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Records show that Edinburgh citizens in the early part of the 20th century suffered from the same winter health problems that we suffer from today. Almost half of the people seeking medical care during the winter months, then and now, suffer from ...

Winter Coughs, Colds and Flu

Winter Coughs, Colds and Flu

by Dee Atkinson MNIMH

Records show that Edinburgh citizens in the early part of the 20th century suffered from the same winter health problems that we suffer from today. Almost half of the people seeking medical care during the winter months, then and now, suffer from inflammatory conditions of the respiratory tract and flu like symptoms. The most common presenting symptom of respiratory disease is the cough.

Coughs often develop after a viral infection, sometimes as a secondary bacterial infection of the lungs and bronchi and sometimes from irritation when mucus aggravates the back of the throat. Coughing is a reflex action designed to dislodge mucus or other foreign bodies from the trachea and bronchial tree. Although it can be very irritating, coughing helps your body protect itself from these foreign bodies

In the winter, the cold and flu season, the best way to protect yourself from viruses and secondary infections is to actively support your immune system. If you ever wonder why you succumb to viruses while others don’t, you need to look at your immune system and everything that can affect it.

The immune system is the buffer between our body and the outside environment and will protect you from infections, bacteria, viruses, parasites and even from cancers. 

Many things can affect the body’s immune function. Age, nutritional status, diet, medication that you might be taking, stress levels, your emotional state, your environment and your family history (genetics). 

In a herbal consultation, I will spend time working with you on ways to improve your immune system. I consider this to be one of the main building blocks on which your whole health rests. We will start with a look at your diet, examining not only what you eat, but also the nutritional quality of that food as pesticides in vegetables, antibiotic and steroid residues in some meats and dairy products can all impact on the immune system

 Herbs for the immune system and upper respiratory tract:

Immunomodulators: These are herbs that enhance the body’s own natural defence system and support different aspects of the immune system. For example, reducing inflammation, reducing mucus production and supporting the immune system in its healing actions. 

Herbs with theses actions include: Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), Marigold (Calendula officinalis), Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), Garlic (Allium), Goldenseal (Hydrsatis Canadensis)

Anticatarrhals: These herbs decrease the production of mucus and are often combined with immunemodulators to reduce inflammation in tissues while at the same time reducing catarrh production

Herbs with theses actions include: Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), Sage (Salvia officinalis), Elderflower (Sambucus nigra), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

Expectorants: Thin, free flowing mucus from the respiratory tract helps to flush away irritants and is easy to expectorate. Thick mucus forms when there is less free flowing mucus due to dehydration, or when there is more production of effective matter that is thicker. An expectorant will help to thin the mucus, increase respiratory tract mucus flow and help to expel the secretions. Productive expectorants will help to trigger this action. These herbs are specific to thick ropy mucus that is hard to cough up

Examples of theses herbs are Elecampane (Inula helenium), Horehound (marrubium vulgare), Poplar buds (populus spp), Propolis, Osha (Ligusticum porteri).

Soothing and relaxing expectorant: Use when there is thick mucus and a dry irritated cough, or spasmodic cough

Examples of theses herbs are: Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Marshmallow (Althea officinalis), Hyssop (hyssopus officinalis), Slippery elm (Ulmus spp), Lobelia (Lobelias inflata), Asclepias tuberosa (Pleurisy root)

Antibacterial: Theses herbs suppress and in many cases destroy bacterial growth. They are especially useful when there has been a viral infection that has moved down into the lungs and become a secondary bacterial infection. 

Examples of these herbs include: Garlic (Allium sativa), Clove (Syzygium aromaticum), Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis), Wild indigo (Babtisia tinctoria) Myrrh (Commiphora mol)

Antiviral: Generally supporting the immune system by destroying or suppressing the growth of viruses

Examples of theses herbs include: Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), Cedar (thuja spp), Oregan grape (Mahonia spp), Astragalis (Astragalis membranaceus).

There are a number of different types of cough and often a cough can last for days or even weeks after the initial viral infection. On average, a cough will last for 3 weeks. Coughs can be either acute or chronic, productive or non productive. Some Long term dry coughs are not caused by infection, but due to irritants and other types of lung problems. A smoker’s cough is most likely to be a looser, more productive cough that does not respond well to cough medicines.

Never simply treat the symptoms of a cough. Look behind this to any viral infections and at the persons ‘foundation’ health. A herbal prescription needs to be built around the patient and alongside this, diet, nutrition and lifestyle advice and support is needed

Lanes Cut A Cough is a traditional herbal medicine used for the relief of coughs, such as chesty coughs and coughs with catarrh. It is a warming relaxing expectorant that will help to relieve the symptoms of colds, shift mucous and catarrh and make coughing easier. It is particularly helpful where there is phlegm that is difficult to break up - this often feels like a heavy sensation in the chest or breathlessness and the feeling of being unable to breathe. It also helps to remove stubborn, lingering coughs. First manufactured by Plymouth herbalist, Henry Lane (1855-1911), Cut A Cough contains the active ingredient, Squill Urginea maritima as a Squill Oxymel

Squill has a long history of use as an expectorant that goes back to Ancient Egypt. Its use was mentioned the Ebers papyrus around 1500 B.C. and in Sir John Floyer’s ‘A Treatise of Asthma’ in 1698. Squill is a plant that is native to Europe and most commonly found in the Mediterranean. It is often called Sea Squill or Sea Onion as it has a large bulb and grows best in coastal habitats.

Try Napiers Herbal Cough and Chest Syrupfor dry irritable coughs with a sore throat and chest. In congested bronchial conditions, the irritation and inflammation of the bronchial tract produces extra mucus. These deeper seated coughs are best treated with expectorants that soothe the membranes and help to move the mucous and phlegm out of the lungs. Containing Horehound, Squill, Lobelia, and Pleurisy root and Senega. I use this cough syrup for persistent bronchial type infections, where the cough can be initially non productive. The active ingredients have a long history of use for colds, coughs, chest infections, bronchitis and even asthma.

Children’s Coughs

Cough suppressants such as Wild Cherry Bark can be used only on very dry coughs. This herb can relieve irritation in the membranes and help to soothe the cough reflex, encouraging a good night’s sleep. Wild Cherry Bark can also be used for nervous coughs and, being a gentle herb, can be safely used by children. Combinations of Liquorice and Thyme in a syrup base make a helpful and soothing cough remedy for children.

Immune system support

Echinacea and Elderflower Compound: Practitioner Blend.

Originally made in 1992 for acute viral infection in a group of teenage school children who had Glandular fever, this is one of my most used viral formulas. Available on prescription in my Dispensary it contains Elderflower, Echinacea, Thyme, Garlic, Sage, Astragalus and Garlic. I use this at the first sign of infection, the anti viral effects of the herbs combining with the antibacterial actions of Thyme, Garlic and Sage. 

Echinacea Super Plus: Practitioner Blend

This is a formula I have developed for my patients. It uses Osha (Ligusticum porteri), an American herb, historically known as American Indian Penicillin, as well as fluid extract of Echinacea, Clivers, Lemon balm, Thyme, Liquorice and Golden seal. This blend is a powerful immune support especially where there has been repeated infections and a feeling of low immunity.

Water is also a good weapon in the fight against coughs and colds. It’s important to take lots of fluids and steaming the airways helps to break up mucous. A bowl of hot water in a bedroom overnight, or a humidifier if you have one, can help soothe the respiratory system. Humidity is your friend when it comes to banishing coughs.

There is always a lot of talk about antibiotics at this time of year and whether or not they are effective. Often patients are thinking about antibiotics for persistent coughs. The latest research from the USA confirms that commonly prescribed antibiotics don't help cure most coughs in adults. Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City has said, unequivocally, that "viruses such as the common cold do not respond to antibiotics." Antibiotics are only effective when there is a bacterial infection such as pneumonia so, if you’re worried, then a GP can test your mucous for bacterial infection. It is important for us all to bear in mind that there is the risk that if antibiotics are overused in a population it may lead to the emergence of multi-resistant bacteria

If you have managed to avoid infections so far this winter then there are things you can do to help to keep the rest of the season clear of coughs. Seventy years ago, the preventative remedy of choice was Sure Cure. This ancient remedy is made with a warming mixture of Cinnamon, Cayenne, Cloves, bay berry, Pimento and Pine. This mixture of herbs improves the circulation, helps to sweat out a cold as well as supporting the digestive and elimination system. Freshly and finely chopped garlic in a teaspoon of honey or simply swallowed with water, fresh citrus and extra doses of Vitamin C tablets will also help to ward off late winter colds.

D. Atkinson, Herbalist at 18 Bristo Place, Edinburgh is a stockist of the cough treatments mentioned above.

© Dee Atkinson 2013 

ADDITIONAL SOURCES: Philipp Schuetz, M.D., M.P.H., Kantonsspital Aarau, Tellstrasse, Aarau, Switzerland; Len Horovitz, M.D., pulmonologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Dec. 19, 2012, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, online


1. Paul IM, et al. Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 2007;161:1140.
2. Chang AB. Cough. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2009;56:19.
3. Bukutu C, et al. Complementary, holistic, and integrative medicine: The common cold. Pediatrics in Review. 2008;29:e66
4. Botulism: Epidemiological overview for clinicians. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
5. Shadkam MN, et al. A comparison of the effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and diphenhydramine on nightly cough and sleep quality in children and their parents. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2010;16:787.

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