A Natural Cough Remedy You Don’t Need to Swallow

kids hydrotherapy for bronchitisWhen I met the Wendy’s Eating Boyfriend at Penn State, one of the first things I learned about him was that he had a coughing problem. I also learned that he didn’t start eating sandwiches until high school because he couldn’t handle his food being mixed together. But that story is for a different day.

Several years later when we lived in Seattle, one of our former landlords who lived above us, told us that the only noise they ever heard coming from our apartment was the Wendy’s Eating Husband’s cough. We thought they’d hear the baby crying. Nope. They didn’t hear the baby. They heard the Wendy’s Eating Husband coughing.

When the Wendy’s Eating Husband started working at his current job a few years ago, his co-workers were commenting to each other this exact phrase, “the new guy sure does cough a lot!”.

When your co-workers start calling you “the cougher” behind your back, what that really means is that you have a lung problem and it’s annoying everybody, including your boss. If it’s your family pointing out your issues, you can usually ignore that. But once you have people at work talking about the “things you need to work on” at the water cooler, you have got a serious situation.

The good news is that you can do something about this. You can go to the doctor. I know that may sound foreign to some of you who haven’t stepped into a doctor’s office since you had your mandated teenage sports physical (and understandably so).

You have to go to the doctor to make sure your cough isn’t going to kill you. It would be very important to know if you had some rare lung disease or lung cancer. You should not be using the treatment I’m about to introduce to you for lung cancer or pleuritis. However, if the doctor confirms a basic productive cough from the common cold, bronchitis, or pneumonia, you have the golden ticket to utilize this topical natural cough remedy.

I’m not saying anything about whether or not you should use antibiotics or that this should be used as a substitute for antibiotics. That really is a case by case decision that only your doctor can make. If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, then take them. You can still use this at-home treatment while you are on antibiotics.

This naturopathic cough treatment works wonders for chest congestion and tightness. I prescribe it for all ages, but I really like this treatment for toddlers.  Sometimes, you can do all the song and dance in the world, and you just can’t get your toddler to swallow the magical cough potion. But, you can get your tired toddler to lay down before bed. Laying down is easier than forcing a child to swallow something they don’t like, especially when the child doesn’t feel well.

I gave this cough treatment to my four year old daughter last fall when she had bronchitis  — once a day for several nights in a row, immediately before bed. She enjoyed it so much that she started asking for it! Note that both kids and adults alike do wince when the cold towel is placed on the chest, as you can see my daughter in the photo below.

This natural cough therapy, which I have named Barking Lung Cough Therapy, is all done externally, directly over the chest where the lungs reside. First, a homemade chest rub with thyme essential oil is heavily slathered all over the chest. Thyme is my favorite herb for both viral and bacterial chest infections. You can read more about thyme’s benefits here.

Then, a very hot towel (as hot as possible to touch but not hot enough to burn) is placed on top of the chest rub, on the chest, to help open skin pores for optimal tissue absorption of the thyme essential oil. To trap the heat, the hot towel is immediately covered with the Vellux blanket, the sheet, and then the wool blanket. The hot towel stays in place for 3 minutes.

After the hot phase, the hot towel is removed and very quickly replaced with an icy cold towel. Then, the cold towel is covered with a Vellux blanket, a sheet, and a wool blanket (in that order) to warm up the person receiving treatment. The cold towel is removed once the person warms it up (usually about 10-15 minutes). I like ending on cold because it has a vasoconstrictive effect that can help relieve congestion. I used to recommend this therapy as a hot application only, but have more recently added the cold phase to enhance the benefits. The contrasting hot/cold helps to stimulate the immune system.

Using opposing temperatures of water, right after the other, is a special type of water therapy known as contrast hydrotherapy. Water therapy or hydrotherapy is a natural healing modality that utilizes water to help your body heal naturally. Barking Lung Cough Therapy is a modified version of the “official” contrast hydrotherapy protocols I’ve learned in school. Most contrast hydrotherapy protocols do a repetition of hot followed by cold for three cycles.

Contrast hydrotherapy, particularly when applied to the chest, stimulates your vital force. The term “vital force” sounds a little like new age woo, but it is a foundational concept in naturopathic medicine. It falls under one of the principles of naturopathic medicine — the vis medicatrix naturae. The vital force is the healing power of nature inside your body. It is the thing inside you that is constantly working for your wellness. Without the vital force, you would be dead.

This is a low force, non-toxic, gentle intervention. It is very easy to do, and very safe given that you do not overdose on the essential oil and you don’t burn anybody with a hot towel. I usually recommend that Barking Lung Cough Therapy be done on a once daily basis before bed, until the cough resolves. For more severe cases, I have recommended for it to be done twice a day.

kids hydrotherapy for bronchitis


kids hydrotherapy for bronchitis


kids hydrotherapy for bronchitis

Watch the hyperlapse video below to see how I did it!

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4 Responses

  1. Kate W.

    What’s the absolute youngest age you’d recommend this for? Could I use this for my 6 month old or should I wait until she’s older?


    Dr. Archer Atkins

    Hi Kate!

    I have prescribed this treatment in an infant as young as 6 weeks old. It’s very safe. For infants, I would only do 1 drop of essential oil per teaspoon, and then apply 1/2 teaspoon per treatment. Infants have sensitive skin so I would be cautious with the hot towel temperature and ensuring there’s no allergy to the Barking Lung Chest Rub prior to doing the treatment. I would also use minimal ice or nix the ice for the cold phase (make the cold phase cold but not “icy” cold). For infants, I recommend to do this treatment under the care of a physician, but in general it is a safe treatment for babies.


  2. Ashlee

    So excited to try this! Thanks!


  3. Jess

    Wow, I cannot believe how quickly this worked. The thyme oil is not my favorite smell but I was coughing upwards of 50+ in ONE setting! And now thanks to this treatment I’m only coughing twice and it’s not bad, my chest is healing and my head no longer hurts 😭 I’m so beyond grateful you shared this. The elderberry + vitamin c tea + eucalyptus oil steam treatments weren’t working.


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