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5 Herbs for Congestion and Cough

Few things are worse than an annoying tickle in the back of the throat, or a relentless, hacking cough that seems to hang on forever. Conventional cough syrups can help with symptoms, but they are usually laden with alcohol and other ingredients that cause drowsiness or are otherwise unsuitable for some people, including children. Fortunately, there are several few herbal allies that are effective at reducing congestion and cough we can turn to.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) is an excellent cough-suppressant with the added benefits of being antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory. This time-honored remedy is particularly effective if sore throat is present. Several studies have demonstrated its effectiveness, and one clinical trial found that a throat spray made from sage paired with echinacea was more effective at relieving sort throat pain that either chlorhexidine or lidocaine sprays. A simple infusion of fresh or dried sage leaves may be consumed three to four times a day, or used as a gargle or throat spray as needed.


Do not drink more than six cups of sage tea per day due to the presence of thujone, which can be toxic in large doses.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has a long history of use as a cough remedy. Both the leaves and flowers of the plant have excellent demuclent properties and the leaves, in particular, contain a good deal of mucilage to ease a scratchy throat. The herb is also highly antimicrobial. In fact, during the Civil War, it was used to prepare tinctures for use as an antiseptic in surgical tents. Mullein may be taken as tea. The choppped, fresh leaves are combined with water and sugar to make a simple syrup, or boiled to the candy stage to make cough drops. Recipe and directions are here.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) is a flowering perennial native to Africa that was once the source material for the sticky confection of the same name. The roots contain a high degree of mucilage, which coats and soothes an irritated throat and helps to quiet a dry cough. Polysaccharides in the root offer antibacterial and antitussive properties. The best way to take this herb for cough is as tea (3-4 cups per day) or tincture (1 teaspoon, 3 times a day).


Because marshmallow compounds coat and adhere to the stomach and intestines, it may interfere with the absorption of certain medications. To avoid this, take these medicines at least 6 hours apart from each other.

Check with your doctor if you are being treated for or have a history of cancer. Marshmallow root contains asparagine, a non-essential amino acid that malignant cells, most notably lymphatic tumor cells, use for rapid growth.

Consult your physician before using this herb if you take diabetes medications. The compounds in marshmallow root may lower serum glucose levels.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza Glabra) is a member of the legume (bean) family that is native to Europe and Asia. The root contains glycyrrhizin, a sweet-tasting acid (up to 50 times sweeter than sugar) used as a flavoring agent in foods and beverages and as an emulsifier in cosmetics. This compound also exerts anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, anti-viral and expectorant properties. It inhibits viruses like influenza A by increasing levels of interferons, signaling proteins produced and sent out by cells attacked by invading pathogens.

In terms of sore throat, congestion and cough, licorice reduces inflammation and bronchial spasms while thinning mucous in airway passages to promote a more “productive” cough. The herb may be prepared as tea by decocting the root (simmer in water brought to the boil for 30-45 minutes).


Do not use for more than 2 weeks at a time because prolonged consumption of this herb may lead to potassium depletion.

Consult your physician before using licorice if you have high blood pressure or take medications that effect cortisol production, like prednisone.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a member of the mint family original to Europe and the Mediterranean region. The leaves of this plant contain a significant amount of thymol, a phenol with potent antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, which is why this compound is a common ingredient in dental products, antiseptic ointments – and in cough drops. In Germany, the herb is approved by the Commission E to not only treat cough but also upper respiratory infections and whooping cough. As an added bonus, thymol is also a biocidal agent, meaning that it reduces bacterial resistance to antibiotics by drug-resistant pathogens.

Like other members of the mint family, thyme contains terpenoids such as rosmarinic and ursolic acids that provide expectorant properties. At the same time, the antioxidant flavonoids, such as lutein, pigenin and naringenin, exert antispasmodic effects, making this herb a good choice for bronchitis. As an added bonus, these compounds collectively offer protection from certain cancers as well. The best way to take this herb for cough is as tea (1 tablespoon dried herb per cup of water, 3-4 cups per day), sweetened with raw honey.

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