What is Coughing?
The cough reflex is a vital part of the body’s defence mechanisms. Normally, the lungs and the lower respiratory passages are sterile. If dust or dirt get into the lungs, a piece of food goes down the wrong way or if there is excess mucous due to infection, the body will act defensively and aim to expel it.
The reflex action is started by stimulation of sensory nerves in the lining of the respiratory passages.
When we cough, we take a short intake of breath and the voice box (larynx) closes momentarily. The abdominal and chest muscles used for breathing contract, which in turn increases the pressure needed to drive air out the lungs when the larynx re-opens.
The resulting blast of air comes out at high speed, scrubbing and clearing the airway of dust, dirt or excess mucous. Ineffective clearance of the airway can lead to a chest infection and possible pneumonia.
What causes coughing?
Coughing usually means there is something in the respiratory passages that should not be there.
Coughing can be provoked by:
• The Common Cold (lasts up to 3 weeks)
• Bacterial or viral infections (acute bronchitis, pneumonia)
• Whooping cough or croup in children
• Heart Failure
• ACE Inhibitors (Medicines used in heart disease)
• Pulmonary Embolism
• Gastro-oesphageal reflux
• Psychological illness
Coughing is more efficient when preceded by a full intake of air.
For this reason, patients with weak muscles, poor coordination of airway closure and re-opening, or who have airflow obstruction (as in COPD) will have a poor cough and be susceptible to complications including infection in the lower respiratory tract and pneumonia.
How can coughing be treated?
Coughing is a symptom, not a disease. It is the underlying cause of the cough that needs to be treated.
You should consult your local medical herbalist or doctor if any of the following symptoms accompany a cough, so that possible underlying causes can be investigated and treated where necessary:
• Coughing up phlegm that is green, rusty brown, yellow, blood-stained or foul smelling
• Chest pain
• Shortness of breath or wheezing
• Pain and swelling in the calf
• Recurrent night-time cough
• Whooping cough or croup
• Worsening smoker’s cough
• Sudden weight loss
• Fever and sweating
• Hoarseness of the voice with a chronic cough that doesn’t clear up spontaneously.
This time of year Infections in the breathing tubes (bacterial and viral) can be the most common cause of cough in otherwise healthy individuals. The most common cause (particularly in children) is a virus, which cannot be treated by antibiotics but can be treated with anti-viral herbs.
Herbal medicine is often associated with preventing illness or treating chronic conditions, however it can be very effective in treating acute respiratory infections. However you must see a fully trained medical herbalist who can fully examine you, listen to your breathing and if necessary refer you for further investigation. Coughing is a symptom and the underlying cause must be assessed. If the herbalist is satisfied that it is an infection (bacterial or viral) they will prescribe and dispense an individually tailored medicine to kill the infection and ease your symptoms.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
This herb is used extensively for resolving infections of the respiratory and digestive tracts. Grow in a window box or your garden and harvest from April/May right through to November. It will also dry well for storing throughout the winter. It is a powerful antiseptic and expectorant and super for treating bronchitis and asthma where excess mucous production can encourage a secondary chest infection.
Make a strong infusion to use as a gargle for tonsillitis and laryngitis. Inhale the essential oil for sinusitis.
The antispasmodic and healing properties of the herb will do wonders for a tummy bug, especially as the powerful antiseptic qualities will kill the bacteria causing the problem.
Don’t drink too strong a tea as the oils may leave you feeling nauseous. Just make a weaker cup next time!
Carrageen Moss (Chondrus crispus)
This wonderful seaweed grows along our Atlantic coasts and is traditionally picked on the spring tides as it is only rarely exposed out of water, only appearing at these lowest tides. It can be bought dried in the health food store. High in iodine, vitamin A and B and many minerals, it is most nutritious and is ideal for those convalescing.
The seaweed is very soothing and antibacterial and is super for dry hacking coughs and sore throats. (Check with your medical herbalist if you have an existing thyroid problem before taking seaweeds).
You can combine the therapeutic actions of these herbs in a wonderful homemade cough syrup. Added honey will also help to soothe and heal. The fresh lemon juice will give you added vitamin C. Easy to make and will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days.
Carrageen Moss €2.19 per bag from your local health food store
Kelli’s Cough Syrup
Handful of Carrageen Moss
2 tbsp fresh thyme/ 1 tsp dried thyme
Local/ Manuka Honey
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Reconstitute dried carrageen by soaking it in a little cold water for 15 minutes before use.
2. While this is soaking, make a strong cup of thyme tea; add the dried herb to 100ml of the water, cover and allow to infuse for 10 minutes. If using fresh herb, place water and picked leaves in a pot, cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes.
3. Now discard the water used to reconstitute the seaweed and add the carrageen to the remaining water.
4. Simmer gently in a pot for 10 minutes or until a light gloopy/syrupy consistency.
5. Add the thyme tea to the pot, strain and add honey and lemon to taste. It should have a thick, syrupy consistency but it will thicken further as it cools. Pour into sterilised bottles and store in the fridge.
Take a generous spoonful 4-6 times a day when needed.
Check out www.irishbeekeeping.ie for local honey
Strengthen Your Defenses – Boost your Immune System
To help prevent and fight of respiratory infections, look after your immune system at this time of year.