parchment paper and dust with about a tablespoon of caster sugar.
Next simply spoon some drops of the thick syrup onto the sheet to form little buttons.
You can dust the tops with the remaining castor sugar or with cinnamon if you prefer.
If you are happy with the shapes, simply allow them to fully set into suckable medicated lozenges.
Or you can allow them to cool enough to handle and then roll them into balls or use shaped moulds.
The sweets may stick together in warm environments, so a dusting of cornflour after setting will help prevent that.
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