February blues

…Or rather, greys. The winter bugs are hanging on this year, and I’ve had a run on herbs for coughs in particular. Everyone knows you can buy cough mixture with herbs – among other things – in it, and anyone who’s looked at the research also knows that it’s not very effective. But that’s not the whole story.
Coughing has three main causes, and they usually overlap. Firstly, it’s a response to irritation in your respiratory tract. That can be down to inhaling something – smoke, pollen and so on – or inflammation arising from infection, acid reflux from your stomach, or other less common causes.
Secondly, it’s your body’s way of trying to clear mucus from your lungs, bronchi or higher up in the respiratory tract. Some mucus is produced all the time, and it doesn’t cause you any trouble, but when there is too much, it interferes with breathing. That happens when you have an infection like bronchitis, or a chronic problem like asthma, emphysema, bronchiectasis and so on.
Thirdly, coughing can be a response to stress. The soft tissues of the throat and larynx will tighten and become drier when you are anxious, and that leads to nervous responses like coughing, swallowing or clearing your throat. It’s only a problem when it becomes chronic, or interferes with things like public speaking.
When you buy a proprietary cough medicine, it usually contains a mixture of ingredients for all of these things, so it will do a little of everything, but not much of anything. Most of what’s in it is glycerine or syrup, which makes it thick and soothing, slowing down its journey into your stomach. But if you know what’s causing your cough, you can do a lot better than that. Anti-infective herbs include Thyme, Elecampane, Echinacea and Elderflower. Soothing herbs like Marshmallow and Liquorice, Sweet Violet and Mullein calm inflammation and moisten a dry throat. If you need to cough up mucus from your lungs or bronchi, stimulating herbs like Angelica or Horehound will help. And for a nervous cough, try Limeflowers, Cramp Bark or Cowslips.
These are just a few possibilities; there are plenty of others. An inhalation may work better than cough medicine, too, especially when the worst of the cold is over but the congestion is hard to shift. And February is almost over…