13 Home Remedies for Bronchitis That Might Finally Ease Your Cough
Sometimes a run-of-the-mill upper respiratory tract infection takes a turn for the worse, and is no longer just a common cold. You cough, you wheeze, you have shortness of breath. You say you have a chest cold, but your doctor calls it acute bronchitis, also known as a lower respiratory tract infection. It sounds scary, but usually isn’t very serious, and most of the time you won’t need antibiotics because the majority of cases result from a viral infection, like a cold or flu.
Bronchitis causes the mucus lining of your bronchial tubes (which carry air to the lungs) to become inflamed and full of mucus. It’s temporary, and most people feel better in a week to 10 days, but your cough can linger for several weeks.
Fortunately, you won’t have to grin and bear it. There are plenty of home remedies for bronchitis that can ease your symptoms and suffering.
“None of these [bronchitis remedies] are going to actually reduce your duration of illness,” says Chris Carroll, MD, a member of the board of trustees of the American College of Chest Physicians. “But, you’ll feel better, and that’s important.”
Get some rest
When you’re fighting an infection, your body craves down time. It may be tough to power down and log off from work, but it’s essential.
“Rest is the forgotten ticket to healing for many acute illnesses,” says Amy Rothenberg, a licensed naturopathic physician in private practice and a member and founder of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
Experts say you need adequate sleep to maintain a healthy immune system. A Sept. 2015 study published in the journal Sleep found that people who are sleep-deprived are more vulnerable to the cold virus than those who get seven hours of slumber. That’s important because having a cold is often a precursor to bronchitis.
Drink lots of water
Staying adequately hydrated when you’re battling bronchitis helps to thin out mucus, making it easier to expel. And if you’re fighting a fever, you may already be dehydrated, so you want to replace lost fluid. Water is fine, but warm liquids may be more soothing. (Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages, which can dehydrate you.)
Although doctors widely recommend that patients with acute respiratory infections drink extra fluids, a 2011 scientific review found no evidence for or against boosting fluid intake. So far, there have been no randomized controlled trials to demonstrate the benefit or harm. Still, though, staying hydrated can only help your overall health; read up on the reasons why dehydration is bad for your body.
Try herbal and natural remedies
Certain herbs have medicinal effects that are soothing to inflamed mucus membranes of the respiratory tract. Rothenberg likes licorice root, a flowering plant called mullein, and the bark of the wild cherry tree (Prunus serotina). Health food stores carry these herbs in multiple formulations including liquid extracts, powders, and teas.
Bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapple, has been shown to be effective in reducing inflammation. It also helps with coughing up phlegm.
Ginger root is another good option, because it soothes and acts as an expectorant, said Rothenberg, who also serves as president of the Massachusetts Society of Naturopathic Doctors.
One of her favorites: Boil slices of ginger root to release its medicinal properties, add lemon and honey to the concoction, and drink up!
Add honey to your lemon water
Honey has been used as medicine since ancient times. It’s prized for its antibacterial properties. But the main reason honey is a bronchitis sufferer’s friend is that it soothes irritated mucus membranes, and it’s a sweet addition to tea or warm lemon water. (Lemon is widely used as an expectorant.)
Never give honey to infants and children under 1 year of age because it can cause botulism, a rare but potentially fatal type of food poisoning.
Eat spicy food
If you relish spicy food, the antidote to your phlegmy cough and congestion may hiding in your fridge or pantry. Powerful condiments like hot mustard, horseradish, and wasabi can help loosen up bronchial secretions, Rothenberg says.
Unless someone has an allergy or food sensitivity, she would recommend these spicy foods to help phlegmy patients “get things moving along.”
Hot chili peppers, which contain capsaicin, may also ease congestion by thinning out mucus. This recipe for pumpkin chili features cayenne pepper and fresh jalapenos, which will warm your belly as well as it will clear your sinuses.
Some people add a pinch of cayenne pepper to their tea, Rothenberg adds. Cayenne is used to boost blood flow, enhancing the effectiveness of other treatments, she explained.
Inhale some steam
Inhaled steam is widely recommended for loosening mucus and relieving wheezing. You can use a warm-air humidifier or vaporizer (we like the Vicks Warm Mist Humidifier, $33 at amazon.com), but you don’t need fancy equipment. Leaning over a sink of hot water with a towel over your head while breathing in the warm moisture can help. Repeat this several times a day.
Adding a drop or two of an essential oil, like eucalyptus, to the mix can also help open up a clogged airway. (Eucalyptus is known for its anti-inflammatory and pain-relief properties.)
A note of caution: Children can sustain scalding injuries from hot water spills or steam burns from vapor-producing devices. Instead, sit with your child while running a steamy shower in a closed the bathroom. Or consider using other treatment methods.
Gargle salt water
Swishing warm saline water in your mouth and throat several times a day when you have bronchitis may help wash away excess mucus.
“It’s not an antimicrobial; it won’t help treat the virus, or the bacteria if your have a bacterial infection,” Dr. Carroll explains. “But it will help improve your symptoms.”
Gargling may also help stave off future upper respiratory infections, like colds, which can progress to bronchitis. Japanese researchers randomly assigned nearly 400 healthy volunteers to gargle plain water or diluted antiseptic solution, or to maintain their usual habits, and found plain water gargling three times daily reduced upper respiratory tract infections by 36%. Even when people did get an infection, water gargling eased symptoms.
Pop a throat lozenge
For a sore throat, try popping a lozenge to ease irritation and keep your tender mucus membranes moist. (Here's a DIY cough drop recipe.)
Zinc lozenges pack an additional punch. In randomized controlled trials, zinc taken within 24 hours of the onset of cold symptoms has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of colds in healthy people.
Rothenberg prefers lozenges that combine zinc and herbs, like elderberry. Elderberries have been used throughout history to stimulate immunity and fight inflammation.
Lozenges are not appropriate for small children because they pose a choking hazard, but they’re fine for older children and adolescents.
Take an OTC cold drug
Over-the-counter cold remedies like expectorants, cough suppressants, and decongestants can’t cure bronchitis. And there’s some question about their benefit.
“At least in children, none of the over-the-counter medicines have been shown to improve symptoms or duration of illness,” says Dr. Carroll, who is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut.
Still, adults seeking respite from a nagging cough or sinus congestion may find they offer some relief. (Read up on the OTC remedies that work, and which don't.) What’s more, these medicines can be used along with other home remedies.
As for antihistamines, there are no good-quality trials to show whether they alleviate symptoms of acute bronchitis. The sleep-inducing antihistamine diphenhydramine (Benadryl) does offer one benefit, Dr. Carroll says: It can help children and adults get a good night’s rest.
Take an OTC painkiller
If you’re fighting a fever or seeking pain relief, acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin are also good options because they address pain, fever, and inflammation.
You can give a child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever, but never aspirin. (Aspirin is associated with Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal condition that causes brain swelling and liver damage.)
For a high or persistent fever, seek immediate medical attention.
Slurp chicken soup
Researchers at the University of Nebraska published results of their chicken soup experiment in the October 2000 issue the journal Chest. Using homemade soup and a few store-bought versions, they showed how the soup inhibited movement of infection-fighting white blood cells collected from healthy volunteers. The results suggest that chicken soup has a modest but measurable anti-inflammatory effect.
“The commercially available soups actually did better than grandma’s soup,” says Dr. Carroll. Of course, he adds, that was just one recipe: Your own grandmother’s soup might actually do better.
So go ahead and slurp up a bowlful of comfort.
If you’re a smoker, do your inflamed bronchial tubes a favor: Go smoke-free.
“We know that smoking will irritate and aggravate bronchitis,” Dr. Rothenberg said. “It prolongs acute symptoms.”
Plus, if your goal is to get rid of your bronchitis, giving your pipes a rest will help. “You are going to amplify the effectiveness of all the natural approaches to bronchitis if you are not smoking,” she said.
Load up on vitamin D
Observational studies show a link between low vitamin D levels and more frequent and severe bouts of upper respiratory tract infections in children and adults. (Being low on vitamin D is also linked to many health conditions.) But can popping supplements help?
Researchers in Canada tested vitamin D3 versus placebo and gargling (recommended in Japan) versus no gargling in a randomized controlled trial involving 600 young adults. The group that took 10,000 IU of vitamin D a week over eight weeks sharply cut their risk of upper respiratory tract infections. (Gargling did not appear to reduce infections in this study population.) Vitamin D shows promise, but larger and longer studies are needed, the authors concluded.
More recently, a randomized trial comparing high- and low-dose vitamin D supplementation in nursing home patients cut the incidence of acute respiratory infections.