Coughs and Runny Noses

 “Here. Blow.” Another mother gives my son a kleenex and makes a motion to her own nose which she hopes will facilitate the exchange. My son looks up at her blankly. “Blow,” she says again. “Its not good for them to have so much mucous in their nose.” The people-pleaser/health worker in me agrees instantly, and probably with more fervor than I actually feel to save some face. The truth is, I didn’t even notice that his nose needed blowing (there wasn’t any thick oozing gunk halfway down to his lip, and isn’t that the universal time for a tissue?).

“Have you tried a coat?” This comment is not as catty as it sounds, merely inquisitive and helpful, if not painfully obvious. I look down then at my son and realize, while I am wearing knee-high boots, heavy pants, a wool sweater, a scarf and a leather jacket, he is wearing a collared tee-shirt and a light sweater. No coat, no scarf. Thank god I remembered his socks.

 I’ve been thinking about the runny nose and cough that I see most frequently at this time of year in my clinic, and now wonder if the first words of wisdom I should give my clients are, “have you tried a coat?”

But since coughs and runny nose come at many times of year (even to coat-wearing children), here are some other favorite remedies:

Easiest Solutions

  • Start with a warm bath. The warmth of the bath can relax breathing, and loosen mucus. In children over age two, consider adding, eucalyptus, wintergreen and/or lavender essential oil, 2-3 drops by themselves, or 1-2 drops of each in any combination.
  • After bath, bundle up your child warmly, and encourage warm liquids and broth (for tea suggestions, see SIMPLE KITCHEN REMEDIES.)
  • Most of all, encourage rest. Rest is the best way I know to encourage the body to repair itself, for both children and adults.

Acupressure Points

  • On the forearm, starting with the palm side up, trace a line from the base of the thumb a little more than 1/2 way between the wrist and the elbow. Apply some firm pressure in this area and when you get an "owww!" you've found it. When you hold this point, known as Lung 6, you may even feel a little bump. You can both massage and place a magnet on this point. Encourage the child to press it when they feel a cough coming on.
  • You can also massage or place magnets on the thumb side of the forearm in what may feel like an indentation almost directly underneath the protruding styloid process bone below the thumb, and another directly below the protruding bone on the inside of the ankle on the opposite side. (If your child has a runny nose, but no cough, use the first point only, rather than as a pair). With these points, keep the magnets on for the duration of your massage then take them off. With other magnets, you can leave them on and press on them periodically for a few hours, up to a few days, or until they fall off, whichever comes first. On these two points, I usually like to leave them on no longer than 15 minutes. If your child feels dizzy or faint, remove them immediately and press underneath the ball of your child's feet. These can be very strong, very effective points.
  • Have your child turn onto their belly and place your hands on either side of the spine level with where the neck joins the body. Begin pressing down both sides of the spine until you reach the level of the scapula 50-100 times. You may notice quite a bit of redness after doing this technique and this is actually a good sign. This area relates to the lungs and the tissue there can get congested when there is a cough or allergies.
  • As you look at the back you will see one prominent bony vertebrae near where the neck and the shoulders meet. On either side of the spine at this level and slightly above it is the point called "ding chuan". Press firmly on either side of this point to help with any wheezing or cough. Magnets are extremely useful here too.

Safe Kitchen Recipes

  • If your child shows first signs of a cough, get your kitchen ready with slippery elm bark powder. Slippery elm bark is the inner bark of the tree, that forms a gelatinous fiber when added to liquid. It has been used for centuries by Native Americans for cough, and is considered quite safe, even for young children. It tastes sweet, and can be placed in warm water or apple juice – usually 1 teaspoon is sufficient for a cough, or even sprinkled onto oatmeal or other foods. Aviva Jill Romm, in her book on Naturally Healthy Babies and Children, outlines a great recipe for slippery bark cough lozenges, made from two tablespoons of slippery elm powder, and enough honey to give it the consistency of dough. Then roll the dough “into a long, thin snake” and cut it into bite-size pieces, about ¼ inch thick. For children under 15 months old, try using maple syrup instead of honey, and only if they’re already accustomed to solid foods.
  • Loquat syrup is a mentholated syrup that is readily accessible in Asian markets and, I’ve noticed lately, in health food stores. It tastes great – to kids that is, I think it is cloying sweet – and stops mild coughs almost instantly in many cases. This is also a very safe remedy for young children.
  • Lemons are one of nature’s treasures for antimicrobial activity (ie virus and bacteria killing). A little warm home-made lemonade, sweetened with honey – which has its own antimicrobial effects, and you’ve got an ultra-effective, safe and inexpensive cough syrup. Again, for kids under 15 months, skip the honey, and try a little maple syrup instead.
  • If your child’s cough is non-productive – in other words, they are not coughing out mucus – and it sounds raspy and dry, rather than wet and croupy, try bananas, sliced and cooked into a thick stew – this is old Chinese nutritional wisdom, as bananas have lubricating properties. If your baby is eating solid foods, this is a great solution for him or her, too.
  • Also try daikon radish, grated and steamed with a little sea salt – this is great for many coughs, especially the kind that’s dry, or that seems to be making little one cranky.
  • Finally, cooked pears are excellent at alleviating symptoms of a ‘hot’ cough – a cough accompanied by flushed face, fever, and sometimes, not always, green mucous – its also great for dry cough. As with most food remedies, this is great for babies, provided they have already begun to eat solid foods.

One thing to know about many cough remedies: Eastern medicine links the lungs to the large intestine – they’re considered a pair, which means the way one functions has effects on the other. The advent of this relationship is not particularly surprising if we consider that many naturally-occurring cough remedies are also constipation remedies. Don’t be surprised if stools get a little looser, although back off on any remedy if stools get consistently watery or contain a lot of undigested food.

The Morning After:

As a cough progresses you may notice that the cough develops a wet quality. You may also notice that with both coughs and runny nose most young children have a difficult time expelling mucus and will swallow it back down. When treating this type of condition it is important to try and keep the mucus thin. A thick mucus becomes sluggish and provides a great host for bacterial growth and possible infection. Here are some things that are helpful:

  • Feed your child lots of warm liquids.
  • Try an in-room humidifier - keeping the air moist can keep the lungs moist, and prevent thickening of mucus. Just make sure you clean the humidifier frequently to keep mold and bacteria from growing there.
  • If your child shows any signs of impacted mucus in his or her nose, use a salt-water nasal spray. You can make your own, by combining ¼-1/2 teaspoon of non-iodized salt with 8 oz of water and ½ teaspoon of baking soda (just use a couple of drops, its not necessary to use all 8 oz), or buy one over the counter, in spray or drop form. If you buy one over the counter, buy one without additives or preservatives, which can be very irritating. It’s important to keep the mucous soft and running out, so it doesn’t make a home in the sinuses or ears, as breeding grounds for bacteria.
  • Fritillaria and Pinella syrup is a staple in my medicine cabinet. This syrup helps to reduce the phlegm and tastes yummy. You'll need to consult with a Chinese medical practitioner or look for it in an asian market in order to get it. Then keep it on hand for future use.
  • And, when a child is unable to expel the mucus they may have some upset tummy from swallowing it. In this instance Ginger tea can help settle the tummy.
  • Another remedy I have used with success is giving your child digestive enzymes. These enzymes, taken in between meals help break down the proteins in the mucus and aid the body in cutting down on the amount. If your child does not swallow capsules - often their preferred form - you can split the capsules open and mix them with just a little bit of maple syrup.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine considers dairy a 'mucus'-producing food group, and always recommends eliminating all dairy products for the duration of a wet type cough. Dairy products include milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt. We have also always found this temporary diet change to be beneficial.

Some times a child's mucousy cough will turn rather dry and croupy sounding. With my own clients I have had this experience and wondered "where did all that phlegm from yesterday suddenly go". In this situation the phlegm has become thick and the child can no longer cough it up. The nose is generally not running but they may sound congested and the cough may be worse at night. Massage is important for this type of cough.

  • Back clapping is helpful to loosen the phlegm in the lungs. With a cupped hand clap firmly on your child's back, moving your hand as you go to work the whole back side of the lungs.

If your child's cough persists, or recurs with frequency, check in with your primary health care provider, and take a look at the immune-building techniques in the Keeping your Child Healthy and Strong section for techniques you can use to help strengthen your child’s natural defenses. A lingering or recurrent cough can also be a sign of asthma, even if it does not sound wheezy. Please check with your physician, and check out the section on asthma and allergies in the section on Chronic Conditions.

 Preventative Measures

  • When your town’s weather changes from warm to cold, keep your child’s neck warm. Chinese medicine has long held that the neck is where ‘invasions of cold’ first enter. A light scarf is great, even before its time for parkas.
  • At first signs of a runny nose, begin a regimen of digestive enzymes, with protease. Proteolytic enzymes reduce inflammation, break down mucus, and bolster digestion – which has a big role in immunity. A couple of enzymes on an empty stomach and before bed can play a great preventative role. Give them at least 1 ½ hours after your child’s last meal, and 45 minutes before the next one. In my house, I break the capsules open and put them in just a little bit of maple syrup; it started out for swallowing ease when my son was a baby and has since since turned them into a treat.
  • At the beginning of a cough or runny nose ‘season’ at home, daycare, or school, you'll want to make sure your child is getting extra rest. If possible, that goes for you too, mama and papa.
  • If your child tends toward weak digestion, pale complexion, and or loose stools, a good thing to do at the first signs of runny nose or cough is to give your child warm or cooked foods. Cooked foods can be easier for young children and children with sensitive digestion. Basically when you cook food you utilize the energy of the stove versus using your stomach as a stove. This frees up some extra energy for you child's immune system. Maybe this is one of the reasons grandma’s chicken soup remedies have stood the test of time.
  • Consider a vitamin C supplement (if your child is under 4 years old, get a supplement specifically formulated for children). Vitamin C is water-soluble, safe, and gives your child’s body an extra dose of antioxidants as needed. Take as directed, in up to three divided doses a day. If your child’s stools get loose, back off a little on the quantity you’re giving.

 And put your kid’s coat on, honey. It’s cold out there. 

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Coughs and Runny Noses