(BlackDoctor.org) — If you have asthma or care for someone who does, you probably already know that prescription drugs are the largest medical expense related to asthma. According to the American Lung Association, asthma meds cost $6 billion a year in the United States.
Thanks to the price tag, and maybe even the pain of keeping track of all that medicine, you may be considering trying a natural treatment to help manage your asthma.
But first, before you head to your local natural food store or herbal supplement aisle, it’s important to talk to your doctor and investigate the various alternative remedies out there and make sure that the natural remedy you’re considering is not only effective, but safe.
Does Alternative Asthma Treatment Work?
A number of people with asthma seek an alternative treatment to enhance control of their asthma symptoms.
“Many people do use alternative medicines, especially for allergic disease,” notes Anju Peters, MD, associate professor in the division of allergy at Northwestern University’s Feinburg School of Medicine and an allergy and asthma specialist in the division of allergy/immunology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
In fact, as many as 40 percent of people with an allergic disease will try a natural remedy, says Dr. Peters. “Most people use it in conjunction with traditional treatment,” she explains.
So what does the research show about natural remedies, and why are people giving them a shot? “Many of these have shown benefits as being anti-inflammatory in animals,” says Peters, but unfortunately, they haven’t necessarily been found to be effective in studies conducted on people.
While warm steam baths have often been used to help alleviate nasal congestion and airway irritation associated with asthma, Peters points out that there’s never been a study that proves that steam treatments help improve asthma symptoms. It’s important to understand that “it’s not a cure for asthma,” she says. Even so, just because the studies haven’t established a definite benefit doesn’t mean that steam baths won’t be of benefit to some people.
Peters says steam baths “may relieve some of the symptoms because it may provide moisture to the airways.” She cautions though that steam can be dangerously hot, “so in some asthmatics, it can [actually] exacerbate symptoms.”
Steam baths may help offset some symptoms, particularly nasal stuffiness, but Peters stresses that steam baths are not “a substitute for asthma medications.”
A number of herbs have been touted as natural remedies for asthma, but Peters suggests that people should be wary before using these asthma treatments, and definitely talk to a doctor first.
Some alternative treatment options and their associated risks and benefits include:
Garlic. Garlic has been used as a natural remedy to manage many diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease, because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Since asthma is an inflammatory disease, it would make sense that garlic may also help relieve asthma symptoms. Peters notes, however, that there have never been any controlled studies investigating the effect of garlic on asthma symptoms, so its role in asthma treatment is unknown. The use of garlic as an alternative treatment for asthma is, however, currently being studied.
Ginger. Ginger is also thought to decrease inflammation, and a recent study did show that oral ginger supplements were linked to improvement in asthma symptoms. The study didn’t show, however, that ginger use led to any improvement in actual lung function. As a result, Peters cautions against using this study to draw any conclusions about the use of ginger as an alternative treatment for asthma. Additional studies are now being conducted to evaluate more fully whether or not ginger may help manage asthma symptoms.
Echinacea and Licorice Root. One study that examined the use of a number of different herbs to treat asthma found that Echinacea — an herb often used to treat upper respiratory infections — was not only ineffective, but was also associated with a number of side effects. Worsening asthma symptoms, skin rashes and possible liver damage when taken with other medications are risks linked to Echinacea use. Likewise, licorice root — which has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and is sometimes used by people with asthma to soothe their lungs — was found to be ineffective as an alternative treatment for asthma and was also associated with side effects such as high blood pressure. Peters says that there have not been any clinical trials that have shown either Echinacea or licorice root to be an effective asthma treatment and she notes that there have been some reports that Echinacea may worsen asthma symptoms in some people.
Turmeric. Turmeric has been the subject of a number of studies, says Peters, and it has been found to have some anti-allergy properties. It’s thought that turmeric has an effect on histamines, which can cause inflammation. Nevertheless, much more research needs to be done before turmeric can be established as a safe and effective natural remedy for asthma.
Honey. Honey is an ingredient in many cough and cold remedies, used to help sooth an irritated throat and calm a cough. Many people with asthma may try mixing honey with a hot drink for relief, but again, Peters notes that there are no studies to support the use of honey as an alternative treatment for asthma symptoms.
Omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids are often used as a natural remedy to help prevent and treat heart disease. Though some research suggests that omega-3s may also help to decrease airway inflammation and boost lung function, there’s still a lot that isn’t known about their role in asthma treatment. “There is some literature to say that [fish oil] supplements may also be beneficial in people with asthma,” but as of right now, more research needs to be done, Peters cautions.
Natural Remedy Asthma Treatments: Are They Safe?
Since we don’t know a lot about the possible side effects of many natural remedies, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, Peters points out.
“There’s just not enough data to routinely say use natural remedies in patients,” she says. Although many natural remedy options are well tolerated, there may still be long term side effects that are as of yet unknown. “Many of these herbal supplements, just because they have not been well-studied, may potentially cause harm,” Peters stresses.
If you are going to try a natural remedy to treat your asthma, never use one in place of your conventional asthma medication, Peters advises. Also, don’t use any alternative treatment without talking to your doctor first. It’s important to keep in mind that “natural” doesn’t always mean safe.