What Is It?
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) may qualify as the world’s oldest cough remedy. Folk healers have been using the bright yellow flowers, roots, and hoof-shaped, wooly leaves of this daisy family member for centuries to suppress dry coughs and soothe sore throats. In fact, part of the plant’s scientific name (Tussilago) stems from the Latin word for “cough.” Shop owners in eighteenth century France painted an image of the plant on their signs to let passersby know that they sold healing herbs.
Other common names for the plant include coughwort, cough plant, and horse-hoof (a nod to its hoof-shaped leaves). In addition to treating coughs, coltsfoot also has a reputation for easing chronic respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis. Although native to Europe, the ground-hugging perennial can also be found growing wild in northern parts of the United States and southern Canada.
Enthusiasm for this ancient healing herb has dampened in recent years with the discovery that coltsfoot contains potentially liver-toxic substances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). Some sources recommend against using the herb at all for this reason. Others recommend moderation, taking the herb on a limited basis at reasonable doses. Because the content of PAs is unpredictable, Germany’s Commission E recommends avoiding the herb for any medicinal purpose. Considering the vast array of cough preparations on the market, it does make sense to avoid one that has the potential to cause serious liver damage
Specifically, coltsfoot was originally used to:
Reduce the urge to cough. Coltsfoot works as an expectorant, stimulating the tiny hairs (cilia) that propel mucus out of air passages. This action makes a cough more productive. But herbalists formerly used coltsfoot for a dry cough, coating and soothing the throat, making it less vulnerable to irritation. However, Germany’s renowned Commission E no longer endorses the use of coltsfoot for any medicinal purpose.
Minimize asthma-related wheezing. Recent research indicates that the buds of the coltsfoot plant suppress the body’s production of platelet-activating factor, a protein in the blood involved in triggering the narrowing of the air passages that prompts wheezing. In one study done in China, 66 people with asthma experienced some benefit when taking coltsfoot. Again, numerous conventional medications and even small amounts of the herb ephedra are better choices when treating asthma.
Given the presence of potentially liver-toxic PAs, Wholehealthchicago concurs that coltsfoot should be avoided and recommends using other herbs for cough and asthma instead.
Possible Side Effects
Liver damage and liver cancer .
Although small amounts of coltsfoot were once considered reasonable, it was found that the actual amount of Pas was unpredictable in any particular batch of the herb. It was this unpredictablility that led Commission E to withdraw their endorsement of the herb.
David Edelberg, MD