That nagging cough may be due to a common cold or a number of
other infections. According to research or other evidence, the following self-care steps may
help you stop the coughing and care for your lungs:
- Try traditional herbs
- Relieve coughing with herbal remedies containing marshmallow,
sundew, thyme, coltsfoot, or slippery elm
- Get a checkup
- Visit your healthcare provider if your cough lasts longer than two
weeks, or if you think you are coughing up blood
These recommendations are not comprehensive and are not intended to replace
the advice of your doctor or pharmacist. Continue reading the full cough article for more
in-depth, fully-referenced information on medicines, vitamins, herbs, and dietary and
lifestyle changes that may be helpful.
A cough is a symptom of many diseases. Most coughs come from simple viral infections, such
as the common cold. Sometimes, but not always,
mucus is produced with the cough. If the color is green or yellow, it may be a hint of a
bacterial infection, although this is not
always a reliable indicator. If the color is red, there may be bleeding in the lungs. Any
cough that produces blood or blood-stained mucus, as well as any cough that lasts more than
two weeks, requires a visit to a medical professional for diagnosis.
Product ratings for a
Over-the-counter drug treatment involves the use of the antitussive dextromethorphan (DM), found in combination with other
drugs (Robitussin DM®, Mucinex DM®, Vicks 44 Cough Relief®). Coughing forces
the expectoration of infectious organisms and congested secretions; consequently, a cough
should not be suppressed during the day.
Prescription drugs used to suppress cough include combination products containing codeine (Robitussin AC®, Phenergan® with
Codeine) and hydrocodone (Vicodin Tuss®,
People with coughs lasting longer than a week, or associated with a fever, rash, or a
persistent headache should talk to their doctor. A chronic, persistent cough requires medical
attention in order to determine the underlying cause.
Herbs that may be helpful
A number of herbs have a rich history of use for treating coughs due to colds, bronchitis, or other mild conditions. Only a few
studies have examined the effectiveness of these herbs. However, their effectiveness is
well-known by practitioners of herbal medicine the world over. Among those herbs that have
been shown to have some degree of cough-relieving activity are marshmallow,1 sundew,2 and coltsfoot.3 Use of coltsfoot should be
limited to preparations of the leaves and flowers only, as the root is high in pyrrolizidine
alkaloids, constituents that may be toxic to the liver.
Thyme has a long history of use in Europe
for the treatment of dry, spasmodic coughs as well as for bronchitis.4 Many constituents in thyme
team up to provide its antitussive (preventing and treating a cough), antispasmodic, and
expectorant actions. The primary constituents are the volatile oils, which include the phenols
thymol and carvacol.5 These are complemented by the actions of flavonoids along with saponins. Thyme, either alone or
in combination with herbs such as sundew,
continues to be one of the most commonly recommended herbs in Europe for the treatment of dry,
spasmodic coughs as well as for whooping cough.6 Because of its apparent safety, it
has become a favorite for treating coughs in small children.
The active constituents in
anise(Pimpinella anisum), particularly the terpenoid anethole, give this plant a
delightful flavor. As an antispasmodic, it helps in gently relieving spasmodic
The mucilage of slippery elm gives it a
soothing effect for coughs. Usnea also
contains mucilage, which may be helpful in easing irritating coughs. There is a long tradition
of using wild cherry syrups to treat coughs.
Other traditional remedies to relieve coughs include bloodroot, catnip,
comfrey (the above-ground parts, not the root), horehound, elecampane, mullein,
lobelia, hyssop, licorice,
mallow, (Malvia sylvestris),red
clover, ivy leaf, pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides, Mentha
pulegium),onion, (Allium cepa),
and plantain (Plantago lanceolata, P.
major). None of these has been investigated in human trials, so their true efficacy for
relieving coughs is unknown.
The early 19th-century Eclectic physicians in the United States (who used herbs as their
main medicine) not only employed eucalyptus
oil to sterilize instruments and wounds but
also recommended a steam inhalation of the oil’s vapor to help treat asthma,
bronchitis, whooping cough, and emphysema.8
Are there any side effects or interactions?
Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.
Holistic approaches that may be helpful
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) may be
helpful in the treatment of a cough. Cupping (the use of a glass cup to create suction over a
skin surface) is a traditional Chinese therapy, often used for patients to help relieve a
cough. An uncontrolled study using cupping to relieve coughs reported a curative response in
35 of 41 patients.9 Other TCM therapies, including acupuncture and herbal medicine, may be helpful in
cough-producing ailments such as asthma and bronchitis.
1. Nosal’ova G, Strapkova A, Kardosova A, et al. Antitussive action
of extracts and polysaccharides of marshmallow (Althea officinalis L, var robusta).
Pharmazie 1992;47:224–6 [in German].
2. Schilcher H. Phytotherapy in Paediatrics. Stuttgart: Medpharm
Scientific Publishers, 1997, 38.
3. Wichtl M, Bisset N (eds). Herbal Drugs and
Phytopharmaceuticals. Stuttgart: Medpharm Scientific Publishers and Boca Raton, FL: CRC
4. Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients
Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996, 492–5.
5. Gruenwald J, Brendler T, Jaenicke C. PDR for Herbal
Medicines. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics, 1998, 1184–5.
6. Weiss RF. Herbal Medicine. Gothenburg, Sweden: Ab Arcanum and
Beaconsfield, UK: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd, 1988, 208–9.
7. Weiss RF. Herbal Medicine. Gothenberg, Sweden: Ab Arcanum and
Beaconsfield,UK: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd, 1985:203–4.
8. Castleman M. The Healing Herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press,
9. Liu X. Treatment of cough in children by cupping on back. J Tradit
Chin Med 1996;16:125.