You can make your own soothing cough drops from slippery elm bark, marsh mallow, or licorice root.
If sore throats are a common problem in your family, you may wish to consider building up your body’s immune system with herbal immunostimulants such as echinacea, astragalus, and Siberian ginseng. A strong immune system is a good defense against the viral or bacterial infections that cause sore throats.
If a bug has already gotten the better of you, some common herbal remedies may offer relief. Menthol, the main fragrance component of the essential oils of peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita) and Japanese mint (M. arvensis var. piperascens), and oil of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.) are common ingredients of over-the-counter throat lozenges. You can also make your own soothing cough drops or teas from slippery elm bark, marsh mallow, or licorice root to make swallowing less painful.
The only herbal ingredients approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat sore throats are menthol and eucalyptus oil, both local anesthetics. Commercial menthol-flavored throat lozenges usually contain between 1 and 10 mg of menthol, which may have been extracted from mint leaves or produced synthetically. Products containing menthol should not be given to children younger than two years old. In rare instances, products containing menthol applied to the skin has caused skin lesions or triggered asthmatic attacks.
Eucalyptus oil is an ingredient of many cough drops, nasal inhalers, balms, ointments, and mouthwashes. It is generally considered safe in the amounts used in these over-the-counter medications.
The lemon oil, hyssop, horehound, linden flowers, and other natural ingredients found in many sore-throat lozenges contribute only flavoring.
The mucilaginous inner bark of slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) has soothed irritated mucous membranes since colonial times. Slippery elm throat lozenges, with their distinctive sweet scent and bland taste, have stocked U.S. drugstore shelves for more than a century.
The bark of this American native tree is gathered in early spring. The outer bark is scraped off and the tawny inner bark peeled away in long, stringy slabs. Today, slippery elm is sold almost exclusively in powdered or cut-and-sifted form.
Besides using the bark to treat their sore throats, early settlers also poulticed it on sores, burns, chilblains, boils, and the lesions of syphilis and leprosy. Bark poultices were the primary treatment for gunshot wounds during the American Revolution.
Slippery elm bark was adopted as an official drug for soothing mucous membranes in the first U.S. Pharmacopoeia of 1820. Commercial slippery elm lozenges are available at some pharmacies and health-food stores, but I prefer to make a thick paste of powdered slippery elm bark and honey, roll it into marble-sized balls, then dust each lozenge with dry slippery elm powder. They will keep indefinitely in a closed container in the freezer.
To make a soothing tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1/2 teaspoon of the finely powdered bark. Stir until the powder dissolves and then sip. Take up to three cups a day.
The roots and leaves of marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), a European native that has naturalized in North America, also contain mucilage that may be used to relieve sore throats. The German health authorities allow the use of leaf and root preparations to soothe irritated mucous membranes in cases of sore throat accompanied by a dry cough.
Peeled root is considered of higher quality than root retaining its outer bark, and the roots are considered more potent than the leaves. Marsh mallow is available as whole, cut-and-sifted, and powdered roots, as well as in teas, capsules, and syrups.
To make a pleasant, soothing tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 2 to 3 teaspoons of the powdered root or a heaping tablespoon of the cut-and-sifted root, steep for five minutes, strain, and sip. Drink 2 to 3 cups per day.
Marsh mallow also stimulates the immune system slightly. Both it and slippery elm are generally safe to take, but their mucilagin content may absorb and hence reduce the action of other drugs taken at the same time.
The use of licorice root to treat sore throats is centuries old. The root, which is obtained from several members of the genus Glycyrrhiza in the pea family, has an intensely sweet, musty flavor, which comes from a compound called glycyrrhizin, a triterpene glycoside that is fifty times as sweet as sugar. (The flavor many people think of as licorice is actually anise; some “licorice” confections contain no licorice root at all.)
Commercially cultivated in Europe and Asia, licorice is valued there today as a treatment for sore throats as well as for coughs, inflammation, and gastric ulcers.
To make a decoction, place 2 to 3 tablespoons of the chopped root in a quart of water and simmer until the liquid is reduced to half its original volume. Sip as many as 2 cups per day to treat a sore throat. It will keep in the refrigerator overnight. When I have a mild sore throat, I like to nibble a pencil-sized length of whole licorice root (available at health-food stores). When saliva coats my throat, the licorice goes to work soothing the irritation.
Do not exceed the daily dose, and discontinue use after four to six weeks because extended use can cause water retention and high blood pressure due to sodium retention and potassium loss. Pregnant women, individuals with heart or liver disease or high blood pressure, and those taking diuretics or digitalis should not take licorice.
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“Herbs for Health” is intended as an educational service, not a source of medical advice or a guide for self-medication. Please consult a qualified health-care professional for treatment of any serious health problems. For further information on any of the topics in “Herbs for Health”, write the American Botanical Council or the Herb Research Foundation.