Nothing like a 2-year-old to give you a reality
check on how your immune system is doing,” one of my patients,
Sarah, told me. She smiled as she spoke, but I could see she wasn’t
thinking it was so funny. “Last winter I had more colds than I’ve
ever had in my life,” she said. “My little girl brought home a
dozen sniffles through the fall, winter and spring, and I caught at
least five of them. One of the colds got worse and went into my
“And my poor little Molly had a time of it. I was always wiping
her nose,” Sarah said. “She had several fevers as well.”
Now Sarah had another cold. I checked her pulse and looked at
her tongue. Her tongue was normal, but her pulse was notable
because it was clearly discernible on the “surface,” even when I
just rested my fingers on her wrist and didn’t push at all. This
surface pulse is thought to be a sign that a viral pathogen is just
entering the body — that the infection is only on the surface and
still easily treatable. When the pathogen starts penetrating the
body, going to the bronchial level or worse, into the lungs, the
situation is more difficult.
When cold and flu season comes, it’s difficult to tell a cold
from the flu or a deeper upper respiratory tract infection.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and, for the most part, Western
medicine, define a cold as an upper respiratory tract infection
with copious clear mucus discharge, sore throat, some fatigue and
body aches, followed by coughing. Fever and loss of appetite
usually are not present, as they are with the flu.
Having children in the household makes it especially important
to maintain a strong immune system throughout the cold and flu
season — or, better yet, have lots of strategies on hand to prevent
the youngsters from getting sick in the first place.
Whether or not you have children, knowing how to prevent colds,
or reduce and shorten symptoms is a good thing.
Try These Natural Alternatives
Sarah was interested in learning how to treat the symptoms of a
cold without using aspirin and antihistamines. “As often as we get
colds in our house, I don’t really want to depend on chemicals too
much,” she said. “I know about echinacea, but I read in the paper
that it doesn’t really work.”
The recent human studies on echinacea (Echinacea spp.) showed
that the extract didn’t help reduce symptoms once a cold was
established in children or adults, but that using the herb during a
cold was associated with a significantly lower rate of follow-up
colds. Echinacea seems to be better at protecting against a cold
(especially when taken at the first sign of symptoms) than it is at
treating cold symptoms.
Sarah wanted a program to help prevent colds throughout the
season and a few herbs to help reduce symptoms and shorten the
cold’s duration. The chart on Page 16 explains a basic program I’ve
used with many people over the years and from which I’ve seen
Treatment of Acute Colds and Flus
The first time I saw Sarah, though, it was too late to use herbs
for prevention — she was fighting a bad cold. She told me she had a
sore throat, headache, stuffy nose and trouble sleeping.
“We should get right on it,” I told her. Because the infection
was already established, I put together a formula of some of the
most potent immune stimulants and herbs proven to reduce symptoms
I gave her a tincture with ginger (Zingiber officinale),
cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris), with some
lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) added for flavor. She agreed to
take several droppersful, four or five times a day in a little
water, gargling for a minute and then swallowing. (You could also
try a tea made with the same herbs, which would work as well as the
tincture, without the alcohol. Drink 1 cup of a strong infusion
several times daily.) These herbs and tinctures are widely
available in health-food stores. Warm, spicy herbs, such as ginger
and cinnamon, are traditionally used to resolve the cold’s
I advised Sarah to take 2 capsules of andrographis (Andrographis
paniculata) several times daily for 10 days. Andrographis is
another herb that helps reduce cold symptoms.
For good measure, I had Sarah blend some Ginger-Garlic-Cayenne
Super Cider. This blend will help decongest stuffiness, kick your
immune system into high gear — and it tastes great on salads, in
soups or in a cup of hot water. Blend equal parts ginger, garlic
cloves and cayenne powder, to taste, in a cup of organic apple
cider vinegar. Let it steep for a few days and then use a teaspoon
at a time, several times daily. Taken as a tea, it’s a fabulous
toddy for a cold winter night.
Loading patients up with an armful of supplements isn’t my usual
procedure, but I decided to add a product for Sarah’s headaches,
since they were bothering her so much. I knew that standardized
willow bark (Salix spp.) would do the trick. Willow bark extract is
effective for reducing pain, especially when taken over a few days
to a week. Do not give willow to children or use the herb if you’re
allergic to aspirin (see Page 46 for further cautions). Before
giving any herbal remedy to a child, check with his or her doctor
or a qualified herbalist for safety and dosage information.
When she came in the next week, Sarah looked a lot better. “The
cold mostly went away in two days,” she said. “I was impressed.” I
gave her a good shiitake (Lentinula edodes) product to take for a
month, along with a tea of lemon balm and a little sage leaf
(Salvia officinalis) and yerba santa (Eriodictyon spp.), to clear
out some of the thick residual mucus, all time-tested herbal
products. When it comes to colds, herbs have been the way to go for
Christopher Hobbs’ case studies are gleaned from his 30 years of
studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation
botanist and herbalist, is the creator of the correspondence course
Foundations of Herbalism; www.foundationsofherbalism.com.
“Case Studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your
health- care provider.