Natural Treatments for Sore Throats and Coughs
Sore throats and coughs start afflicting humans soon after we are born—whether from proximate causes such as pollen, dust and smoke or from talking too much, yelling or even catching some sort of ailment from another person. Fortunately, there are quite a few natural remedies to help relieve the pain and discomfort of coughs and sore throats. Many of these remedies have been used for centuries.
Each of the plants described in this article are commonly available in the wild and can typically be purchased from herb shops in dried form.
The various mallows have been used to soothe sore throats for centuries. In fact, even the ancient Egyptians used one of the mallows for this purpose.
In the United States, the common mallow (Malva parviflora) is a widespread weed that’s found in vacant lots and fields. It is sometimes referred to as “poverty weed” or “cheeseweed.” The tender leaves of mallow are tasty in salads and soups, are high in vitamin C and can be cooked with other vegetables, such as spinach. We have even rolled cooked rice within a larger leaf of the mallow and served it as the popular Middle Eastern dish dolmas (stuffed grape leaves).
In Mexico, mallow leaves (known as “malva”) have long been chewed because their slightly mucilaginous quality can soothe a sore throat. Herbalists consider mallow leaves an emollient and a demulcent. Whether the leaves are eaten or made into a tea, this plant helps relieve inflammation, especially in the throat.
A related mallow, the marsh mallow (Althea officinalis), is also used for coughs and sore throats. This plant has a long tap root that is boiled, and the resulting liquid is like egg whites. This is then whipped, mixed with honey and eaten as a very pleasant and effective cough medicine. Of course, today’s marshmallows are pure junk food, and marshmallow manufacturers no longer use extract of the marsh mallow plant. Instead, gelatin is used to manufacture those fluffy, white nonfood objects (you know — marshmallows).
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a bitter mint native to Europe that has now naturalized throughout the entire United States. It is called “marrubio” in Mexico, where it also grows in the wild. When you see it in the wild, it’s obviously a mint; yet, it lacks the strong aroma typical of most mints. However, you’ll see the square stem, opposite leaves and wrinkled leaf texture that make horehound easy to recognize.
“FORTUNATELY, THERE ARE QUITE A FEW NATURAL REMEDIES TO HELP RELIEVE THE PAIN AND DISCOMFORT OF COUGHS AND SORE THROATS. MANY OF THESE REMEDIES HAVE BEEN USED FOR CENTURIES. ”
Do you remember horehound candy? It is still available, but, at one time, it was a popular old-fashioned cough drop made by boiling horehound leaves, straining them and then adding sugar or honey to the liquid. The liquid was then cooked until it was thick enough to harden. Recipes for horehound candy can still be found in many candymaking books.
Unfortunately, if you go to the store and buy horehound drops, it’s unlikely they will contain any horehound extract at all. With very few exceptions, all the horehound drops I have found in stores are nothing more than sugar with artificial flavors added.
Horehound is made into a tea, which is very bitter and unpleasant. No one would ever drink it if it weren’t so effective. Besides soothing a sore throat and a cough, horehound is an expectorant, which means it can help clear your throat when it is congested.
To make horehound tea, I collect the young leaves in the spring. They can be used fresh or dried. I place about one teaspoon of the herb into my cup, pour boiling water over it, cover it and let it sit until it is cool enough to drink. The flavor? Terrible! Its bitterness must be experienced to understand how unpleasant it is. So, add honey and lemon juice to your horehound tea to make it more palatable. The honey and lemon are also good for your sore throat.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is another European native that has now naturalized throughout the entire United States. It is particularly common in dry, wasteland areas throughout the Southwest. I can recall looking out of my window while driving to the Grand Canyon and noticing that the dominant roadside plant was mullein.
“THE LARGE, FLANNEL-LIKE LEAVES OF MULLEIN HAVE OTHER USES AS WELL. I’VE USED THEM AS POTHOLDERS … AND EVEN TOILET PAPER.”
Mullein leaves feel like flannel or chamois cloth. The plant produces large basal leaves the first year. Then, in the second year, it sends up a seed spike that can reach 4 to 5 feet in height.
To make a tea, use the first-year leaves of mullein and infuse them. There is not much flavor, so I typically add mint to mullein tea. Mullein acts as a mild sedative on the lungs, and it helps relieve the roughness in the throat that is common with coughs and some fevers.
Interestingly, mullein leaves have also been smoked to help relieve coughing and even mild asthma attacks. I have tried this on a few occasions, and I felt quick relief.
The large, flannel-like leaves of mullein have other uses as well. I’ve used them as potholders … and even toilet paper. Additionally, a leaf can be rolled tight, bound with a wire and used as a wick in slush lamps. The tall, second-year stalk of the plant has been used as a drill when making fire with the hand drill, but I don’t find it to be a particularly ideal plant for this purpose.
There is a stick-like plant called Mormon Tea (Ephedra sp.) found throughout the southwestern United States. It is common in the California high deserts, in the Great Basin area, throughout Southern Colorado and down into Texas. It is sometimes found at herb stores.
The plant is a low shrub with branched, needle-like segments that have scales at the nodes. There are just a few species of Ephedra, each with a slightly different look and color. However, once you can recognize one Mormon Tea, you’ll be able to recognize them all.
In China, a related member of the Ephedra genus is the source of the drug ephedrine, which is used as a decongestant and a bronchodilator. Although the wild U.S. species contain much less ephedrine, they are nevertheless useful in home remedies to treat breathing problems associated with coughs and colds. Typically, the stems are brewed into a tea at low temperatures in a covered pot. It produces a mild, but distinctive, flavor and aroma that I like.
“EVEN IF YOU HAVE NO BREATHING PROBLEMS, YOU’LL FIND MORMON TEA A GREAT BEVERAGE, SWEETENED OR NOT.”
I have made an evening tea from Mormon Tea while camping in the desert, where there were no other beverage plants readily available. It has a pleasant flavor, and it is improved with just a touch of honey. Even if you have no breathing problems, you’ll find Mormon Tea a great beverage, sweetened or not.
No doubt there are many, many other remedies for coughs and sore throats. Included here were just a few of the common and widely available wild plants that are safe and easy to use.
There are many good references to choose from regarding medicinal wild plants, but I have found everything by herbalist Michael Moore to be top quality. Additionally, I have found Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany to be an excellent and comprehensive reference, even though there are no illustrations. I live in the western United States, so my first choice reference tends to be Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, by Cecilia Garcia and Dr. James D. Adams.
Remember: Don’t use any wild plant for food or medicine until you have done sufficient study and fieldwork to identify the plant with absolute certainty.
[Editor’s note: None of the above should be construed as a replacement for competent professional medical advice in a face-to-face setting. Chronic coughing or a chronic sore throat might be an indication of a serious disorder. Always consult a trained and licensed medical practitioner if you are experiencing any sort of chronic disorder.]
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April, 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.