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Ask the Doctor: Herbal Remedies for Respiratory Health

This cold season, improve your respiratory health with herbs.
By Linda B. White
August/September 2012
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Fresh or powdered ginger can help relieve congestion and aches.
Photo by Elena Elisseeva


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Q. Are there herbs that can help alleviate congestion, sore throats and coughs?

A. Several herbal decongestants can help clear up your respiratory system, and there are some great herbs for relieving aches, sore throats and coughs.

Respiratory Health Recipe

Essential Oil Steam for Congestion 

Herbs for Congestion

Peppermint (Mentha ×piperita) oil and pure menthol are often included in commercial products such as nasal decongestants, throat lozenges, cough drops, chest rubs and inhalants. The same goes for essential oil of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus). Each herb contains compounds that relax the airways and open congested sinuses and nasal passages.

In one study, people who inhaled menthol indicated that it relieved their respiratory discomfort, maybe because menthol stimulates cold receptors. For example, just stepping into the cold outdoors can relieve stuffiness. You can try putting a few drops of peppermint or eucalyptus oil onto a cotton ball and setting it on your nightstand to breathe in the vapors as you sleep. Make sure that you don’t get the oil in your eyes or rub it on mucus membranes, and never apply essential oils in or near the noses of infants or small children, because this has been reported to cause respiratory arrest.

Herbs for Aches Including Peppermint for Headaches

Peppermint essential oil can be applied externally to stimulate nerves that perceive cold and decrease pain-transmission signals. Rub peppermint oil on your temples to reduce a headache (but don’t get any in your eyes), or add two drops of peppermint oil to your bath. Peppermint oil combines nicely with essential oils of eucalyptus and lavender (Lavandula spp.). Lavender is often praised for the relaxing effects of its scent. Taken internally, peppermint tea made from 1 teaspoon of dried peppermint leaves for each cup of boiled water promotes sweating, which can help relieve a fever.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is popular for its ability to ease migraines, but it has an even longer history of use for relieving fever, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) can fight inflammation and pain. It can also act as an expectorant and has a warming effect that may help if you’re chilled. To make a tea, add 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger (or two droppersful of an alcohol extract) to 1 cup hot water. Don’t worry about straining the ginger; it will just settle on the bottom of the cup. Add honey and lemon to taste.

The flowers of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) fight inflammation and muscle spasms and promote sweating. Herbalists have long included them in cold and flu remedies.

Herbs to Soothe a Sore Throat and Cough

Known as demulcents, these herbs contain thick substances that coat and soothe irritated respiratory linings. A commonly recommended demulcent, mullein (Verbascum thapsus), also can help loosen a cough and fight viruses. Lab tests show that its leaves and flowers possess potent activity against the herpes virus, but do not completely inactivate flu viruses.

Other demulcents include the root of marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), the bark of slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) and the leaves of plantain (Plantago spp.).

Expectorants, which help loosen respiratory secretions so that they can be coughed up, include horehound (Marrubium vulgare), eucalyptus and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Thyme fights microbes, and its flavonoids help decrease smooth muscle spasms to open tight airways.

Osha (Ligusticum porteri) was one of the most popular herbs among the Native Americans of the West and Southwest. Feather Jones, president of Sedona Tea Blends and past executive director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies, says osha fights viruses and is an expectorant. Herbalists use decoctions, tinctures or syrups made from the root to treat coughs and sore throats (it has a numbing effect). However, Jones notes that osha is in danger of over-collection, so it is important that you research and trust your supplier. Only use osha from suppliers who can verify that their supply has been ethically wildcrafted.


Linda B. White, M.D., is a freelance writer who also teaches about herbal medicine and other subjects in the Integrative Therapeutic Practices Program at Metropolitan State University of Denver. 


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