What to Know About Natural Expectorants

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on September 14, 2023
4 min read

Expectorants are chemicals that help you clear phlegm or mucus from your respiratory tract — or your airways. They add moisture into the mucus, making it less sticky and easier to cough up.

Expectorants — even though they are a class of medicine used to treat cough — don't prevent coughing, but they help stop mucus from building up in your respiratory system. This is important because coughing up mucus is your body's way of removing microorganisms, foreign bodies, and excess mucus from your airways.

So, eventually, they provide more sustained relief. They are also used as a supportive treatment with other medications to help you recover from coughing.

There are several expectorants available as over-the-counter medicines, but some expectorants and cough remedies also occur naturally. 

Natural expectorants and cough remedies include various herbs and other natural substances that help clear your airways. Other natural treatments help soothe symptoms caused by inflammation of the upper airways. When infected or irritated by a cough or sore throat, the cells in your throat or upper airway triggers your immune system to help fight back. You can get relief from the symptoms by working to reduce the inflammation. Here are some natural ways that may be effective in helping to treat your cough:

Water. Water increases the moisture in mucus making it easier to expel. You can use water as an expectorant by drinking plenty of it alone or in the form of herbal tea or by gargling with salty water. You can also get the effects by using a humidifier or via steam inhalation.

Honey. Honey has been used to relieve cough and congestion for ages, with studies proving that it is an effective expectorant. To use honey as an expectorant, dissolve a tablespoon of honey in a glass of warm water. Drink the mixture throughout the day.

But, you shouldn't give honey to children aged below one year because it can make them very sick.

Ginger. Ginger is obtained from the roots of the ginger plant. It is widely used as medicine and food. Ginger relieves congestion and acts as an expectorant. To use it, crush the ginger bulb and boil it in a pan of water for a few minutes. Sip the drink throughout the day. But, before you consume ginger, remember that: 

Garlic. Garlic has many uses, and it is grown all over the world. It contains a chemical called allicin, which has medicinal properties. Garlic can help relieve cough if you crush it and then add it to hot water, which you can use during steam inhalation. You can also crush garlic, mix it with honey, and take a spoonful three times a day. But, avoid consuming garlic as a medicine if you are taking anticoagulants.

Holy basil. Holy basil — also known as tulsi — is a herb that helps to thin mucus. To use it as an expectorant, boil about 10 leaves of holy basil in a cup of water for 10 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool, and drink it three times a day. You can also add a few drops of holy basil oil to boiling water, and use it for steam inhalation.

But, you should avoid using holy basil if you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant or if you have diabetes or hypothyroidism.

Licorice. Licorice is a medicinal herb native to some parts of Europe and Asia. It contains chemicals that can thin mucus secretions and reduce sore throat incidence after some surgical procedures.

Place half a teaspoon of licorice in a cup of water, and boil it for 10 minutes. Then, drink this tea. You can also gargle half a teaspoon of licorice in a cup of warm water thrice a day or eat a licorice candy.

But, make sure you avoid using licorice if you have high blood pressure.

Peppermint. Peppermint contains menthol, which can relieve the symptoms of throat and chest infections. Peppermint oil is also an antispasmodic — i.e., it alleviates or stops muscle spasms in your respiratory tract. To use it as an expectorant, place a drop of peppermint oil in hot water and use it for steam inhalation. You can also drink peppermint tea. But, remember that:

Eucalyptus. Eucalyptus is used in many cough lozenges, inhalants, and vaporizers to loosen mucus and ease congestion. You can use it by placing two drops of eucalyptus oil in water and using it for steam inhalation. But, eucalyptus oil is toxic when consumed orally.

Menthol. Menthol is used for its anesthetic properties as well as its ability to counter-irritants. It can relieve both a cough and sore throat. 

Aloe vera. Aloe has anti-inflammatory properties and helps soothe and reduce irritation of the airways.

Ivy leaf. The leaves of the ivy leaf plant Hedera helix are an effective expectorant. They work by widening your airways and stimulating fluid secretion — i.e., phlegm expulsion. This herb and its extracts should be taken orally to gain their expectorant effects.

Make sure ivy leaf extracts aren't given to children aged less than two years. Also, ivy leaf can give you digestive system upsets and allergic reactions, so use it carefully.

Aspirin. Look for over the counter products that contain very low doses of aspirin. When it is applied to inflamed tissues caused by an upper respiratory infection it helps reduce the symptoms of sore throat.