Expectorants - Respiratory Aids


An expectorant is a substance that improves the clearing of excess mucus from the lungs by either altering the viscosity of mucus or improving the cough reflex.

Expectorants are a useful tool for the herbalist and naturopath to enable the removal of waste and toxins seated in the respiratory system. 

Expectorants Classification

There are three categories of expectorants used by herbalists/naturopaths:

1. Stimulating Expectorants

Work by exciting the mucociliary escalator by reflex stimulation of the upper digestive tract wall.  Thus many emetics were used traditionally in sub emetic doses to promote expectoration. Examples: Ipecacuanha, Squills, and Lobelia.

Other non emetic herbs that are stimulating expectorants are: Elecampane, White horehound, Sweet violet, Heartsease Mullein and Licorice.

Common constituents of stimulating expectorants are saponins and bitters and are probably a major component in their activity.

Stimulating expectorants are useful in congestive catarrhal conditions such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

2. Warming Expectorants 

Generally pungent spices which probably increase the blood flow to the respiratory tract and also irritate the gastric mucosa as stimulating expectorants do.  They also decrease the thickness of the mucus.

Examples: Garlic, Ginger, Cinnamon, Aniseed, Fennel and Angelica.

Warming expectorants often contain volatile oils.

Warming expectorants  are useful in conditions where coldness and poor circulation is a factor such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema.

3. Relaxing Expectorants 

Containing mucilage, these herbal expectorants work by soothing the respiratory tract and reducing inflammation and can also help to liquefy mucus.  Also sometimes contain volatile oils.

Examples: Marshmallow, Ribwort, Licorice, Coltsfoot, Hyssop, Elecampane, Mullein, Thyme and White horehound.

Relaxing expectorants are useful in dry, irritable and non-productive coughs, acute bronchitis, children’s coughs and asthma.



  1. Bone, K. (2003). A clinical guide to blending liquid herbs. St. Louis, MO: Churchill Livingstone
  2. Rubin, B.K. 2002. The Pharmacologic Approach to Airway Clearance: Mucoactive Agents.The Science Journal of the American Association for Respiratory Care 47:7-818

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