If springtime in the air has got you running for the tissues, you’re not alone. Each year, millions of Americans seek relief from seasonal allergy symptoms that accompany the vernal regreening. Pollens, molds, grasses, and budding tree growth are common culprits, contributing to the classic presentation of hay fever—itchy, watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, and sinus congestion with pressure and/or pain. For many allergy sufferers, springtime pleasures such as gardening and hiking can induce persistent allergic reactions that interfere with daily activities such as work, school, and restful sleep.
As a pharmacist, I know that allergy medicine is big business, with a vast array of nonprescription products to address nearly any complaint. While most of these products provide prompt and effective relief of the toughest symptoms, they are not appropriate for all patients. Apart from their side effects such as sedation or nervousness, allergy and sinus medications may be incompatible with certain prescription regimens or the chronic health conditions they treat, including high blood pressure, asthma, glaucoma, prostate problems, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder. Even in the best of situations, allergy medicines may produce side effects that limit their use on a regular basis.
More and more, holistically minded patients are looking for herbal alternatives to the traditional drugstore offerings. With their gentle actions and minimal side effects, botanical remedies are a good option for many patients. Unlike a trip to the big chain drugstore, the preparation of natural remedies is more akin to a craft than a chore, beckoning us to slow our pace, reflecting on the beauty and usefulness of nature’s abundance. We begin to glimpse the secret life of many of our windowsill herbs and spring garden annuals and to reclaim a sense of autonomy and participation in our own well-being.
As you explore the fresh alternatives that follow, pay careful attention to the symptoms they treat. Seasonal allergies comprise a variety of symptoms; targeting them specifically with the appropriate remedy is the first step to success with any regimen. And as always, remember that herbal alternatives themselves may be incompatible with pregnancy, nursing, pediatric care, and certain prescription drugs and medical conditions. Apprise your doctor and pharmacist of any supplement use to ensure compatibility, safety, and efficacy.
Nasal congestion with pressure and pain is a hallmark of seasonal allergy, a setback in the body’s defense plan. In a perfect world, the immune system implements a simple yet ingenious strategy to expel offensive allergens—immobilizing pollen grains, mold spores, dust mites, and the like by coating them with layers of mucous. Coughing, sneezing, or nose blowing clears congested pathways of mucous buildup, whisking away trapped allergens in the process. While annoying, a runny nose and productive cough are signs that an immune response is in progress.
Problems can arise, however, when excess mucous accumulates in sinus passages, exerting pressure behind the eyes and across the face and forehead. Nasal decongestants are the traditional drugs of choice, constricting swollen sinus passages and promoting drainage with products such as Sudafed, Tavist-D, and the multitude of choices that boast “non-drowsy” daytime formulas. Pseudoephedrine is the most common active ingredient and can have strongly stimulating effects in many users. Rapid heartbeat, nervousness, and insomnia limit its use in many cases, while a variety of health-condition and drug interactions also raise concern. Nasal spray decongestants such as Afrin and Neo-Synephrine provide alternatives to the oral route, delivering medication directly to nasal membranes. These products are for short-term use only and carry concerns of their own, including dependence problems, rebound congestion, and certain health-condition warnings.
Fortunately, nature provides an abundance of head-clearing medicine, much of it growing fresh in spring herb gardens or going incognito as culinary spices. Many pantry and garden staples possess aromatic principles that infuse a simple cup of herbal tea with natural decongestant properties—without any of the nerve-rattling side effects. The next time a stuffy head cold warrants strong medicine, try one of these botanical alternatives.
With an elongated taproot of pungent white flesh, horseradish (Amoracia rusticana) is an easily cultivated, perennial plant that stores well for impromptu remedies. Its medicinal properties are derived from volatile oils with stimulating actions that give it exceptional versatility as both an internal and a topical remedy. Perhaps best known for its inclusion in zesty sauces and dips, horseradish is medicinal food at its best. The sinus-clearing aroma and sharp flavor of freshly grated horseradish make it useful for head colds, stuffy noses, and bronchial congestion. Prepare a broth by steeping several spoonfuls of freshly grated root in a bowl of boiling water or soup stock. During cold season, a few fresh gratings of this pungent root make an instant, medicinal accompaniment to your daily bread.
Perhaps the most versatile backyard provision, peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita) imbues a peppery, sweet flavor that hints at the presence of natural menthols, tannins, and bitter principles—together responsible for its various therapeutic actions. Steep fresh or dried peppermint leaves in boiling water or an herbal blend for a quick, head-clearing brew. Peppermint is especially useful in concert with bronchial herbs.
For relief of head-cold stuffiness and sinus pressure, aromatic inhalations are often used to promote drainage and aid ventilation. Steam inhalations have the advantage of supplying warm moisture to irritated membranes, which in turn may help with drainage and expectoration. To prepare aromatic steam vapors, place a liberal pinch of an aromatic herb into a large pot. Cover the herb with a quart or so of near-boiling water, put a towel over your head, and bend over the pot to inhale the vapors that emanate. Breathe for five to ten minutes (as tolerated). This may be repeated two or three times daily.
An alternative way to benefit from decongesting vapors is to wrap herbs for inhalation in cheesecloth and hang the cloth from the bathtub faucet while filling the tub. First, fill the tub with hot water to liberate the aromatic decongestants in the herbs. Then add cool water until bath is comfortable. Soak in the aromatic waters. Some traditionally used herbs for inhalation include eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), pine twigs (Pinus spp.), peppermint, and chamomile (Matricaria recutita).
Aromatic rubs are another way to benefit from inhaled vapors. Many menthol-containing commercial brands are available, but it’s easy to prepare your own by mixing essential oils into warmed petroleum jelly or olive oil. You can experiment with pine, peppermint, and eucalyptus, or try a combination of the three. Simply heat 4 ounces of olive oil or petroleum jelly over low heat until liquid. Stir in 1 teaspoonful of aromatic oil and combine thoroughly. If working with olive oil, you can add beeswax shavings (about 2 ounces) to thicken. Pour into ointment jars to set.
Cough calmers and expectorants
In terms of choice, herbals have the traditionals beat. Despite the wall of products staring you down in the cough-and-cold section of drugstores, nonprescription expectorant products primarily contain the same, single ingredient (guaifenesin). Expectorants are an important component of allergy relief, helping to keep mucous thin and fluid, thereby aiding its removal through coughing, sneezing, or nose blowing. Thickened, viscous mucous is more difficult to expectorate and contributes to sinus pressure and pain. Expectorant teas can be taken solo or as a supplement to an over-the-counter expectorant product, and all work well with the nasal decongestant remedies, augmenting their drainage-promoting activity.
Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum) is useful as an expectorant where bronchial mucous has accumulated and a cough calmer is indicated. To encourage a more productive cough, prepare an infusion of 1 to 2 teaspoons of bruised seeds steeped in 1 cup of boiling water. Or, add a drop of aniseed essential oil to a cold/flu tea such as peppermint, or combine a drop with a spoonful of honey or jam for quick dosing.
Mullein (Verbascum spp.) may be prepared as a tea—1 cup of boiling water per teaspoonful of dried flower heads. Steep, covered, for 10 minutes, then strain and enjoy. Mullein is valued for its expectorant action for coughs and for mucous membrane inflammation.
The leaves and flowering tops of common kitchen thyme possess a number of important medicinal actions in the treatment of cough, bronchial irritation, shortness of breath, and sore throat. Prepare an infusion from 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried thyme per cup of boiling water, or look for commercially prepared thyme teas at health-food stores.
For centuries, herbalists have venerated the elder tree (Sambucus canadensis, S. nigra) as a prolific, versatile source of plant medicine, and its interesting history warrants mention. Virtually every inch of this hardy specimen lends itself to remedy making, including its bark, flowers, leaves, roots, and berries. The use of elder medicine predates Christ, and its development flourished alongside cultural superstition regarding the supernatural powers of this esteemed, fortuitous symbol of natural healing. Today, the practical medicine of country folk is still putting the elder to good use—preparing laxatives, cough remedies, and digestive teas from its berries, roots, and flowers.
Not surprisingly, chemical analysis has revealed the elder tree’s delicate, lacy flower to be a powerhouse of pharmacologically active compounds. A generous assortment of flavonoids, vitamins (A, B, and C), essentials oils, sugars, and carotenoids contribute to the biological and medicinal action of elderberries and flowers. German and British herbal monographs recognize the expectorant action of elder flowers and use them in the treatment of colds and upper-respiratory afflictions. Prepare an infusion of fresh elder flowers by steeping a small handful of blossoms in a cup of boiling water, or look for elder-based remedies at health-food stores. The addition of peppermint helps with nasal decongestion in the treatment of head colds and allergic episodes.
Seasonal allergy regimens often call for prompt pain relief, as drainage, congestion, and cough can leave throats dry and scratchy, irritating delicate tissues and producing a hoarse, tired voice. Fortunately, herbal medicine is a natural at pain relief, with freshly made teas and gargles to quell inflammation and ease pain. This season, treat dry, scratchy throats to an herbal alternative. Try freshly grated gingerroot (Zingiber officinale), cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), crushed peppermint leaves, or aromatic sage (Salvia officinalis)—fresh from your garden, spice rack, or the produce section of your local market. All offer soothing comfort to inflamed, sore throats.
To make ginger tea, simmer 1 teaspoon of freshly grated root in 1 cup of water for 5 to 10 minutes. The commercially available dried, powdered ginger works fine, too. Simmer 1 to 2 teaspoonfuls per cup of water until fragrant and spicy. Honey makes a nice addition.
Add a few drops of cinnamon tincture to a cup of warm water or other herbal mouthwash. The spicy aroma, fresh taste and antimicrobial action of cinnamon make a delicious herbal alternative to commercial products. Prepare your own cinnamon tincture by steeping a handful of bruised cinnamon sticks in a pint of vodka. Shake daily. After about two weeks, strain and decant into a dark bottle for storage. (These are often available in a variety of sizes with convenient dropper tops from a friendly pharmacist.)
Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried sage to a cup of water and bring to a gentle boil. Remove from the heat and steep, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain. Use as a mouth rinse and gargle to relieve painful, inflamed membranes due to tonsillitis, sore throat, or mouth ulcers.
Fragrant oils of crushed peppermint leaves provide gentle analgesic action that helps alleviate sore throat. Prepare a simple infusion by adding a small handful of chopped fresh leaves to 2 cups of boiling water. Remove from the heat and steep, covered, until cooled. Strain and enjoy.
The fragrant leaves and flowers of thyme lend mild antiseptic and antibacterial actions to an herbal mouth rinse. Prepare an infusion from 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried thyme per cup of boiling water. Strain and flavor with a several drops of cinnamon extract. Gargle as needed for a sore throat.
Combine a pinch of oak bark (Quercus alba) with a cup of water, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. The strained decoction is used as a mouth rinse or gargle where sore throat or irritated mucosa is present.
For a dry, hoarse throat, look for herbal throat drops containing lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), sage, peppermint, thyme, elder, and horehound (Marrubium vulgare), or make your own as follows. Mix your choice of powdered herbs with enough honey to fully moisten. You may also wish to add several drops of peppermint, anise, or other essential oil. Add powdered marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) in sufficient quantity to achieve a moist, cohesive dough that is neither sticky nor crumbly. Dusting the dough with confectioner’s sugar will facilitate its handling. Pinch off dime-sized pieces and shape into lozenges. Dry gently in a very low oven (set to warm) or at room temperature. The drying time depends on the thickness of the lozenge and the amount of honey used.
Unlike allopathic antihistamines, which exert a systemic (whole-body) effect, the herbal approach to allergy relief is most successful when targeting specific problems—itchy eyes, runny noses, scratchy throats. Clinical research involving botanical alternatives to products such as Benadryl, Tavist and Actifed is scanty and herbals tend to exert a narrower, more limited effect. Although targeted measures may not always relieve your toughest allergic episodes, these strategies can supplement the use of your usual antihistamine. This may allow for a decrease in dosage, thereby minimizing antihistamine side effects.
For nasal irritation, sneezing, and coughing, try homeopathic nasal sprays or gels containing Zincum Gluconicum. Designed to reduce the duration and severity of common cold symptoms, they may prove helpful with similar symptoms due to seasonal allergy. Nonmedicated, moisturizing nasal saline helps cleanse and soothe irritated nasal passages.
For itchy skin and rashes, the German herbal monographs recognize oatmeal baths as an effective therapy. Look for products with natural colloidal oatmeal, such as Aveeno or Nutra-Soothe.
For a runny nose, try the drying, astringent herbs for “nasal catarrh”—the herbalist’s term for excess mucous production. Try goldenrod (Solidago spp.), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), elder flower, and eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis).
For allergy eyes, try eyewashes containing boric acid help to banish irritants while soothing inflamed, red, itchy eyes. Lid scrub pads, found in the eye-care sections of most pharmacies, are also useful for removing pollen and other allergens.
A graduate of the University of Texas, Kathy Azmeh-Scanlan is a pharmacist in community practice. She strives to promote wellness in her daily interactions with clients, supporting them in their efforts to become active administrators of their own health care. In keeping with this ethic, Kathy pursues freelance writing on topics related to disease avoidance and natural medicine. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Kevin.