An intense cold—when you can feel the mucus drip down your throat, have difficulty breathing, and have lost the ability to verbally articulate any thoughts because you're coughing every other word—is pure hell. During cold and flue season, the chances of getting sick are unfortunately pretty high. You can always go the conventional route and stock up on cough drops and cough syrup for a quick fix, or you can go the more natural route and try some remedies that you can find in your pantry. "Natural cough remedies lack many of the negative side effects experienced with pharmaceutical cough suppressants. Many of the pharmaceutical options leave one feeling drowsy with a dry mouth and have a rebound effect where the symptoms worsen once the drug wears off," says naturopathic doctor Tara Nayak.
"Natural cough and cold remedies are typically herbal formulas or vitamin formulas that have antiviral actions, immune-strengthening actions, and lung tissue support," says chiropractor, acupuncturist, and naturopath Gabrielle Francis. "They are not only are designed to kill infections, but they build the immune and heal the terrain. Conventional medicine is usually reducing fevers and cough suppressants or decongestants. They are treating the symptoms and not getting to the root cause."
Do they work just as well as conventional options? Both Nayak and Francis seem to think so. "The most common misconception about natural cough remedies is that they don't work," says Nayak. "However, most often, people are not taking the remedy often enough or not using a quality supplement/herb. The potency and dosage of a remedy can greatly affect its efficacy."
"If the fever is low and the cough is white phlegm, then it is most likely a virus and the natural remedies work very well," says Francis. "If the fever is high and the cough is yellow or green phlegm, then it is most likely bacteria and may need an MD to prescribe an antibiotic." As always, check with a doctor for any severe colds before solely depending on these natural remedies for treatment, but if you're looking to stay away from the medicines you find at your local drugstore, Nayak and Francis have given us some great options.
Scroll down to see the natural cough remedies they recommend.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Tara Nayak is a naturopathic doctor specializing in the treatment of complex chronic diseases (autoimmunity, allergy, cancer, etc.), digestive issues, and hormonal imbalances.
- Dr. Gabrielle Francis is a naturopath, acupuncturist, and chiropractor based in New York. She focuses on using naturopathic medicine to treat a broad range of maladies.
Try Some Essential Oils
Essential oils are a complex field to navigate, but scientific studies have found that they can help alleviate all manner of symptoms, from those than come with anxiety to the common cold. Of course, a few drops tend to go a long way—so be sure to read your labels.
For a cough remedy, Francis points to Herb Pharm's Herbal Respiratory Relief, an essential oil that "combines herbs that enhance immune function," she says.
Consume Mustard Seed
It might seem strange, but mustard seed—when mixed with water—can approximate a heating pad, according to Nayak.
"This is a comforting 'old folk' remedy that really works," says Nayak. "To do this, take ground mustard seed or powder and mix with warm water sufficient enough to make a thick paste (brownie batter consistency). Slather the paste between two damp paper towels or cheesecloth (something thin enough that the herb will still make contact with your skin). Place over your entire chest and cover with a low heating pad for 10 to 20 minutes before bed. For an added boost, rub a few drops of castor oil onto your chest before applying the plaster. The skin will turn a bit red, but don't worry! Remove if the warming sensation becomes uncomfortable."
Take N-Acetyl Cysteine
"For a cough with thick phlegm, I often use N-Acetyl Cysteine. This is an amino acid that is found easily over the counter in any local pharmacy or even grocery store. NAC is a powerful antioxidant that increases your body's natural production of glutathione (a strong antioxidant). However, I use it in coughs because it greatly thins out the mucus by breaking up the bonds of thick phlegm. Once the mucus is thinner, it is runnier and will be easier to clear out of your lungs. It's important to drink a ton of water when you have phlegm because this helps thin out the mucus as well," says Nayak.
Steam Inhalation Can Work Wonders
Saunas have been used for centuries, by cultures around the world who extoll the virtues of heat. According to Nayak, there's a reason for that. "I always recommend steam inhalation for deep coughs," she says.
She recommends adding two or three drops of high-quality essential oil—lavender, eucalyptus, or thyme are all great—to a bowl of gently boiled water. Lean your head over the bowl and cover with a towel to create a mini steam bath. "Careful not to get too close. We don't want any burns. The steam is comforting and soothing, though at first, you may cough a bit as your lungs get used to the moist, heated air. Essential oils can have soothing anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic effects. They can also help to open up the airways," says Nayak.
Try Demulcent Herbs
Demulcent herbs have long been used to treat irritated body tissue (when used on the exterior of the body, they're more often referred to as emollients). Used internally, they help sooth, too, by providing a protective film over an enflamed membrane.
"I like to use demulcent herbs to soothe the throat when there is a dry cough or a cough that is being irritated by post-nasal drip. Demulcent herbs include slippery elm, marshmallow, and licorice. The herbs have a high amount of mucilage that coats the mucous membranes of the throat to soothe that scratchy, raw, irritated feeling. I normally give these in the form of a tea that can be taken hot or iced. The key here is to brew the tea very strong and let it steep for a long period of time. I often make a big batch of the tea hot, start sipping 10 minutes later, and keep the herbs in while I sip it all day," says Nayak.
Take the Right Supplements
There are a number of herbs and supplements that can help defend the body against a cold. Francis recommends Gaia Herbs' Quick Defense blend, which contains extracts from the Echinacea root and high levels of alkylamides, which help support a quick immune response. Elderberry, ginger and andrographis also help to support the immune system.
"This combination of herbs soothes the lung and respiratory tracts by building the mucous membranes, soothing the lungs, and dissolving the phlegm in the lungs that causes coughs," says Francis.
Don't Be Afraid of Garlic
"Garlic is one of my go-to components of a good cough protocol," says Nayak. And yes, we know it's stinky. But that's because, according to Nayak, "the main route of excretion of garlic's volatile oils is through the lungs." In other words: the stench means it's working.
"Eating raw garlic can act as an antimicrobial boost to fight off any bacteria that may grow in the lungs while you're sick," continues Nayak. "The key here is to chop the garlic and let it sit for a few minutes because this actually activates the medicinal constituents."
What's the best way to get a lot of it in your diet? "I add raw garlic to a salad dressing or drink a juice called 'The Nasty' when I'm sick. 'The Nasty' (I don't know where this name originated) is basically a green juice with a bunch of dark leafy greens for high mineral/nutrient content such as kale, spinach, etc., cayenne, ginger, and raw garlic," says Nayak. "It's not for the faint of heart, but it definitely provides nutrients the immune system needs and that raw garlic punch."
Put Honey in Your Coffee
Nayak points to an Iranian study that found that "honey and instant ground coffee mixed together was actually as effective as a corticosteroid for reducing cough. The recipe given was for a bulk amount, but you can certainly scale it down and make this super-effective cough syrup. It's not exactly clear why these work better together than alone. Honey has some properties that scientists haven't yet figured out, and it has yet to be determined if caffeine (which is known to open up the lungs) is the benefit conveyed from the coffee."
"Thyme is widely known to have volatile oils that are antimicrobial but also help thin out mucus," says Nayak, adding that thyme "has long been known to treat upper respiratory infections, cough, etc."
Of course, munching on raw thyme probably doesn't interest you. Instead, Nayak recommends turning the leafy herb into a tea. "The best way is to add a tea/decoction of fresh thyme to some fresh lemon juice and honey. To make the decoction, simply pour hot (not boiling) water enough to cover fresh herb (a cup). Let this steep for 20 minutes before adding to other ingredients. Sip all day long," she says.
Don't Forget About Ol' Reliable: Cough Syrup
Cough syrups work by loosening secretions and reducing the cough reflex—so even if they don't necessarily cut a cough short, they can lessen the symptoms.
Francis recommends Bronchial Wellness Syrup, by Gaia Herbs. "This combination of herbs is antiviral, antibacterial, and antimicrobial, and it strengthens the immune and antibody responses to infection," says Francis.