Wednesday, 8 June 2016

What to do with a cough?



Coughs are very close to my heart. I live with a man who suffers with a long term cough after every virus. If he’s overtired, his throat muscles can be irritated by something in his food and coughing can ensue. I could lose a lot of sleep from his coughing fits if I didn’t do something to help!

Two of our three children had whooping cough where the effects lasted for twelve months. We got very good at rushing upstairs with a bowl the minute we heard the first cough! I've worked alongside people with asthma and have dealt with children to defer asthma attacks. My eldest son had a childhood friend with cystic fibrosis. I worked as patient representative in a regional review of lung cancer services for three years and learned many things about the importance of early diagnosis.

Coughs are a normal response to irritation or congestion. The approved medical wisdom is that most coughs are harmless and should heal themselves within three weeks. Three weeks is quite a long time to be without sleep or exhausted because of the cough. Herbs can help.

Before you decide whether or not to do anything there are some questions which need answering first.

  • When did the cough start? 
  • Have you suffered with a virus recently? Influenza? Whooping cough?
  • What does the cough sound like? Is it in the throat? Is it dry and non-productive? Is there a "harrumph" kind of sound like asthma sufferers have? Does it start high up and deepen so that the person ends up either retching or actually vomiting but without the characteristic whoop of whooping cough?
  • Is the cough triggered by eating or by lying down?
  • Does the cough happen after experiencing heart burn?
  • Does the cough bring up any phlegm? (i.e. a productive cough) What colour is it?
  • Do you feel breathless after coughing?
  • Do you bring up any blood?


Sometimes it’s a good thing to get a medical diagnosis and further tests.

  • If the cough produces yellow or green phlegm see your doctor as there is probably an infection which may be deep in your lungs e.g. bronchitis or pneumonia.
  • If the cough has been going on for more than three weeks or is getting worse, see your doctor.
  • If you are breathless after coughing or have trouble breathing
  • If the cough has been going on for three months and you've seen your doctor insist on a chest x-ray.
  • If the cough is caused by heartburn, see your doctor.
  • If you are coughing up blood, see your doctor.
  • If you are asthmatic but are coughing all the time, get your medication checked. You may need your prescription changing or to change the way you take it.


Coughs can actually be a good thing. They expel particulars which reach your windpipe. They get rid of the excess mucous which has been produced by your body in response to a virus.

If a cough is productive and deep you may want to do something to help it. Elecampane root infused in honey can really help to get deep stuff up and out. The roots can be left in the honey and chewed. Nasty thick stuff which is infected also responds well to mullein leaf given as a tea but filter before drinking to remove any hairs.

A standard cough mixture can be made from a combination of equal parts of hyssop, white horehound and marshmallow leaf or root. This is a very old recipe and will both relax and soothe tissue. If you have a really inflamed/sore chest from lots of coughing, add plantain which will soothe inflamed tissue and rehydrate it.

General Cough Syrup Recipe
(from Non Shaw and Christopher Hedley's Herbal Remedies)
1 l (2 pints) water
40 g (1 1/2 oz) dried herb or 100 g  (4oz) fresh chopped herb
450 g (1 lb) sugar
Put herb in water, bring to a boil, let simmer 20-30 minutes, strain.
Clean out pan, pour liquid back into it, let sit on minimum heat until
you only have 2 dl (7 fl.oz) left Add sugar, simmer until sugar has dissolved, pour into jars, label. (This takes time. 1 fluid ounce evaporates about every hour.)

Judith’s cough syrup
1 handful each of dried horehound, marshmallow, sage and thyme
½ handful dried hyssop
Fresh orange peel diced.
1” root ginger grated.
2 pints water
Place everything in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer with the lid on for 20-30 minutes. Strain and measure the liquid (1.5 UK pints). After cleaning the saucepan, return the liquid and add 1lb 8 ozs sugar. Heat slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring syrup to the boil and pour into sterilised bottles, seal, label and date.

Cough syrups for children can be made from violet flowers or onions or thyme (don't give to under 2s).

Violet flower Syrup
Fill a clean glass jar with violet flowers, cover with boiling water and leave overnight with the lid screwed on. The next day, strain and measure the infused liquid. Don’t worry if it looks and smells strange. For every 7fl ozs of liquid add 5 ozs of sugar. Add the juice of at least half a lemon. The liquid will turn the most delightful shade of pink! Put all the ingredients into a pan and bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes. Pour the resulting syrup into a sterilized bottle or jar, seal, label and date. Store in the fridge and discard if it starts going moldy. The suggested dosage for a child’s cough or slight constipation is 1-2tsps given at bedtime. If you are making this for a child under two years old and usually make your syrups with honey, use sugar this time.

If someone, either a child or an adult is exhausted from coughing and can’t sleep, try using an onion poultice. This method is taken from Kiva Rose Hardin's excellent article on Onions.

Onion Poultice
An onion poultice made from sautéing a chopped onion in oil until transparent, then thickening the mixture with flour. Spread the resulting paste on muslin or a clean piece of old cotton sheet and cover to retain the heat. Lay the poultice on the front or back of the chest with a hot water bottle next to it to keep it warm. Cover with a towel and leave on the skin for 15-20 minutes. Remove and apply a good chest rub.

Coughs in the throat, especially dry coughs respond well to sage and thyme. This can be made into a tea or an elixir

Post viral tea
Infuse 1tsp dry sage with 1 tsp dried thyme with 1inch grated root ginger in a lidded container with just boiled water for ten minutes then strain and pour onto the juice of half a lemon and honey to taste.

Cough Elixir
I make my elixir with fresh sage and thyme (enough to fill a 2lb glass jar) plus 2-3 sprigs of white horehound fresh or dried. Pour over 1lb of honey. Stir to remove any air bubbles then fill the jar to the brim with brandy, stirring well. Leave for 4-6 weeks shaking when you can. Cherry bark and hyssop both relax constricted tissue so are good for dry coughs and could be added to any cough mixture or elixir.

Onion syrup is another simple recipe which is suitable for children. This is KivaRose Hardin’s recipe

Simple Onion Syrup
1 Cup roughly chopped fresh onion
Small handful of fresh or dried Sage or Thyme or Monarda (or equal amount of fresh chopped White Fir, Abies concolor, needles). (Optional)
Juice of half a lemon (Optional)
1 tsp freshly grated Ginger root (Optional)
Enough honey to cover herbs
Place the onion and other herbs in a jar, cover with honey, stir to remove air bubbles and cover. Let it sit overnight. The honey will very effectively suck all the juice out of the onion.  Use by the teaspoonful beginning the next morning. Some people like to eat the onion bits with the honey and some people prefer to strain the solids out. It’s up to you.

Steaming
Coughs caused by post nasal drip can be helped by steaming. Pour boiling water into a bowl with eucalyptus leaves or essential oil (a few drops only) or sage or rosemary or pine needles. Lean over the bowl, trapping the steam in by placing a towel over the head and stay like this until the water is no longer giving off steam. Be very careful not to get burned! For greatest effectiveness, this must be done four times a day for ten minutes for at least 7 days straight.

Sore Throats
Sore throats caused by coughing can be really helped by sipping cider vinegar and honey in hot water (2tps of each in a mugful of water). Infused sage vinegar is really nice and you could add it to rosehip honey or elecampane honey for improved effect.

In our household, coughs happen every year and often last for several months. They can be loud and debilitating for the entire family, not just the sufferer. It's a good idea to make your infused honeys, vinegars and elixirs well before winter sets in and to have a store of dried herbs in the cupboard so they can be reached quickly. Now is the time to discover what you have in the larder and make new remedies.

4 comments:

Vera said...

Excellent and informative post. I tend to have lingering coughs and have started drying herbs from our smallholding so I can make infusions for when I next have a cough. In fact it was the coughing which started me off with researching herbal remedies.

Lyssa Medana said...

I have book marked this post. I have a cough around every five years or so and each time it is mild and lingering and drives me nuts! Thank you! x

Nanna Chel said...

Thanks so much Sarah. I will save this info for future reference as it might be needed this winter which has only just started.

Karina Rheaume said...

Thank you for the information! I will try some of these recipes next time I get a cough. My husband always gets a cough during allergy season. It's harmless but annoying to him and me. I will have him try the steaming method you mentioned with eucalyptus leaves. Thanks again for the tips on dealing with coughs!