Plants have been used in traditional medicine for several thousand years. Perhaps you too, remember a time when your mother or grandmother would turn to age-old natural remedies for coughs or other sicknesses you encountered as a child.
The truth is, is that many of the drugs synthesized today are derived from, or inspired by compounds found in plants (used to treat similar ailments). Aspirin, for example, is modeled after the naturally occurring polyphenol salicylic acid — a compound found in a handful of plants like white willow, wintergreens and birch.
The use of herbal medicines and phytonutrients has been increasingly expanding over the years, with many people now resorting to these products for treatment of various health challenges. This past decade has witnessed a major surge in acceptance and public interest in natural therapies both in developing and developed countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 60% of the world’s population depends on traditional medicine and 80% of the population in developing countries depends almost entirely on traditional medicine practices and herbal medicines as part of their culture and primary health care needs.
Perhaps, then, mother nature wasn’t so wrong after all.
What Triggers Lung Infections?
Our lungs can become irritated when nerve endings in our airways come into contact with substances like dust, pollen, viruses and bacteria. We’re exposed to these substances everywhere, but particularly when indoor air quality is poor.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the air in homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than outdoor air. This is especially problematic during the cooler months when individuals spend more time indoors than outdoors. Indoor air pollution can come from materials or substances that release gases or particles into the air like building materials, mold, mildew, dust mites, air fresheners, personal care products, laundry sheets – you name it.
When you breathe in, particles suspended in the air enter the nose, but not all of them reach the lungs. The nose is an incredibly efficient filter, and most large particles are stopped by the tiny hairs that line nose, until they are removed by forcefully blowing or sneezing.
Smaller particles, like ultra-fine particles, viruses and bacteria, are able to pass by these tiny hairs in our nose and enter the lungs. Once in the lungs, mucus is produced to capture the tiny particles, which is then moved upward and out into the throat, where it is either coughed up and spat out, or swallowed.
Sometimes, however, dust and other particulate matter or infections can reach the air sacs and lower part of the airways where there are no cilia to move mucus-trapped matter up and out of the lungs. In this case, special cells called macrophages are released as the first line of defense. These cells essentially swallow the foreign particles and then move themselves up towards the cilia where they can be expelled from the body. This might take a day, or weeks until the body has had time to clear up whatever it is breathing in. If you live in a place where air quality is poor, you might be chronically stuffed up, sneezing, or coughing.
During this whole process, our lungs can become extremely irritated, leading to inflammation of the trachea (tracheitis), bronchi (bronchitis) or sinuses (sinusitis).
If you suffer from any of the following symptoms, it is very likely that your respiratory system is compromised:
– Dry cough (nagging tickle in the throat, no mucus or phlegm, chest feels clear with no wheezing or congestion, cough sounds dry and is worse at night or when laying down)
– Wet cough (heavy, boggy feeling in the lungs, copious amounts of phlegm and mucus, wheezing or difficulty breathing, worse in the morning)
– Excess mucus
– Nasal congestion
– Pain or pressure behind the face
– Runny nose
– Scratchy or sore throat
Plant Properties for Lung Health
The many different properties of plants can be applied for conditions that might afflict our lungs.
For example, when someone has a dry cough, they would want to stick with demulcent herbs, which help promote moisture in soft tissues to soothe incessant coughing.
If someone has a wet cough, they would want to focus on expectorant herbs, which encourage the lungs to release mucus instead of suppress it.
When it comes to the lungs, these are the plant properties you want to focus on (1, 2, 3). Remember, some plants have properties that may classify them in one group, as well as another. So don’t be confused if you see any overlap:
1. Demulcent Herbs
How They Work: demulcent herbs help promote moisture in soft tissues. These herbs contain mucilaginous components that are used for their soothing effects on irritations of the membranes lining the throat. Coughs due to acute inflammation (like dry cough) or from phases of increased irritability (such as the case with chronic bronchitis) can be treated with demulcent herbs.
Plant Examples: coltsfoot, licorice root, marshmallow, mullein, plantain, slippery elm.
2. Expectorant Herbs
How They Work: there are three main categories of expectorants which are important to distinguish. In general, expectorants increase the amount of respiratory fluid secretions. They can be classified as sedative or stimulant expectorants or respiratory tonics (amphoterics).
- Stimulating expectorants are used in cases of excessive mucous production (aka. productive coughs). They help decrease the thickness of the secretions in productive coughs, thus aiding their expulsion. They also inhibit bacterial growth through their antiseptic effects.
Plant Examples: bloodroot, elecampane, eucalyptus, garlic, hyssop, licorice, lobelia, oregano, peppermint, sage, thyme.
- Sedative expectorants are used for dry coughs to increase respiratory fluid, which produces a demulcent effect on the respiratory membranes. They soothe bronchial spasms and loosen mucus secretions. They are used when the membrane is dry, sensitive, reddened, and swollen, or when there is thick, scanty, adherent mucus in the airway tubes.
Plant Examples: bloodroot, cayenne, coltsfoot, fenugreek, holy basil, licorice, lobelia, marshmallow, mullein, plantain.
- Respiratory tonic or amphoterics may be stimulating or soothing, depending on the body’s need. They often aid in the regeneration of damaged or inflamed lung tissue.
Plant Examples: golden seal, horsetail, licorice, plantain.
3. Anti-Spasmodic Herbs
How They Work: these herbs are natural cough suppressants, so they help you get a good night’s rest if you have a tickling dry cough when lying down
Plant Examples: mullein, red clover, thyme and valerian root.
4. Immunity Boosting Herbs
How They Work: in cases of bacterial or viral pneumonia or bronchitis, herbs that enhance immunity are useful to stimulate the body’s response to overcome infection. These herbs can also be taken for viral cold and influenza.
Plant Examples: echinacea, golden seal, holy basil, mullein and plantain.
17 Natural Remedies for Cough and Other Lung Infections
Dealing with lung irritations can be quite a bummer, that’s why I’ve curated a list of my favorite natural remedies for cough and other lung infections. The best part is, is that these remedies actually work, and have proven properties that actually get to the source of our lung problems.
1. Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
What it does: demulcent, sedative expectorant, antibacterial
Main Benefits: mullein can help with dry or wet cough, lung weakness, bronchitis, asthma, respiratory constriction and chest colds. It helps remove excess mucus from the lungs, and soothes the mucus membranes via its emollient properties. The flowers and leaves of the mullein plant contain natural saponins, which make a cough more productive in releasing and expelling phlegm from the walls of the lungs.
How to Use It: mullein can be taken as a tea, or in tincture or capsules. To make a tea, add 2 teaspoons dried mullein leaves and flowers to 1-2 cups of boiled water.
Precautions: preliminary research suggests that when taken in excessive doses, mullein may be toxic. While the research is insufficient, women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid the use of mullein.
2. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
What it does: anti-spasmodic
Main Benefits: valerian calms spasmodic coughing and muscle tension. It is great for those with shortness of breath and wheezing, and dealing with those stubborn coughs that won’t go away as you’re trying to sleep at night. It is also a natural relaxant, so it will help put you to sleep if you’ve been having trouble getting shut-eye during a cold or flu.
How to Use It: valerian can be taken as a tea, tincture or in capsule form. When taking capsules or tincture, follow the instructions according to the supplier who you buy it from. For tea, steep one teaspoon of the dried root in one cup of hot water for 10 minutes. Strain and drink.
Precautions: valerian will make you sleepy, so drink this before you plan on falling asleep. It is best not to drive or operate heavy machinery after taking valerian. There isn’t enough information about the safety of valerian during pregnancy or breast-feeding, so use should be avoided. Some information suggests that valerian is possibly safe when taken by children for 4-8 weeks.
3. Elecampane (Inula helenium)
What it does: stimulant expectorant
Main Benefits: the roots and rhizomes (underground stems) of inula species are used traditionally to treat coughs and inflammation in the mucus membranes of the respiratory tract. The mucilage of elecampane relaxes bronchial spasms while the essential oils stimulate expectoration. Some Ayurvedic practitioners use Inula species as a lung tonic in treating asthma (4).
How to Use It: elecampane is often taken as a tea. The dosage is 1/2 ounce of fresh root to every pint of water. If you’re using dried root, use about half as much as with fresh. The root should be boiled in water for a few minutes, and then left too steep for 15 to 30 minutes.
Precautions: do not take when pregnant or breast-feeding. Do not take in large amounts – stick to the doses recommended from the companies you purchase elecampane from. Elecampane may cause an allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to the Asteraceae/Compositae plant family. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure problems, and you want to take the herb, be sure to monitor your blood sugar and blood pressure carefully.
4. Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
What it does: demulcent, stimulating expectorant, anti-viral
Main Benefits: licorice root is both a demulcent and expectorant. On one hand, licorice is great for protecting the mucus membranes from excessive particulate matter, and soothes an irritated throat. On the other hand, licorice also helps loosen and eliminate phlegm (5). It also possesses antiviral properties to protect the body from invading viruses and boost immunity.
How to Use It: licorice root can be taken as a tea, tincture or in capsule form. If you’re taking a tincture or capsule, make sure you follow the instructions on the packaging of the company you purchase from. If you’re making a tea, add one tablespoon of dried licorice root to one cup of water. Bring to a boil in a pot, and then bring the heat down to simmer. Let simmer for 10 minutes, and then take it off the heat to cool. Pour in a cup and enjoy!
Precautions: when taken in large amounts, licorice root can increase blood pressure. It should not be taken by people who have high blood pressure. It is advised that young children (under 50 pounds), pregnant women and nursing women do not use licorice in any form.
5. Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)
What it does: demulcent and sedative expectorant, antibacterial
Main Benefits: Tussilago is quite literally the translation for “cough dispeller” and is often used as a demulcent against persistent cough like smoker’s cough, asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough. This herb acts as both a demulcent, and expectorant, and is a very popular cough remedy. Studies have also found coltsfoot to be active against several Gram-positive bacteria, and other microbes like Candida albicans and Hemophilus influenzae (6, 7).
How to Use it: it is recommended to moderate your intake of coltsfoot to avoid any adverse effects. If you drink coltsfoot tea, stick to 1-2 cups (240-475 ml) per day (8). For tinctures, use only as directed. Always make sure the coltsfoot you purchase are free of PAs (see precautions below).
Precautions: Coltsfoot contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), compounds that can cause acute and chronic liver damage when taken orally. Some PAs are also thought to be carcinogenic. Because of this, the use of coltsfoot is not generally recommended, and has even been banned in countries like Germany and Austria. With that being said, scientists have still developed variations of the coltsfoot plant that are free of these harmful compounds, and believed to be a safe alternative for use.
Do not use if pregnant or breast-feeding, and do not give to children. If you’re allergic to ragweed and related plants, coltsfoot may cause an allergic reaction. Do not use if you have high blood pressure, heart disease or liver disease. Do not exceed 10g a day when taking coltsfoot as a tea.
6. Marshmallow Root (Althaea officinalis)
What it does: demulcent
Main Benefits: as a demulcent, marshmallow root helps to protect the sensitive mucus membranes in not only our respiratory tract, but our digestive tract, too. The high mucilaginous content of marshmallow root make it useful for treating coughs and colds. The root appears to act as an enzyme to loosen mucus and inhibit bacteria (9). It has also been found to be effective in relieving coughs due to colds, bronchitis, or respiratory tract diseases with formation of mucus (10).
How to Use it: the best way to use marshmallow root is to make it into a tea. Add 1 tablespoon of dried marshmallow root to one cup of warm (not boiling) water. Stir, and then let sit for 15 minutes.
Precautions: avoid use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, have diabetes, or have a scheduled surgery within the next two weeks.
7. Slippery Elm Bark (Ulmus rubra)
What it does: demulcent
Main Benefits: slippery elm contains mucilage, a sticky mixture of sugars that cannot be broken down by the digestive tract. This mucilage coats the throat, helping ease any irritations of the delicate mucus membranes (great for dry cough). It also helps for symptoms of other upper respiratory ailments like bronchitis or asthma.
How to Use it: slippery elm is available as a fine power to make teas and extracts. For tea, you can pour 2 cups of boiling water over 2 tablespoons of the powder. Steep for a few minutes, and then drink.
Precautions: no reports of toxicity or side effects as of yet.
8. Plantain (Plantago major)
What it does: demulcent, antibacterial
Main Benefits: the moistening properties of plantain make it an ideal natural remedy for coughs that are chronic or acute. One of the best applications for plantain are when you have that nagging, dry, hacking cough that persists on long after your upper respiratory infection has healed. Herbalist Jim McDonald specifically recommends plantain for coughs that result from the inhalation of fine particulate matter, which may be experienced in work environments or during wildfires.
How to Use it: one of the best ways to use plantain for cough is to make it into a tea. Steep 1-2 tablespoons dried plantain in 1 cup of hot water for 10-15 minutes. Plantain tea doesn’t have a strong taste, but you can add honey to the tea for extra soothing effects.
Precautions: plantain has coagulating properties, so those with blood disorders or those who are prone to blood clots should not use plantain internally.
9. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
What it does: sedative expectorant
Main Benefits: bloodroot is used for harsh, dry coughs with constriction or constant irritation or tickling in the throat. It stimulates the bronchial membranes, overcoming congestion and increasing membrane secretions. It is also useful for acute or chronic bronchitis or laryngitis. Bloodroot has been found to be useful for persistent coughs that follow influenza (11).
How to Use It: bloodroot can be taken as a tea or tincture. The expectorant dose of bloodroot tincture is 5-30 drops of tincture. 1-3 teaspoons of bloodroot will cause vomiting. Always follow the directions of the supplier you purchase from.
Precautions: bloodroot is considered too harsh a remedy for young children. It is safe for most people when taken short-term. Side effects include nausea, vomiting, and drowsiness. Avoid contact with the eyes, as it can be irritating. Do not take by mouth if pregnant or breast-feeding. Do not use if you deal with intestinal problems like Crohn’s disease or other inflammatory conditions. Do not use if you have glaucoma.
10. Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)
What it does: stimulating expectorant, sedative expectorant
Main Benefits: lobelia is suggested for the treatment of asthma, bronchitis, and cough. Lobeline, the active constituent of lobelia helps relax the airways, stimulates breathing and clears mucus from the lungs (12).
How to Use It: begin with low doses and increase gradually, depending on response. Even moderate doses can be toxic, so lobelia should technically only be taken under the guidance of a knowledgeable herbal prescriber.
Precautions: this is a very strong herb and can cause nausea, dizziness, and vomiting if taken in high doses. Do not take this herb if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease, paralysis, seizure disorder and shortness of breath. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid this herb.
11. Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis)
What it does: demulcent, antibacterial
Main Benefits: lungwort is used in dry, persistent, irritative coughs that produce rasping and wheezing. It is useful in treating tightness of the lungs that afflict many asthmatics, as well as lung spasms, acute bronchitis and laryngitis. This herb also contains antibacterial properties which act against bacteria responsible for chest infections (13).
How to Use It: lungwort is available in tinctures, teas and capsule form. Short term or infrequent use of lungwort is generally considered safe. Add one tablespoon of dried lungwort herb to 1 cup of boiling water and let steep for 10 minutes. This warm drink should be drunk three times per day to reduce inflammation of the respiratory tract (14).
Precautions: Do not use lungwort if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Do not use long term.
12. Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
What it does: anti-viral & antibacterial
Main Benefits: echinacea has been traditionally used to help prevent upper respiratory infections related to the flu and common cold. It has also been found as a useful remedy in treating COPD. Studies have found that individuals with COPD had shorter and less severe COPD flares when supplementing with echinacea than those who did not supplement (15).
How to Use It: echinacea can be made into a tea, taken as a tincture or capsule form. When making tea, place one tablespoon of dried echinacea into a teacup, and add one cup of hot (not boiling) water. Let the tea steep for 15 minutes, and then strain and drink. Echinacea tincture or capsules might be more useful if you don’t have the time to drink tea.
Precautions: individuals taking immunosuppressant medications (like tamoxifen), or who have allergies or asthma should not use echinacea. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should also avoid this herb. Some people may experience side effects from taking echinacea like stomach pain, nausea, headache or dizziness.
13. Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
What it does: demulcent, anti-bacterial
Main Benefits: holy basil, or tulsi, is commonly used to treat microbial infections and boost immunity. It possesses antiseptic and analgesic properties that help treat many problems including dry cough, allergic bronchitis, asthma and other lung diseases. The volatile oils in tulsi may also help clear congestion (16).
How to Use It: holy basil tea is a great way to utilize this herb. Add 1-2 tbsp. of dried holy basil tea leaves into one cup of hot (not boiling) water. Place a saucer on top of the cup, right side up to trap the essential oils and prevent them from escaping. Wait about 5 minutes, and then remove the saucer, strain the leaves, and sweeten the tea as you like it.
Precautions: holy basil is safe to use for short periods of time, up to 8 weeks. It is generally recommended to avoid if you are pregnant or nursing. It should also be avoided if you currently have diabetes or hypothyroidism. Stop using holy basil at least 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery.
14. Thyme (Thymus spp.)
What it does: stimulating expectorant
Main Benefits: in Germany, thyme is an official approved treatment for coughs, upper respiratory infections, bronchitis and whooping cough. The herb’s leaves contain cough-calming compounds that work to relax tracheal and ileal muscles, and reduce inflammation. One study suggests that thyme mixed with ivy can help relieve coughing as well as short-term bronchitis. The leaves contain compounds called flavonoids that relax the throat muscles involved in coughing and reduce inflammation (17).
How to Use It: the easiest way to use thyme is by making a tea from it. You can make thyme tea by steeping two teaspoons of crushed, dried thyme leaves in a cup of boiling water for 10 minutes, and then strain. You can also opt to make your own ginger thyme cough syrup (recipe here).
Precautions: thyme may slow blood clotting when taken in therapeutic amounts, and should not be used in conjunction with medications or natural products that do the same. As a precaution, pregnant women should not use the herb. Due to its blood thinning effects, people who are scheduled for surgery should not take thyme, expect in food, for at least two weeks prior to surgery.
15. Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
What it does: stimulating expectorant
Main Benefits: menthol in peppermint soothes the throat and acts as a decongestant, helping to thin mucus and loosen phlegm. Inhaling steam and vapors of peppermint oil can be helpful for easing nasal congestion from colds and other upper respiratory infections. Some people find that the vapors from peppermint tea, which contains menthol, also help.
How to Use It: you can benefit by drinking peppermint tea or by inhaling peppermint vapors from a steam bath. To make a steam bath, add 4-5 drops of peppermint oil for every 200 milliliters of hot water. Drape a towel over your head, and take deep breaths directly above the water.
Precautions: peppermint oil should not be used by young children. It is also not recommended for people who have diabetes, as it may increase the risk of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. It should also be avoided if you are pregnant or nursing.
16. Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
What it does: stimulating expectorant, anti-bacterial, anti-viral
Main Benefits: all species of the oregano plant contain a volatile oil high in two chemically related expectorants (carvacrol and thymol). These oils help loosen phlegm and make it easier to cough up. This is why oregano has been traditionally used to help ease chest congestion, as well as symptoms that come with the cold and flu (18). Oil of oregano is also commonly used to help beat bacterial infections. Studies have found that oregano oil proved to be many times more effective at killing pathogenic microorganisms (like mold and staphylococci bacteria) than prescription antibiotics (19).
How to Use It: oil of oregano can be taken as drops, but you can also opt to make oregano tea by using dried or fresh leaves. To make tea, bring 1 cup of water to a boil, and pour the boiling water over 2 teaspoons of dried oregano in a tea strainer. Let the tea steep for 2-4 minutes, remove the strainer and sip.
Precautions: oregano has a long history of safe use in foods and food products. Only if you drink excessive amounts of oregano tea, or take excessive amounts of oil of oregano will you potentially experience an upset stomach. In rare cases, some people are allergic to oregano. If you’re allergic to any kind of mint, avoid drinking oregano tea or taking the oil.
17. Sage (Salvia officinalis)
What it does: stimulating expectorant
Main Benefits: the essential oils present in sage provide many benefits for those dealing with lung problems and other respiratory ailments. Sage has been traditionally used to treat coughs, colds and sore throats for thousands of years. The rich aromatic properties arising from sage’s volatile oils of thujone, camphor, terpene and salvene can be put to use by inhaling the vapors from sage oil or sage tea to dispel lung disorders and sinusitis (20).
How to Use It: sage can be drunk as a tea, or breathed in through vapor from a diffuser or steam bath. To make a steam bath, drop 3-4 drops of sage essential oil into every 150 milliliters of hot water you use. Drape a towel over your head, and breathe in the vapors for a couple minutes.
Precautions: sage has a long history of safe use in foods and food products. According to Georgetown University Medical Center, avoid sage tea during pregnancy as it may stimulate contractions of the uterine muscles.