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Coughing: Dr. Starbuck Explains

Even horses cough!
MaxPixels (Creative Commons)
Even horses cough!

Hi! I’m Dr. Jamison Starbuck, a naturopathic family physician. I’m here today with health tips for kids about coughing.


If you’ve never had a cough, raise your hand because you are unusual.

There are all kinds of coughs and just about everybody coughs at one time or another. There are wet coughs, where thick, sticky gunk comes out. There are dry coughs, coughs that make a whooping sound, and coughs that make a barking sound. There are wheezing coughs, hacking coughs, painful coughs, rattley coughs, coughs that go on and on, and dry, annoying, irritating coughs that kind of drive you crazy because they happen whenever you try to talk or take a deep breath.

Coughs occur when you have an infection, like a cold or the flu. They can happen because of something irritating in the air, like smoke or dust, or because your lungs are inflamed, which happens when kids have allergies or asthma. The kind of cough I’m talking about today is the one you can get when you have an upper respiratory tract infection.

Your respiratory tract is that part of your body that helps you breathe. The upper respiratory tract is the part above your lungs, the part that’s in your head and neck. It includes your nose, your sinuses and your throat. When you have a cold, that’s an upper respiratory tract infection.

When you breathe, air goes in your nose and down your throat into your lungs. Think back to the last time you had a cold – or maybe you have one now. There’s mucus in your nose. It might be green, or yellow or white; maybe it’s thick or thin, maybe it’s burning the skin under your nose leaving a red, raw patch on your upper lip. When you have a cold, it can be hard to breathe through your nose because the air can’t get through the mucus. And guess what? That same mucus is what causes you to cough.

Yep, that mucus not only comes out the front of your nose, it goes out the back of your nose and down your throat. This irritates your throat and makes it contract and spasm and then you cough. Coughing is your body’s way of protecting your lungs. The cough pushes out the infected mucus, keeping the infection from spreading into your lungs.

So, in a way, a cough is a good thing. But it’s also annoying, and exhausting and not much fun. So here are three tips to help your cough go away quickly:

First, you’ve got to treat the cold so that the infection and the mucus disappear. I suggest rest, lots of water, light warm meals like soup and stew and baked squash, lots of vitamin C and several cups of Echinacea tea.

Second, do an herbal steam to move the mucus out. Ask your parents to help you do this. Put one teaspoon each of dried chamomile, lavender and mint into a quart of water in a saucepan. Put the pan on the stove and bring the water to a boil. Then turn off the heat, place the pan where you can put your head over the top of it, and breathe in the herbal steam. After about 5 minutes, get some tissue or a handkerchief and gently blow out as much mucus as you can.

Third, use honey, licorice and slippery elm as cough medicines. These natural medicines soothe your throat and make you cough less. Ask your parents to help you with this. They can make licorice and slippery elm tea and sweeten it with honey. Or they can get a tincture (which is a liquid medicine) of licorice and slippery elm and stir your dose of the medicine right into a spoon of honey. Then you slowly eat the honey –and the medicine – right off the spoon!

Fourth, get more oxygen. When kids have a cough, they often start taking tiny breaths to try to prevent the cough. But our amazing bodies need lots of oxygen to heal and to be in tip top health. So sit quietly and practice deep, slow breathing. It can be kind of fun to see how many slow, deep breaths you can do without coughing. When you can do ten long, deep breaths without a single cough, you are getting better!

I’m Dr. Jamison Starbuck and I’m wishing you well.