“My mother has a persistent, productive cough that keeps her up at night and wakes the entire house. Do you have any suggestions for what I can make for her?”
First, I’m sorry that your mother (and as a result the rest of the family) is suffering. Coughs can last a long time before they resolve. Fortunately, herbal medicine offers a wealth of options that can alleviate several of the symptoms that you are describing.
Let’s peel apart the scenario you described – different herbs are appropriate for different symptoms. At this point I will also assume that you have been to the doctor to rule out or address any serious infections.
A “cough” is typically thought of as having spasms in the lungs. Therefore, respiratory anti-spasmodic herbs are appropriate here, as are antitussives (cough suppressants).
“Productive” means that there is mucus being expelled in the cough. Sometimes known as a “damp cough”, herbs that are expectorant can help clear out and dry the mucus.
Because the cough is persistent I would imagine that the throat is dry, inflamed, and sore. In this case, demulcent (a fancy word for ‘slimy’) herbs are very soothing here as they coat the throat directly to provide topical relief.
Finally, while all of these herbs should help relieve the cough issues and thus help your mother sleep through the night, it would not be a bad idea to include some calming, even sedative herbs in the mix. (Review Judith Fox-Smith’s recent ATH post on sleepy herbs.)
In summary, below is a short list of herbs that possess some of these qualities:
1. Grindelia flower (Grindelia spp): broncho-spasmolytic, expectorant
2. Osha root (Ligusticum porteri): bronchodilator, expectorant, anti-bacterial
3. Elecampane root (Inula helenium): broncho-spasmolytic, expectorant
4. Coltsfoot leaf (Tussilago farfara): antisuttive, expectorant
5. Mullein leaf (Verbascum thapsus): expectorant, demulcent, anti-catarrhal (decongestant)
6. Wild cherry bark (Prunus spp): antitussive, astringent
7. Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis): demulcent, coating, soothing to mucus membranes
8. Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra): demulcent, expectorant, anti-inflammatory
9. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): demulcent, expectorant, anti-inflammatory
10. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis): nervine, spasmolytic, mildly sedative
For your mother, a nice combination for a bedtime tea might be: coltsfoot, mullein, wild cherry, licorice, California poppy – equal parts (totaling ~1 tbsp per dose) steeped in 2-3C boiling water for 15 minutes. Drink 30-60 minutes before bed.
Of course, there are numerous other combinations of the herbs, so do experiment and see what works best.
Donna Koczaja, M.S., RH(AHG) graduated from Maryland University of Integrative Health (formerly Tai Sophia Institute) with a Master of Science in Therapeutic Herbalism and a Post-Master’s Certificate in Clinical Herbalism. She earned Registered Herbalist status from the American Herbalists’ Guild in 2018. Originally educated as a mechanical engineer, she combines the rigor of her original scientific training with the traditional healing art of herbal medicine to partner with her clients to uncover the root cause of their underlying health issues. Also a Master Gardener since 2008, her primary interest is in inspiring others to improve their health and sense of wellbeing through the joys of gardening and the power of natural medicine.