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Mysterious Chronic Cough Cured with Old-Fashioned Remedies

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The patient: David, an otherwise-healthy clarinet player with the New York Philharmonic, struggled with a seasonal cough that resisted antibiotics and steroids.

Why he came to see me: On the advice of a friend, an opera singer who I had helped decades ago when I worked with Robert Atkins, David came up to my Connecticut office armed with his medical records. His breathing troubles started in 2005 following a one-month stint in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and reoccurred every fall, lasting often a month or two. He had been seen by top pulmonologists in New York City who, after X-rays, CT scans, and sputum cultures, told David there was nothing medically wrong with him and that his coughing was due to “job related stress.” Initially amused and eventually livid, he tried any number of natural remedies and resorted to cortisone inhalers. Nothing ever cured the problem, only suppressed it.

How I evaluated him: As he had been examined thoroughly, we saw no need to subject him to more poking and prodding. Instead, we discussed the possible causes of his problem and why conventional medicine had failed him. I told him about the problems in post-Katrina New Orleans, with the persistent humidity and resultant mold in the environment and speculated that one or more species could have colonized deep within his lungs and then come out of hiding every time the seasons changed in the Northeast. We discussed how this perennially affected many people in New England and some in the mid-Atlantic states as well.

How we addressed his problem: We agreed to start with a change to his diet, cutting out foods that often create increased amount of mucus such as dairy proteins and glutinous grains.

I also added in some natural pharmacy. His blood work showed adequate but low levels of vitamins D-3 and B-12, so I prescribed these supplements to augment his immunity in his lungs. I also added N-acetyl cysteine (an amino acid salt) to thin the deep mucus and a freeze-dried extract of the botanical Lobelia inflata, commonly known as “Indian Tobacco.” I explained that the local tribes offered this crop to the colonists in Virginia who had become hooked on their own tobacco crop. Lobelia inflata not only decreases the urge to smoke tobacco, but it can move the deeply “stuck” mucus that often resulted from intemperate smoking. I explained to David that he might feel a little bit “green” when he started the regime—the way he did when he experimented with smoking cigarette butts from his parent’s ashtrays (and decided, from that experience, that he would never smoke!).

The patient’s progress: After three weeks, David returned to my office and related a few days of coughing up “nasty and impressive” amount of mucus and deciding after a week to stop using the cortisone inhaler. He was impressed with the improvement in his breathing and I dispensed an additional formula—another old-time remedy, Stillingia liniment, for his occasional throat tickle.

A few months later, after winter had set in, David returned pronouncing himself cured. We agreed to stay in touch and he promised to contact me during the coming fall and let me know how he was doing. He also agreed to have his blood levels of vitamins D-3 and B-12 tested in a few months so that we could adjust his dosage levels. At that time, we will address his long-term dietary and supplemental regime to help him to maintain the progress that he has achieved.

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