5 Natural Expectorants to Help Rid Your Unrelenting Cough

Last updated on June 13th, 2023 at 11:49 am

An unrelenting cough can generate an overload of stress. It’s annoying irrespective of whether you’re sick or have a long-standing health condition. But a chronic cough is even worse. It can make you feel beside yourself with exhaustion, making it much harder to face the strains of everyday life.

This is where natural expectorants come in. 

Now get this: over-the-counter (OTC) medicinal expectorants don’t cut it for everyone. Some people need to seek natural alternatives to get around the side effects or have specific medical conditions. For example, you may opt for natural alternatives if you:

  • Have had an allergic reaction or intolerance to medicinal expectorants
  • Have contraindication to some of the ingredients in combination medications 
  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Are younger than 12 years old

Also, natural expectorants are a better alternative for people who do a lot of driving (medicinal expectorants can mess with your ability to drive [1]) and those who are taking antidepressants and heart medication.

OTC expectorants such as phenylephrine may interact with antidepressants and heart medications as well as cause high blood pressure. [2

All said and done, a long-standing cough can be stubborn, and you can be hell-bent on beating it. Natural expectorants can offer much-needed relief. Today, we’ll walk you through some of the most effective natural alternatives that help treat a persistent cough. 

What Is an Expectorant? 

(Image source: Pxhere)

An expectorant is a type of cough medicine that falls under the mucoactive class of drugs. It’s used to clear mucus from the airways and is usually prescribed to patients suffering from acute respiratory infections such as flu, the common cold, pneumonia, or bronchitis. [3

An expectorant can also relieve symptoms of a chronic cough caused by postnasal drip, asthma, and acid reflux.

So, How Does It Work? 

When you catch the flu or other respiratory tract infections, your body produces mucus as protective armor for your respiratory tract. 

From the human vantage point, the problem arises when the mucus gets too thick to cough up. This mucus accumulation causes an unrelenting cough and chest discomfort.

This is where expectorants come in. They help treat the cough symptoms by thinning the respiratory secretions in your airways. Unlike cough suppressants that block the cough reflex, expectorants make your cough more productive. 

As a result, you can clear your throat and cough up mucus more effectively. Below are the two types of expectorants.

Types of Expectorants Most commonly used expectorants 

Medicinal expectorants are over-the-counter drugs. 

They’re available as standalone drugs or as an ingredient in an all-in-one cold or flu medication and are used to relieve chest congestion.
Guaifenesin and ammonium chloride combined with diphenhydramine.
A natural expectorant is a natural cough medicine that loosens mucus. 
Natural remedies such as honey, peppermint, and herbal teas. 

Healthcare professionals also recommend using humidifiers or steam inhalation to relieve chest congestion and cough. [4

Try These Natural Expectorants 

1 – Peppermint 

(Image source: Wikimedia)

Peppermint is a herb that gives your toothpaste that extra punch, but it can also help clear your lungs. The herb contains a natural chemical known as menthol. 

This waxy, crystalline substance gives you a cooling sensation and lubricates your airway. That said, it works great to thin the mucus and alleviate the congestion in your chest.

  • One study has examined the effectiveness of menthol in treating evoked cough. The number of coughs was significantly reduced in subjects exposed to 75% menthol solution before the exposure to an irritating mist. [5]
  • According to two other studies, menthol vapor is effective in reducing the number of coughs triggered by a fixed concentration of citric acid. [6]

You can opt for cough syrups, throat lozenges, or tea when seeking natural treatments containing menthol. Alternatively, take some menthol crystals to prepare a homemade herbal steam therapy. 

2 – Steam Therapy

Sometimes your cough will make you think you’ve hit a dead end, especially when you have difficulty breathing. Steam inhalation or steam therapy can be an effective way to bootstrap yourself out of it.

While inhaling water vapor, the warm, moist air loosens the mucus in your nasal passages, throat, and lungs. It opens the blocked airways and makes the phlegm less sticky and easier to cough up. [7]

Also, steam therapy may soothe inflamed blood vessels in your nasal passages and help relieve your respiratory symptoms as they worsen in the winter. The warmth and moisture in steam therapy will soothe the dried-out mucous membranes and improve blood flow in your nasal cavity. 

3 – Honey 

Another way to help treat your nagging cough is by using plain old confectionary. Its beneficial effects stretch from heart health to wound care, but honey is also a natural mucolytic. 

These health effects aren’t surprising considering how much bee magic goes into making honey. Did you know a pound of honey takes 2 million flower visits? 

But back to the topic, honey may help relieve your cough by loosening mucus, and you can add honey to a cup of tea or even mix it with warm milk. 

Although there’s limited evidence confirming that honey works, one study has shown the beneficial effects of honey in treating children with upper respiratory infections. [8]

According to the NHS website, hot lemon with honey has a similar effect to cough medicines. [9]

Note: you should avoid giving honey to children younger than one due to the risk of botulism.

4 – Ivy Leaf Extract

Ivy leaf is a popular natural remedy coming in liquid, soft, and dry extract preparations, and it’s used for treating a productive cough. 

It’s supposed that the ivy leaf works by widening the air passages in your lungs and stimulating the bronchial glands to secrete a watery fluid. Other researchers propose its effectiveness is down to the secretory properties of triterpene saponins (organic compounds found in the extract). 

Although more scientific research is needed to determine the effectiveness of ivy leaf extract in relieving upper airway congestion symptoms, there is some evidence it may help reduce cough severity

One study examining children with acute bronchitis showed that ivy leaf extract gives similar results to acetylcysteine, which is effective in treating this condition. [10] A 2017 Polish study reported an 84.7% reduction in coughing and chest pain in subjects treated with a medicine containing ivy leaf. [11]

5 – N-Acetylcysteine

N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) is a potent antioxidant that offers symptomatic relief for different conditions affecting your upper airway. 

You can take it in the form of an injectable solution, a solution for inhalation, or in the form of a supplement for oral use. These natural expectorants are available at local pharmacies and online.

NAC can help reduce the use of medicinal expectorants as its natural mucolytic effect helps clear mucus more easily. Not less importantly, NAC holds the potential for treating conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as well as chronic bronchitis. 

A graphic demonstrating the effects of n-acetylcysteine in terms of improving lung health
(Image source: MPDI)

Namely, COPD is characterized by long-term oxidative damage to the lungs paired with inflammation of lung tissue. That said, oral administration of NAC has been reported to reduce inflammation in patients suffering from COPD. [12

This is achieved by the strong antioxidant properties of NAC, which is achieved by replenishing glutathione levels in your body. 

NAC also serves as an expectorant that relieves symptoms caused by the swelling of bronchial tubes in patients with chronic bronchitis. Studies have shown that NAC can reduce coughing and wheezing in these patients. [13]

Do Expectorants Make You Cough More?

Yes, an expectorant will make you cough more. It is indicated when you’re having difficulty coughing up the excess mucus, which tends to get thick and sticky. An expectorant will help you clear mucus easier and make your cough more productive

Your end goal will be different depending on your cold and flu symptoms. You should seek to suppress coughs with a cough suppressant exclusively if your cough is dry or tickly.  

Otherwise, taking an expectorant to promote and eventually ease your cough is best. Coughing is how your body removes bacteria and viruses and fends itself from the infection. 

A graphic showing how mucus-secreting cells work and how mucus is produced
(Image source: SlidePlayer)

Are There Any Precautions and Contraindications? 

Natural expectorants are designed to temporarily reduce mucus buildup, not to treat an underlying cause of your illness. If you have a chronic condition, using expectorants can mask the symptoms, possibly leaving you without the appropriate treatment for your primary condition. 

That said, talk to your healthcare provider for further advice. They may prescribe you another treatment in addition to an expectorant to help your healing process. 

Talk to your doctor if your cough worsens after seven days or if you experience a relapse. These may be signs of a serious medical problem. 

What Are the Side Effects of Natural Expectorants?

A natural expectorant won’t give you any considerable side effects. Menthol poses no risk to your health unless you’re allergic to it. Although rare, allergic reactions to menthol can cause hives or difficulty breathing.   

You may experience allergic reactions, vomiting or diarrhea as possible side effects of ivy leaf extract. [14

It’s worth noting that NAC expectorants have been linked to rare adverse reactions but are well tolerated if used in 1,200 mg dosage twice daily. Side effects are unusual but may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, flushing, or transient skin rash. [15

Get Rid Of Chronic Cough Once and For All 

Chronic cough can weigh down on you in ways you never thought possible. When your condition starts bordering on unbearable, you’ll do anything to get back to feeling like a functional human again. 

The basic idea around natural expectorants is breaking up phlegm naturally—with minimal to no side effects. We hope our list above puts you on track to follow through with your healing. 

Simply Nutrients is a doctor-owned US-based health team that’s passionate about natural health solutions. We believe in quality natural health products and advice by real people who care and share the philosophy that your health is the best investment you’ll ever make!

Not ready to shop from us yet? Check out our definitive guide on N-Acetylcysteine. Feel free to write to our customer service center, too—staying true to our customer-centric values is at the heart of what we do.  


[1] https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Guaifenesin

[2] https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2012/203826s000lbl.pdf

[3] https://breathe.ersjournals.com/content/7/2/122

[4] https://www.publichealthontario.ca/-/media/documents/e/2017/eb-humidifier-hc.pdf?la=en

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC475243/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4638412/

[7] https://www.nhsfife.org/media/35666/steam-inhalation-leaflet.pdf

[8] https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/130/3/465/30142/Effect-of-Honey-on-Nocturnal-Cough-and-Sleep

[9] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cough/


[11] https://europepmc.org/article/med/29478973


[13] https://erj.ersjournals.com/content/16/2/253.short


[15] https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2009/0801/p265.html


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Medically reviewed by Dr. Jamy Antoine, D.C. — by Chris Bowman — On November 4, 2022


Chris Bowman

Chris Bowman is the CEO and Co-Founder of SimplyNutrients.com and has over 15 years of experience in nutritional sciences and wellness. Simply Nutrients is a part of Dr. Jamy Antoine's Select Health Practice in Edina, Minnesota. Chris is passionate about helping people live healthier lives by using the best practices of nature, nutrition, and medicine.