30 Herbs for Colds and Flu

Don't spend a fortune on pharmacy pills when these simple herbal remedies have you covered.

November 4, 2016
herbs cold and flu

From the first day of fall to spring's ultimate thaw, there is so much to enjoy from September to March. Unfortunately, the same stretch of months that boasts Thanksgiving, New Year's Eve, and Valentine's Day has a dark side: cold and flu season. Don't let a nasty bug knock you out this year! And don't spend a fortune on over-the-counter drugs that can have some serious side effects. 

Instead, use these herbs to de-congest, soothe a sore throat, and feel better, and that's why we checked in with Dr. Michael J. Balick, author of Rodale’s 21st-Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plantsto give us the best natural remedies for our colds. 

(Note: Check with your doctor if you are pregnant or nursing before taking any herbal remedy.)

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

Use the root of this perennial to give your immune system a fighting chance. "Its yellow root contains compounds that stimulate your immune system, promoting the formation of antibodies, increasing the production of T cells, and boosting the supply of infection-fighting white blood cells," says Balick. He says you can slice up the root and add it to soups and stews while they cook (but take them out before serving).  

Important Note: Do not take astragalus if you are pregnant or nursing.

Try: Nature's Way Astralagus Root capsules

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Granted, basil season is summertime, but that doesn't mean you can't keep it around all year. "To enjoy herbs through the winter, chop the leaves of freshly harvested basil and put them in an ice cube tray," Balick says. "Fill the tray with water and freeze." Basil helps reduce fevers and relieve symptoms of colds, coughs, and the flu.

Try: This Elbee silicone ice cube tray makes perfectly shaped cubes

Black pepper
Black pepper (Piper nigrum)

This spice is probably sitting right on your kitchen table. "In China, where black pepper is known as hu jiao, the herb is popular for alleviating the phlegm from a cold," says Balick, so add it to your cold-weather bone broth and enjoy the benefits.

Try: Starwest Botanicals organic Malabar black peppercorns

Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

This mint relative isn't just for kitty cats. "Because this herb stimulates perspiration, it's also used to treat fevers," says Balick. It can either be served up over a salad or as a tea.

Important Note: Do not take catnip if you are pregnant.

Try: Celebration Herbals organic catnip leaf & blossom tea

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)

Don't just bundle up your outsides when you have a cold. Warm up on the inside, too, with this gut-healing food. "Cinnamon is used to warm the body and clear mucous congestion due to colds and flus," says Balick. 

Important Note: Although it's safe when used as a culinary spice, do not take cinnamon medicinally if you are pregnant.

Try: Frontier organic Ceylon cinnamon

Cowslip (Primula veris)

It can be hard to visualize warm, tranquil country meadows when you're trapped in bed with a cold, but the root of these pretty yellow flowers might help. "The roots, which contain triterpenoid saponins, have powerful expectorant properties," says Balick. Use cowslip as a decoction to loosen phlegm and chest congestion. Place the roots and water (1 cup of water for every 1 ounce of root) in a pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and drink.

Important Note: Do not take cowslip if you are pregnant or taking aspirin or prescription anticoagulant drugs, such as warfarin.

Try: Time Laboratories Cowslip Mother Tincture

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)

No list would be complete without echinacea, the poster child for healing herbs. "The herb is most effective if taken during the earliest stage of infection," says Balick. Enjoy it as a tea by simmering the root in water for 10 minutes.

Important Note: Be careful if you have allergies to plants in the aster family (like ragweed), including echinacea.

Try: Traditional Medicinals Echinacea Plus tea

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)

"Elderberry has been called 'the medicine chest of the people' because of the plant's many therapeutic uses," says Balick. "Studies have shown that elderberry syrup and extracts can reduce flu symptoms and duration, as compared to a placebo." He also recommends making a tea from the flowers.

Try: Sambucol Original Black Elderberry Syrup

More: 5 Kitchen Cures for Cold & Flu Season

Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)

Back away from the vapor rub and pick up some eucalyptus. In fact, this plant is often the active ingredient in those over-the-counter chest rubs, so let's skip the other filler ingredients and get straight to the easy breathing. "Inhaling the vapor of a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil placed in boiling water can help clear sinus and bronchial infections," says Balick.

Try: Plant Therapy organic eucalyptus essential oil

Garlic (Allium sativum)

"People have used garlic for health and healing for more than 5,000 years," says Balick—and with good reason. With antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal benefits, garlic is the Swiss Army Knife of garden remedies, so it's not surprising that research has shown that garlic supplements can prevent a cold.

Try: Solaray organic garlic capsules 

More: How to Supercharge the Healing Power of Garlic

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger (among its many uses) is a diaphoretic, or a compound that induces sweating. This makes it effective for breaking a fever and relieving other cold or flu symptoms. Balick's recipe for ginger tea: Pour a cup of boiling water over a half a teaspoon of powdered ginger and steep for 10 minutes. Pour off the liquid and discard the powder. You can also use it as a gargle for sore throats.

Important Note: Although safe when used as a culinary spice, do not take ginger medicinally if you are pregnant or have gallstones.

Try: Simply Organic ground ginger root

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)

Forget the store-bought cough syrup and make your own with Balick's recipe: Boil 1 ounce of fresh or dried horehound leaves in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes. Strain off the leaves and measure the remaining liquid. Add twice as much honey as liquid and mix well. (Be sure to use genuine honey—fake honey is out there!) The syrup can be stored in a sealed bottle in the fridge for up to two months. The dosage is 1 teaspoon up to four times a day to soothe a cough. 

Important Note: Do not take horehound if you are pregnant or nursing. Do not confuse with black, or stinking, horehound (Ballota nigra).

Try: Starwest Botanicals cut and sifted dried horehound

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)

Not only is this spicy root rich in vitamin C, but it also contains isothiocyanates and sulforphane, two compounds that clear congestion. Balick says you can make your own horseradish condiment by grating the root and adding vinegar as desired.

Important Note: Do not take horseradish in large amounts if you are pregnant, nursing, or suffering from gastrointestinal or kidney disorders.

Try: Ready-to-plant horseradish roots for your fall garden

More: 13 Natural Remedies for Coughs and Colds

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)

"Herbal practitioners use hyssop to relieve the symptoms of colds, flus, and other respiratory infections," says Balick. These hairy gray leaves taste like a mix between sage and mint and can be used to flavor soups and meat dishes, and can be used to make antibacterial cleaning products.

Important Note: Do not take hyssop if you are pregnant.

Try: Alvita organic hyssop tea

Lemon Balm
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Bursting with vitamin C, Balick says lemon balm makes a nice tea made by pouring a cup of boiling water over 5 to 6 fresh leaves or 1 teaspoon of dried leaves. Steep for 5 minutes and strain out the leaves. This tea will help you relax and ease an upset stomach.

Important Note: Consult with a doctor or herbalist if you have a thyroid condition before taking this herb, recommends James Duke, PhD, in The Green Pharmacy.

Try: Traditional Medicinals organic lemon balm tea

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)

Another lemony plant option is lemongrass (try this lemongrass-ginger broth to start). "Traditionally, people have made a hot tea from the leaves for treatment of fevers, coughs, and colds," says Balick. Pour a cup of boiling water over 5 to 6 fresh leaves or 1 teaspoon of dried leaves. Another way to use this soothing herb is in the bathtub (kind of like making a giant cup of tea that you can soak in). Simply put a mesh bag filled with chopped leaves under the hot water as you fill your tub.

Try: Starwest Botanicals organic lemongrass

Licorice root
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Sorry, Twizzlers fans, but we're not talking about the sugary candy. This herb works well as an expectorant and demulcent, and you can use it to make your own herbal cough syrup. "Its soothing effects on mucus membranes make it useful for treating sore throats and coughs," says Balick. Make licorice tea by simmering 1 teaspoon of the root (dried and sliced) in 1 cup of water for 10 minutes and strain. He says you can have 2 to 3 cups a day for up to seven days.

Impotant Note: Do not take licorice if you are pregnant, have heart disease, liver disease, or hypertension.

Try: Yogi organic Egyptian Licorice tea

Marjoram (Origanum majorana)

Forget decongestants: Breathe easier with marjoram (as a bonus, it's also one of the best plants for bees). "When taken into the respiratory system through steam inhalation, marjoram may help unblock sinuses and relieve laryngitis," says Balick. You can even add marjoram essential oil to your bathwater to relax and ease cold and flu symptoms.

Try: Aura Cacia organic marjoram essential oil

Marshmallow root
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

"Before gelatin and other products were used to give marshmallows their pillowy consistency, this herb's roots created the effect," explains Balick. A tea of the roots helps soothe sore throats due to inflamed mucous membranes and can shorten the length and severity of your cough. Simmer 1 cup of water for every 1 ounce of root for 20 minutes, strain, and enjoy. 

Important Note: Marshmallow may delay the absorption of other mediations.

Try: Buddha Teas organic marshmallow tea

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

This plant is a traditional treatment for respiratory problems and one of the natural ways you can heal ear infections. "Modern practitioners recommend mullein leaf tea or decoction for respiratory conditions, as well as for sore throats," says Balick. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons of fresh leaves and steep for 10 minutes before straining. He recommends running it through a coffee filter or cheesecloth to filter out any remaining irritating plant hairs.

Try: Herb Affair organic mullein leaves

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

No stranger to most of our kitchens (or to practically every Italian dish), oregano makes a great remedy for coughs either as a tea or inhaled as steam, and even serves as an anti-inflammatory herb for prostate health.

Try: NOW Foods oregano essential oil

Red Clover
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

These pretty pink flowers grow throughout North America and work well as an expectorant, and are even edible weeds. "The herb is a traditional treatment for coughs, bronchitis, and chest congestion," says Balick. Drink the herb as a soothing tea by steeping dried flowers in hot water for 10 minutes.

Try: The Dirty Gardener red clover seed

Roman Chamomile
Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

Cough keeping you up at night? There's nothing quite like a cup of chamomile tea to relax you. "Taken before bedtime, warm chamomile tea is very effective for the treatment of insomnia," says Balick, and nothing quite knocks out a cold like a good night's sleep.

Important Note: Be careful if you have allergies to plants in the aster family (like ragweed), including chamomile.

Try: Organic Bio Herbs dried Roman chamomile flowers

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

If you've never tried an essential oil for healing, start here. Breathing in aromatic rosemary with steam gives great relief to nasal and chest congestion. Plus, it smells amazing. The benefits of eating rosemary (the plant, not the essential oil) are pretty fantastic, too.

Try: NOW Foods organic rosemary essential oil


Sage (Salvia officinalis)

This common kitchen herb is a classic for sore throats and coughs. "Herbal practitioners suggest drinking sage leaf tea or using it as a gargle," says Balick. Make a tea by pouring 1 cup of hot water over 1 teaspoon of dried sage or 2 teaspoons of fresh leaves. Steep for 10 minutes and strain. Sage is also recognized in Germany as a treatment for excess sweating.

Important Note: Although safe when used as a culinary spice, do not take sage medicinally if you are pregnant or nursing.

Try: Celebration Herbals organic sage leaf tea

Slippery Elm
Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)

Slippery elm is FDA-approved as a gentle cough and sore-throat remedy. Enjoy this tea 2 to 3 times per day by pouring 1 cup of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons of the powdered bark. Balick recommends sweetening with honey, molasses, or stevia, and even adding other spices like cinnamon or ginger for flavor.

Important Note: Slippery elm may delay the absorption of other medications.

Try: Traditional Medicinals organic Throat Coat tea

Spearmint (Mentha spicata)

There are tons of varieties of mint, but this gentle one is great for colds. Balick says, "In aromatherapy, it is used to treat fatigue as well as respiratory conditions, such as colds, coughs, and bronchitis."

Try: Plant Therapy organic spearmint essential oil

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Everyone is so busy, no one has time to deal with a cold—pun intended. "Thyme tea eases coughs and bronchial spasms and helps clear congestion and mucus of a cold," says Balick. "Thyme is also rich in disease-fighting antioxidants." 

Important Note: Although safe when used as a culinary spice, do not take thyme medicinally if you are pregnant or nursing.

Try: Good Nature organic Wild Thyme tea

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

You don't need Nyquil to get a good night's sleep with a cold. All you need is a cup of valerian root tea. "Used as a mild sedative since ancient Roman times, this natural sleep aid is nonaddictive and has no known side effects," says Balick. Make a tea by covering 1 teaspoon of the dried root with 1 cup of boiling water. Steep for 10 minutes.

Important Note: Do not take valerian if you are pregnant.

Try: Alvita valerian root tea

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow is high in flavonoids and has anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties, which may help when you're struggling with a cough. When brewed as a tea, it's a famous English remedy for colds and the flu.  

Important Note: Do not take if you are pregnant; be careful if you have allergies to plants in the aster family (like ragweed), including yarrow.

Try: Starwest Botanicals organic yarrow flower

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