Bronchitis & Pneumonia

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Finding a good herbalist

Most of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

Background information

Herbal traditions have developed some extremely useful remedies to help treat and heal respiratory disease. Up until very recently, herbs were the only medicines we had and effective treatments could literally mean the difference between life and death!

Bronchitis and pneumonia are discussed together here because they share many common features and can be treated in a similar way.

Bronchitis refers to an infection or irritation of the ‘bronchi’, - the passageway from the windpipe (trachea) to the lungs. Pneumonia refers to infection or irritation of the lungs. Both conditions are much more common in the winter, as they usually follow from an upper respiratory tract infection. Acute or sudden pneumonia can be especially serious in the elderly.

In healthy individuals, bronchitis and pneumonia most often follow from a stress to the immune system. This might be from a viral infection, especially influenza or the common cold, cigarette smoke or other toxic fumes, loss of consciousness, which depresses the gag reflex and can allow the breathing in of fluids, and hospitalisation, which greatly increases the exposure to organisms that can cause pneumonia. In fact, according to a Consumer’s Report on Health, an estimated 4 percent of all patients in hospital for any reason develop pneumonia infection as a direct result of their hospital stay!

People who abuse drugs and alcohol are also generally susceptible to bronchitis and pneumonia because their immune systems are typically very low. Children are more likely to develop bronchitis (and asthma) if their parents smoke or if they are exposed to high levels of formaldehyde, one of the chemicals that give cars and home furnishings that ‘new’ smell.

There are several ‘types’ of pneumonia; bacterial pneumonia is the most abrupt and severe in symptoms, viral pneumonia is generally of lesser severity and with a drier cough; bronchopneumonia is associated with acute bronchitis and tends to have a fluctuating pattern of fever. Legionnaires disease is also a form of viral pneumonia.

The bacterial-forms of respiratory disease have always been the deadliest because of the speed and virulence of their attack, antibiotics should be used without hesitation in these cases and we are very fortunate to have them available today.

Pneumonia is still the leading killer amongst infectious diseases and is our fifth leading cause of death overall however the great majority of these cases will have involved one of the non-bacterial forms of the disease; this means that the methods discussed below that can help the body’s own defences are still extremely important today.



Most people will automatically expect antibiotics when they get bronchitis or pneumonia and most doctors willingly prescribe them... but is this the best thing to do? In cases of bacterial infections, which hit particularly hard and fast, yes, an antibiotic is most certainly necessary. However, these days most cases of bronchitis and pneumonia do not require antibiotics because they are caused by viral infections and antibiotics can only be useful in bacterial infections.

To illustrate this further, over the past twenty years there have been a number of carefully randomised, controlled trials to assess the benefits of antibiotics in treating acute bronchitis. (Acute bronchitis is defined as the sudden onset of a productive cough in a patient with no history of asthma, no chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and no evidence of pneumonia). Seven double-blind trials have now shown no clinical benefit from antibiotic treatment for acute bronchitis. Nevertheless, over seventy percent of doctors routinely prescribe an antibiotic for acute bronchitis even though it provides no benefit and is associated with significant risks. The risks include overgrowth of candida albicans, disruption of normal gut microflora, and the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria.

So why do doctors prescribe antibiotics for acute bronchitis in light of the scientific facts? There are several misconceptions, according to an editorial in the medical journal Lancet titled: “What Will It Take to Stop Physicians from Prescribing Antibiotics in Acute Bronchitis?” There is no data to support the use of antibiotics when a patient says, “I’ve had a cough for a week, and now my phlegm has turned green.” There is also no data to support the use of antibiotics in response to fever in acute bronchitis or in the hope of preventing progression to pneumonia.

Often doctors prescribe antibiotics for acute bronchitis because their patients believe that only an antibiotic can cure them. This belief is well illustrated by the fact that sixty percent of eligible patients refused to enter one double-blind study because they felt that antibiotics were absolutely necessary.

Given both the doctors and patients beliefs and expectation, it is little wonder the antibiotics continue to be prescribed for a condition in which they will not alter the course and are simply not warranted. That said, it bears repeating that antibiotics are essential in severe bacterial pneumonia, just be aware that this is much rarer than virus-caused illness.


General measures

  • Drink large amounts of fluids, including water, vegetable juices, soups and herb teas

  • Limit sugar consumption. Studies have shown that consuming 100 grams of simple sugars can cause up to a 50% reduction in the ability of white blood cells to destroy foreign particles for over 5 hours

  • Reduce mucus-forming foods: These are primarily dairy products, also refined carbohydrates such as cakes and pastries

  • In chronic cases, walking or other exercise in good weather will improve breathing however remember that rest is more important than exercise at this time

  • Try to avoid dust and suddenly going from hot to cold atmospheres

  • Many smokers have gained the impetus to stop smoking through the experience of bronchitis and/or pneumonia. As powerful as the addiction may be, it can pale by comparison with the immediate effects of inhaled smoke on infected lungs, your body may simply not let you smoke! You might as well take advantage of this, smoking is considered to be one of the major risk factors for developing a chronic respiratory illness

  • Keep warm

  • Rest was once considered to be essential to recover from bronchitis and pneumonia, but its importance and value has been greatly diminished in modern times. Rest is the most effective way to ensure available energy is directed towards the healing process. If you rest, you will get better faster, if you don't you won't!


Herbal medicines

Herbal medicines have a long history of use in this area and there is a treasure chest of herbal medicines for different stages or states of bronchitis and pneumonia.

Firstly, warm up!

If there is any kind of cold on the chest or feeling of being chilled, then a tea made from fresh ginger, lemon, honey, and perhaps some cinnamon, will work very quickly to restore warmth and help your body to strengthen its defences. This simple ‘home’ remedy is very effective and easy to make, found here

Avoid taking drugs that lower your temperature! Even though they may give you some temporary relief, the use of drugs to arrest the body's attempt to mount a temperature is the number one reason for an infection that could have been resolved in just 2 or 3 days to turn into something that goes on for weeks or even months and is much deeper and harder to heal.

We evolved the fever mechanism for excellent reasons. A high temperature activates our immune system and makes us fight back hard against the bugs that threaten our very survival. If you are young enough or strong enough to get your temperature up and break through the illness yourself then be of stout heart and go for it.

If, however, you do not have the vital reserves to mount a fever and you end up hovering at just a mildly elevated temperature, not getting worse but not really getting better, then the best thing you can do to help is to work with Nature and do some sweating therapy! This is a tough treatment to do but it works and moreover it works quickly - detailed instructions and further information here.

Ginger tea


Use expectorants

As much as you may hate coughing, trying to suppress the cough reflex is a really bad idea and again, interfering with Nature to get some relief today is likely to end up making the condition go deeper and be much harder to heal tomorrow.

We simply must cough to get the bad stuff out and a much better approach is to support what our body is trying to do by helping the cough be easier and more productive. This is where a very important class of herbs called expectorants come in.

Herbal expectorants increase the quantity, decrease the ‘stickiness’ and promote the expulsion of the secretions of the mucous membranes that line the respiratory tract.

Many herbal expectorants also have antibacterial and antiviral activity. Below is a short list of some of the main ones we use. You can learn more about them in the herbal A-Z found here

  • Hyssop is a calming and relaxing expectorant, especially helpful when a cough is associated with restlessness and irritation.

  • Marshmallow is a demulcent remedy, which means it is highly soothing to the inflamed bronchial tubes. For a harsh, dry cough, Marshmallow can be profoundly relieving.

  • Mullein has been a key herb for respiratory ailments for thousands of years. In addition to its expectorant action, it soothes the throat, has anti-microbial activity and helps relieve the muscle spasms that trigger coughs.

  • White horehound is an expectorant, freeing up thick, sticky mucus and helping it to be relieved more effectively.

  • Garlic can help both treat and prevent bronchitis and pneumonia. Garlic releases aromatic chemicals, including allicin, which is one of the most potent broad-spectrum anti-microbials in existence.

  • Thyme is a powerful antiseptic, highly useful for infections. You probably already have this herb in your kitchen and it can be immediately used as a tea for acute bronchitis, more here

Thymus vulgaris (Thyme)


Steam-clean the airways

Some kind of steam-inhalation is probably essential for both bronchitis or pneumonia.

If the condition is quite 'dry' and you are producing little mucus, then it may only be necessary to do a steam once or twice a day however, if you have plenty of mucus or debris in your airways, then frequent steam inhalations will help things along a great deal.

There are several techniques to do steam inhalations. The simple method is perfectly appropriate for many cases and very easy, the comprehensive method takes more time but it takes things to another level. More on this important treatment here.


Support immunity

We must support the immune system in any type of serious or chronic infection. Two of the best herbs for this are the potent and well proven roots of Echinacea and Astragalus. A further two herbs herb that both contain broad-spectrum antimicrobial constituents called hydrastine and berberine are Barberry and Golden Seal and either of these can help deep-seated respiratory infections.

The vital subject of immune health and how to improve it is discussed further here

Echinacea angustifolia


Postural drainage

One of the main treatment goals in cases of bronchitis and pneumonia is to help the lungs and air passages get rid of excessive mucus. Use the technique of postural drainage if you have a lot of mucus in your lungs or bronchial tubes and are having trouble getting it out.

The procedure is quite simple; apply some kind of heat, e.g. a wheat bag or hot water bottle, to the chest for a few minutes, then perform postural drainage by lying face down with the top half of the body off the bed, using the forearms as support.  The position should be maintained for a long as it takes to cough any now-loosened phlegm into something like a basin or piece of newspaper on the floor.



Constitutional Health Note

Finally, you might benefit from learning about your constitution to know what kind of foods, herbs, exercises etc. will work especially well for your health in general.

Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences. There's a brief introduction here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd