Cough and cold season traditionally ends in late March or early April, but respiratory infections can hit us any time of the year.
There’s nothing worse than dealing with a cough, except maybe the taste of cough syrup. If you’re looking for a natural way to relieve a cough, a natural expectorant can be a safe, effective way to soothe your symptoms.
Let’s look at why you might need an expectorant, how it works, and which methods and active ingredients you can use to calm a nagging cough naturally.
What an Expectorant Does
An expectorant is used to loosen mucus in your airways and make a cough more productive, not to prevent or suppress it.
A cough is a beneficial reflexive response to excess mucus in your trachea, bronchi, and/or lungs. It’s your body’s way of clearing mucus and other irritants from your airways. Your cough reflex is triggered by sensory nerves in your respiratory tract, which send signals to your brain to initiate the cough.
Mucus is a slimy substance that lines your respiratory tract and other parts of your body, lubricating tissues and serving as a protective barrier against viruses, bacteria, and allergens. Healthy mucus is 97 percent water and three percent solids. When your body detects pathogens, your immune system produces more mucus to trap and neutralize those invading microorganisms. The overproduction of mucus can cause the concentration of solids to increase as much as 15 percent, making the mucus stickier and harder to expel.REF#972
How an Expectorant Works
When you have too much mucus in your respiratory tract, you want a productive cough to clear your airways of mucus and other pathogens and relieve the tightness in your chest from congestion.
An expectorant thins excess mucus by stimulating water production in the respiratory tract, making the mucus looser and easier to cough up.
6 Natural Methods to Thin and Expel Mucus
You can naturally thin the mucus in your airways in several ways to help make a cough more productive. You should experiment with the following options to find the best method for you.
You may also want to use several of these methods to provide overall relief when you have a bad cold and cough.
Option 1: Drink Hot Fluids
Staying well-hydrated is critical for good health. Your body is made up of about 60 percent water, which you must constantly replenish. The U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recommends 91 ounces a day of water for women and 125 ounces a day for men, but this number can vary according to activity level, weight, age, and other characteristics.REF#973
When you have a cold or other infection, your body uses water faster than normal through sweating, runny nose, watering eyes, post-nasal drip, and mucus production. It’s easy to become dehydrated when sick, so drink more fluids than usual.
Drinking hot fluids keeps you hydrated and helps loosen mucus in your nose and throat temporarily.
One of the best hot drinks for encouraging a productive cough is hot water with lemon juice and a teaspoon of raw honey. Both these natural ingredients are expectorants.
You can also increase the expectorant effect of drinking hot fluids by creating an herbal infusion with herbs that are natural expectorants (see option three below).
To make an herbal infusion:
- Add one to three tablespoons of herb to a tea strainer.
- Boil water.
- Pour boiling water over herbs.
- Let herbs steep for 15 minutes or more before drinking.
You can make herbal infusions in advance in larger quantities and reheat them as needed.
Option 2: Use a Steam Tent
Inhaling steam is a centuries-old technique for treating congestion. It can open up airways and hydrate and loosen mucus.REF#974 Steam alone can be an effective expectorant. Adding an herbal extract with expectorant properties can provide even faster relief.
To create a steam tent, you’ll need a large pot or basin, boiling water, and a large towel.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil.
- Remove the pot from the stove and set it on a hot pad or pour the boiling water into a large bowl or basin.
- Add several drops of herbal extract to the water, if desired, and stir.
- Lean your head over the steaming water and place a towel over your head and shoulders to capture the steam.
- Inhale deeply.
- Remain under the tent for 15 to 20 minutes or until there is no more steam. If you feel discomfort or have signs of overheating, stop using the steam tent immediately and drink some cool water.
You can use steam inhalation several times a day. Be careful not to touch the hot pot or boiled water with your hands or face to avoid serious burns. When creating a steam tent for children, careful supervision is required at all times to avoid burning. Children may have to use the steam tent for a shorter period of time to avoid overheat or any discomfort. Ask your child’s pediatrician if you are unsure about using a steam tent for your child.
Option 3: Use Natural Plants and Herbs for Coughs
Numerous herbs and plants have been shown to have natural expectorant properties. You can purchase or make herbal teas and tinctures, take a supplement for overall respiratory health, or use a natural herbal cough syrup.
There are many herbs you can use to help loosen mucus and improve your respiratory health. Several we recommend, based on research, include:
- English Ivy: Also known as Hedera helix, English Ivy is most used as an ingredient in syrups designed to address acute respiratory challenges.* When grown indoors, it can also be effective at filtering air pollutants. You can purchase English Ivy extract or find it in natural cough lozenges and syrups that include it as an ingredient. You can also make an infusion with about one-quarter cup of dried leaves.
- Eucalyptus: Studies have found that eucalyptus oil distilled from the fresh leaves and branch tops of the tree is an effective expectorant that can be used as an essential oil, extract, or topical ointment. Eucalyptus oil is included in Gaia Herb’s Cough Syrup and Bronchial Wellness Syrup. Topical eucalyptus ointment can be applied to the nose and chest to relieve occasional congestion. Some people also place fresh Eucalyptus on their showerheads (above the spout) to create a simpler version of a “steam tent” right in the shower.
- Ginger: While most people use ginger to help digestion, it is also a good natural expectorant.* Use Ginger Root Extract in teas, homemade lozenges, or steam tents.
- Mullein: The dried leaves of the Mullein plant were traditionally used as a tea supporting pulmonary and respiratory function.* Gaia Herbs has combined it with Plantain, Schisandra, and Elecampane to create its Mighty Lungs® supplement.
- Oregano Oil: Oregano is rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants, with antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, making it a great choice for coping with coughs and colds.* Oregano oil can be purchased as an essential oil, an oil extract (mixed with a carrier oil), or in capsule form. It is also an easy herbal oil to make yourself, to then add to a steam tent or to use as a gargle. Gaia Herbs also uses it in its Sinus & Lung Supreme™ blend to support overall respiratory wellness.*
- Peppermint Leaf: Peppermint helps clear congestion and relieve irritable coughs.* Its main active ingredient, menthol, does a good job of loosening mucus.* Gaia Herbs offers a Bronchial Wellness Tea combining Peppermint, Eucalyptus, Plantain, and Licorice root for respiratory and bronchial health.*
- Vervain: Vervain (verbena officinalis) is indigenous to the United States, growing naturally along roadsides and in tall grassy fields. It flowers between June and September. You can use the flowers and stems to make an infusion or purchase it in tincture, extract, or dried tea form.
As with any supplement you take, you should consult with your doctor before using it to make sure it won’t interfere with other treatments. Always learn the precautions and side effects of an herb before using it for health purposes.
Option 4: Use a Humidifier
Dry air can dry out your airways, from your nasal passages to your lungs. You can use a humidifier to increase the moisture level in your home or room, which may help increase the moisture in your airways and loosen mucus. Distilled water is best for a humidifier as it helps avoid calcification and mold. There are humidifier water cartridges you can drop in the water to help keep the tank bacteria and mold-free.
Adding several drops of an herbal extract to your humidifier may increase the expectorant effect. However, more research is needed to confirm this. Additionally, some humidifiers don’t support the addition of herbs or oils to their water tanks, so make sure yours can handle diffusion if you want to add anything to the water.
Option 5: Take a Spoonful of Honey
Studies have shown that honey reduces mucus secretion and that a single half-teaspoon dose can reduce mucus and coughing in children.REF#975 Additionally, a systematic review of multiple studies by a group at the University of Oxford concluded that honey is a superior option for treating upper respiratory tract infections in adults.REF#976
For adults, a teaspoonful of honey taken throughout the day should help make your cough more productive. Honey should not be given to babies under one year old.
Option 6: Make Your Own Honey Lemon Cough Lozenges
A spoonful of honey works well when you’re close to the honey jar. But when you’re away from home, sucking on a honey lozenge can help relieve cough symptoms. Lemon is another effective natural decongestant you can use to enhance the flavor of the lozenges and increase your intake of vitamin C. Lozenges are easy to make yourself and guarantee that all ingredients are pure and natural.
- 5 tablespoons raw unfiltered honey, locally produced if possible
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 3 teaspoons coconut oil
Mix ingredients together in a saucepan and bring to a slow boil. Heat to 300F/150C degrees, stirring and lifting the pan off the heat occasionally to avoid burning the honey. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, test readiness by dropping a tiny amount in a bowl of cold water. If the droplet hardens, your lozenges are done.
Pour the mixture into small candy molds or drop lozenge-sized amounts of the mixture onto a silicon sheet or sheet of waxed paper. Let cool. Store lozenges in an airtight container.
If you want to add additional flavor and potency, you can add a teaspoon of crushed ginger to the mixture before boiling.
Of course, your best defense against a cough is not to get sick. You can support your immune system naturally to avoid all the infectious diseases that seem to spread freely throughout the year.
Read our blog post, “6 Easy Ways to Support (Boost) Your Immune System Naturally,” to learn how you can stay healthy all year long with beneficial herbs and plants.*
- 1. John V. Fahy, M.D. and Burton F. Dickey, M.D., "Airway Mucus Function and Dysfunction", New England Journal of Medicine, June 8, 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4048736/ 1 1. John V. Fahy, M.D. and Burton F. Dickey, M.D., "Airway Mucus Function and Dysfunction", New England Journal of Medicine, June 8, 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4048736/
- 2. , "Report Sets Dietary Intake Levels for Water, Salt, and Potassium To Maintain Health and Reduce Chronic Disease Risk", National Academies, February 11, 2004. https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2004/02/report-sets-dietary-intake-levels-for-water-salt-and-potassium-to-maintain-health-and-reduce-chronic-disease-risk 2 2. , "Report Sets Dietary Intake Levels for Water, Salt, and Potassium To Maintain Health and Reduce Chronic Disease Risk", National Academies, February 11, 2004. https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2004/02/report-sets-dietary-intake-levels-for-water-salt-and-potassium-to-maintain-health-and-reduce-chronic-disease-risk
- 3. Basch, F. P., Holinger, P., & Poncher, H. G., "PHYSICAL AND CHEMICAL PROPERTIES OF SPUTUM II. INFLUENCE OF DRUGS, STEAM, CARBON DIOXIDE AND OXYGEN", American Journal of Diseases of Children, 62(6), pp. 1149-1171.. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/1179344 3 3. Basch, F. P., Holinger, P., & Poncher, H. G., "PHYSICAL AND CHEMICAL PROPERTIES OF SPUTUM II. INFLUENCE OF DRUGS, STEAM, CARBON DIOXIDE AND OXYGEN", American Journal of Diseases of Children, 62(6), pp. 1149-1171.. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/1179344
- 4. Ran D. Goldman, MD FRCPC., "Honey for treatment of cough in children", Canadian Family Physician, December 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4264806/ 4 4. Ran D. Goldman, MD FRCPC., "Honey for treatment of cough in children", Canadian Family Physician, December 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4264806/
- 5. Hibatullah Abuelgasim et al, "Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis", BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, 2020. https://ebm.bmj.com/content/26/2/57 5 5. Hibatullah Abuelgasim et al, "Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis", BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, 2020. https://ebm.bmj.com/content/26/2/57