Dealing with coughs, colds and congestion

Home remedies

“I’ve had a cough for ages.”
“Anytime I get a cold, I get a chest infection.”
“My lungs are my weak spot. Is there something I can take?”

As a medical herbalist, I hear these things a lot. There are a few common medicinal herbs you probably already have in your house (or can easily get at your local shop) to keep your chest clear and your immune system strong. Here are seven home-helpers and a few tips on what to avoid.

Eight Remedies 

1. Garlic

No one who has garlic in the house should go down with a chest infection.  Crush the cloves and consume them raw for their expectorant and anti-infective actions.  Chewing them works, but it’s a bit like a bomb going off in your head; not everyone’s cup of tea. 

When the cloves are crushed and the cell walls broken, several potent compounds are formed, including sulphur compounds and specifically allicin.  The chemical reactions that occur when the cloves are crushed are what gives raw garlic its strong smell – lingering on the breath hours later, and also what accounts for the anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal, actions.

Because these chemicals are excreted through the lungs, they sort of disinfect the respiratory tract on their way out. In this way, garlic also helps you cough up stuck phlegm from deep in your lungs and allows you to get rid of stubborn infections. 

To use it medicinally, eating raw garlic in food is the simplest way.  The raw cloves can be quite irritating to the gut, so eating it as part of a meal is recommended.  Additionally, the anti-everything compounds are damaged or destroyed by heat, so use garlic in cold foods or add it at the table.

2. Cinnamon

Cinnamon is many people’s favourite spice, and a powerhouse of a medical herb.  Cinnamon improves circulation – particularly in the chest and abdomen; it’s anti-bacterial and anti-viral; helps dry up mucus and strengthen membranes; balances blood sugar levels; is delicious!

Cinnamon is particularly helpful when you feel chilled and phlegmy at the beginning of an infection.  Use cinnamon in tea or hot drinks to strengthen your immunity and help your body deal with invaders. If you don’t have cinnamon, use mixed spice, pumpkin pie spice, or mulled wine spices instead. 

All of them make a nice tea just with hot water – or use with a plant milk to make something comforting.  Because cinnamon has such a sweet flavour, honey is usually not necessary.

3. Thyme

Thyme is rich in essential oils (which are simply the aromatic principles of plants). Essential oils are universally antiseptic, which is one of the reasons plants make them: the strong chemicals in these prodigiously fragrant substances act as pest deterrents and medicines in the plants themselves. 

Thyme is particularly rich in them, and also happens to be particularly anti-viral and anti-bacterial.  Like Garlic, its powerful essential oil is excreted via the lungs, and so it clears infection from the respiratory tract – lungs, throat, nose, and sinuses – on the way out. 

Thyme is an indispensable herb for colds, coughs and respiratory viruses, and works very well in tea.  If you have some in your kitchen, great.  If not, though, and it’s an emergency, poultry seasoning will do.  A little lemon in the hot thyme tea helps with vitamin C, and a little honey can be helpful for a sore throat. 

4. Sage

For sore throats, sage is superb. It is drying (try it, you’ll see what I mean), and another herb high in essential oil. Sage is great for infections, and I’ve found it particularly effective for for mouth and throat infections. 

At the first sign of a throat tickle, make a strong cup of sage tea (or use poultry seasoning if that is what you have) and sip it. Add some honey and lemon if you like.  I tend to keep a cup of strong sage tea by the bed when I feel a sore throat coming on, and every time I stir in the night, I take a gulp. 

Normally, that is the end of the matter.  Sage can similarly be used by gargling as a mouthwash to heal up the mouth and throat. 

Thyme is particularly anti-viral and anti-bacterial

5. Echinacea

Echinacea is a well-known cliché but for good reason – it’s very effective. Echinacea is excellent when used at the very beginning of infections, at higher doses than you would expect, to nip them in the bud, or at least decrease both severity and duration of the illness. 

You can use capsules, tea, or liquid extracts.  The root of Echinacea angustifolia is the traditionally used part, and I have found that it works much better than the much cheaper and more cheaply produced leaves of E. purpurea.  If you can, get the good stuff and use the root. 

You can simmer the dried root (should you wish to buy it) or use a ready-made preparation. Whatever you wish to do, though, echinacea is well worth having on hand for when you feel a sickness coming on.  Alternatively, consider adding it to your daily supplement regime as immune support. 

you probably already have many medicinal herbs in your house

6. Vitamin C

Most people know about this, but it bears repeating that several 1000mg tablets or capsules of vitamin C when you feel something coming on can really help. 

Unlike many other nutrients, vitamin C is very safe even at high doses; if you overdose yourself, you’ll just get the runs or some cramps and a bit of an upset stomach. Definitely have some vitamin C on hand.

7. Vitamin D

This is a relatively recent entrant into the field of panaceas, but it can make a huge difference to a person’s health and immunity. 

Low vitamin D levels are linked with ill health – including autoimmune disease, and susceptibility to viral infections. While vitamin D is produced in our bodies from sunlight on our skin, the angle at which the light hits the skin has to be fairly close to 90 degrees.  Also, darker skins need a lot more sun exposure than lighter ones, because melanin is a sun-blocker.  Block sun, block skin cancer, but also block vitamin D production.

In the northern parts of the world, we don’t get enough sun over the year to produce the required level of vitamin D. So, if you live in the northern hemisphere in a country like the UK, supplementation, especially in winter, is a good idea.  For adults, 1000-5000IU daily is a good bet. 

Sugar, Dairy & Eggs

Lastly, there are a few things to avoid: sugar, dairy (cow’s milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.), and eggs. 

Sugar increases inflammation in the body, which is less than helpful if you already have inflammation from infection.  Consuming sugar also significantly depresses immunity in the short term, allowing a brewing infection to get a foothold. 

The health problems associated with sugar are well known, but are always worth mentioning: they include systemic inflammation – which is itself associated with chronic diseases and general ill health, diabetes and complex metabolic problems, lowered immunity, mood disturbances, digestive problems, weight gain, and a host of other scary things you don’t want. 

Dairy products and eggs both increase mucus production, so if you have a runny or stuffy nose and a phlegmy cough, they will make it noticeably worse. Lay off these foods until you are over your illness. If you are prone to respiratory infections, reducing your consumption of dairy and eggs longterm might help you manage it.

To Summarise

So, particular herbs – Garlic, Cinnamon, Thyme, Sage, and Echinacea – are good for coughs and colds. Vitamin C and D are both good as well.  Dairy and eggs are not so good. And sugar in this case is bad.

In terms of which is the best route for you – well the best medicine from this list is the one you actually have to hand. Stay healthy!

DisclaimerThis blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice.  If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, caring for young children or a person with a disability, taking medication, or living with a health problem, consult a herbalist or knowledgeable physician before using herbs, supplements or natural remedies.  Drugs can interact with herbal remedies, nutritional supplements, and even some foods, and some herbs are unsuitable in pregnancy or for young children. Consult a professional gif you have questions.

This self-care health hack is from Superfied expert herbalist Joseph Nolan

Find out more about the Superfied Way