Your nose drips, your chest is clogged, you can’t stop coughing, your throat is sore, your eyes are red and watery, you’re running a fever, you’re sneezing, your sinuses ache, your head hurts, you’re tired, you’re hot, you’re chilled, you’re all out of Kleenex, you’re miserable. You’ve got a cold.
Colds are a universal ailment, known around the world and throughout recorded history. Almost everyone has experienced the discomfort, inconvenience, and indignity of the common cold, a complex of symptoms that comprise the body’s response to any of a couple of hundred different viruses.
The old joke that with treatment a cold lasts seven days and, untreated, it lasts a week is substantially true. Nevertheless, over the centuries countless treatments have been devised to combat its symptoms, and today, commercial cold remedies fill entire aisles of supermarkets and pharmacies. Unquestionably, these medications work —they dry up mucus, bring down fever, soothe headaches and muscular aches, and quiet coughs. With enough over-the-counter drugs in your system, you can probably pass for a human being, at least in some circles.
Or you can stay home under the blankets with the phone off the hook and hope your body will resolve this problem while you sleep for a week or two. That’ll probably work, too—but how many of us can afford it? The pharmacy beckons.
Or the herb garden. Many of the symptoms of a cold can be treated as effectively with herbs as with nonherbal nonprescription drugs. Herbal preparations can help you breathe more easily, sleep better, and feel more comfortable. You might find them gentler than their nonherbal counterparts, doing their job without interfering with the body’s own healing processes or causing disagreeable side effects.
Much has been written about herbal cold remedies, but opinions vary so widely that it’s difficult to know how to begin tackling a cold with herbs. We decided to consult some experts—not doctors and pharmacists but herbalists who are personally and professionally involved with the herbal medicine industry—and asked them, What do you do when YOU have a cold?
We must have chosen the right group of people for this survey. None of them has been really sick for years, they say. In addition to using herbs to alleviate the symptoms of a cold, they also use them to promote the good general health that they feel prevents cold viruses from taking hold in the first place.
“Why don’t I get colds? Because I know about echinacea,” says Portia Meares. An herbalist living in Wolftown, Virginia, former editor of The Business of Herbs magazine, and a founding member of the International Herb Growers and Marketers Association, Meares knows about echinacea.
So do our other respondents. Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), along with garlic (Allium sativum), won praise from nearly every herbalist we questioned about the prevention and treatment of colds. In the seven years since Meares discovered echinacea, neither she nor her husband has had a cold that progressed beyond the initial symptoms.
About two or three days before a cold becomes full-blown, the first symptoms manifest themselves—a tickle or scratchy feeling in the throat, perhaps some congestion in the sinuses, an itchy nose, tight chest, or general muscle ache or fatigue. This is the stage at which Meares begins taking a combination of echinacea and goldenseal, and she makes sure she gets plenty of sleep. She also follows this routine when she thinks she may have been exposed to the flu even if she doesn’t notice any symptoms.
Jeanne Rose, prominent herbalist, author, and teacher in San Francisco, relies on a trademarked formula she calls YEGG whenever her chest tightens up and she’s coughing more than usual. She combines yellow dock, echinacea root, goldenseal, and ginseng in a ratio of 1:2:2:1, puts it into capsules, and takes three of them three times a day for ten days. “And I eat lots of garlic soup,” she says.
Garlic and echinacea, used alone or in combination, seem to relieve many of the early symptoms of a cold. Our respondents incorporate this pair into the diet in small amounts with the goal of maintaining a vigilant immune system, increasing the dose to supplement natural defenses if a cold virus gains a foothold. Many times, they observe, no other treatment is necessary.
Mark Blumenthal of Austin, Texas, executive director of the American Botanical Council and editor of HerbalGram, the leading magazine of medicinal herbalism, adopts the following regimen when he feels a cold coming on: two to four tablets of garlic daily, a whopping 3 to 4 grams of vitamin C daily, two to three droppers of echinacea root extract every four to six hours, two to three droppers of liquid astragalus (an herb often used in Chinese medicine) every four to six hours, and two 500-milligram capsules of goldenseal root four times daily.
Blumenthal hasn’t had even a mild cold or flu in more than four years, which he attributes not only to his prevention strategy but also to the ginseng he takes as a tonic three to five times a week all year long.
Steven Foster, an herbalist, author, and botanical researcher who lives in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, drinks infusions of honeysuckle and forsythia at the onset of a cold. The taste is unpleasant, but he also drinks three to four cups a day of other, more pleasant-tasting herbal teas. And—of course—he takes echinacea. He has spent one day in bed in the past ten years.
One Herbalist’s Way
Jeanne Rose, who has been involved with herbs for most of her life, has plenty to say on the subject of cold treatments. Because she is asthmatic, a cold can escalate into life-threatening pneumonia, so she is always vigilant. “I have lots of remedies that I use,” she says. “I’m never consistent because each new cold presents different problems and so a new remedy often needs to be devised.”
For a stuffed-up or runny nose, Rose rinses out her nose and sinuses two or three times a day with a warm salt-water solution. She also uses an inhaler filled with hot water and essential oils for about five minutes at a time as many as five times daily. The oils are a combination of pine, eucalyptus, and black spruce, a total of three drops per cup of water.
When she’s been exposed to someone with cold or flu and is starting to feel punk herself, especially when traveling, Rose treats herself with the oil of clove nutmeg (Ravensara aromatica), a tree from Madagascar. “This is an essential oil that will stop a virus in its tracks,” she says. She puts one drop on a sugar cube and sucks it slowly, and she recommends taking no more than three or four per day. When she’s out in public a lot, Rose relies on the antiseptic power of lavender hydrosol and lavender oil, which she carries in a small spritzer bottle, to keep her hands and face as germ-free as possible. Rose’s practical advice: “Keep your hands clean and you probably won’t get someone else’s cold.”
When she feels a cold coming on, she takes hot herbal baths, wraps up in clean silk jammies, and climbs into “a big fat feather bed that will suck me up and help me sleep”. She changes her pillowcases every day so that she won’t reinfect herself, she says, and adds a few drops of eucalyptus or rose geranium oil to a spritzer to spray on pillows and sheets as an extra precaution against germs.
In addition to inhaling steamy herbal solutions and taking her YEGG capsules, Rose uses other herbs, depending on her condition: for a dry cough, she takes tincture of sundew (Drosera rotundifolia); if mucus is building up, she drinks cups of hot black tea and elecampane. Cold teas of pine needles and fir needles can also combat the mucus and coughing, but Rose warns that the dosage is cumulative and that those teas should therefore be used for only two or three days at a time. Rose has a diffuser at home set to go on automatically four times a day, humidifying the air as well as releasing the clean, fresh scent of black spruce, eucalyptus, and rosemary.
When she’s not traveling or around people who might object to the odor, Rose uses a lot of garlic. In addition to eating garlic soup, she uses it in nose drops and in honey as a potion; she snorts warm water infused with garlic for a strong sinus remedy: “Works every time,” she says.
You don’t have to believe that echinacea root supports the immune system by stimulating circulation and respiration or that garlic increases blood flow to the extremities and boosts the immune response directly. For many people, it’s enough to know that garlic and echinacea can make you feel better. Let’s look at some other herbal feel-good strategies from our panel of experts.
Susun Weed, who writes and lectures about alternative medicine and directs women’s workshops in Woodstock, New York, soothes a sore throat by mixing slippery elm bark powder into maple syrup and rolling it into a ball, which she lets dissolve slowly in her mouth. When Weed has a sore throat or sinus headache, she takes a tincture of osha root (Ligusticum porteri)—5 drops no more than a total of three times—and echinacea root—75 drops every two hours in the active stage of a cold, then tapering off. She smoothes a comfrey root ointment or St.-John’s-wort oil on her upper lip when it gets chapped. She finds that yoga breathing exercises help even when congested.
Portia Meares drinks a sedative tea of chamomile and valerian root that she sips about two hours before bedtime.
This crowd is not one to forget the benefits of a hot herbal bath. Blumenthal takes two or three a day if he’s warding off a cold. So does Kate Carter Frederick, an herbalist and writer in Knoxville, Iowa. She soaks in hot baths with herbs or oils from ginger or lavender, rosemary, thyme, or combinations that include yarrow, marjoram, sage, elder, or lemon balm.
Frederick uses a menthol/camphor salve or liniment on her children when they have colds. It contains oils of mints, lavender, camphor, cajeput, petitgrain, clove, tea tree, and rosemary. She rubs it on the bottom of their feet before putting on their socks, and on their chest and lower throat, and behind the ears.
A comforting cup of hot herbal tea can nearly always make a cold victim feel better, and not just psychologically. Brigitte Mars, an herbalist, nutrition consultant, and tea formulator in Boulder, Colorado, makes a special tea when she or her family is battling a cold. It contains rose hips, ginger, lemongrass, and peppermint. It tastes good, and it helps. These herbs constitute the ingredients of ImmuniTea, a commercial product that Mars originally formulated for UniTea Herbs.
Frederick’s favorite herbal tea is wintergreen; she also makes a blend of lemon balm, peppermint, spearmint, red clover, alfalfa, rose hips, orange peel, bee balm, chamomile, lemon thyme, ginger, and cinnamon. Foster sips mint teas with citrus or lemon balm. For the duration of the cold, Weed drinks an infusion of mullein or comfrey leaf (see caution about root below), as well as strong brews of mint and red clover.
If a cold catches you without a ready stock of dried or fresh herbs to brew up, a number of commercial teas formulated specifically for cold sufferers may fill the bill. Dona Flora Herbs and Flowers (PO Box 77, La Conner, WA 98257; brochure free) markets a Cold Comfort tea blend that contains clover, peppermint, alfalfa, chamomile, rose hips, fennel, dandelion, flax, raspberry, nettle, fenugreek, marshmallow, angelica, and licorice. Widely available are two products from Traditional Medicinals (4515 Ross Rd., Sebastopol, CA 95472): Gypsy Cold Care (containing peppermint, rose hips, cinnamon bark, yarrow, ginger root, elder, safflower petals, clove stems, and hyssop) and Breathe Easy (ma huang, peppermint, licorice, eucalyptus, fennel, pleurisy root, calendula, and ginger root). Celestial Seasonings’ popular Red Zinger and Sleepytime teas, among others, can also be comforting for the bedbound.
Care and Caution
Obviously, the plant world yields medicinals in many forms: our survey participants alone mentioned 56 different herbs. The therapeutic value of many of these plants has been confirmed by research (see Further Reading), but safety in using them is critical.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established several categories of plant safety, the highest of which is “Generally Recognized As Safe”. In this category are chamomile, garlic, ginger, peppermint and spearmint, lemon balm, licorice, mullein, red clover, rose hips, slippery elm, thyme, and valerian. This classification does not mean, though, that these herbs are harmless in all circumstances or in any quantity.
Some of the other cold herbs fall into the classification of “Undefined Safety”, meaning that they have not been proven either safe or unsafe in the eyes of the FDA. These include comfrey root, echinacea, goldenseal, and nettle. Comfrey’s implication in liver disease has caused many people to avoid it or use it with caution. Toxic effects have not been reported from the use of echinacea, but many herbalists recommend that it be used only when needed. Goldenseal, which is toxic in large doses, is not recommended for long-term use because it can diminish the body’s ability to absorb B vitamins; thus, its use should be limited to the acute phase of a cold. It is not recommended for people with blood pressure problems, nor for pregnant women. Nettle in large doses can irritate the stomach and can cause dehydration and mineral depletion through its action as a diuretic.
Jeanne Rose cautions that people taking asthma medication, who number 11.6 million in the United States, should avoid licorice and ephedra. Because many cold remedies available in herb stores contain these two herbs, she finds it best to make her own.
Don’t underestimate the medicinal power of herbs. Be especially conservative if you have existing medical conditions such as high blood pressure, thyroid disorders, or heart disease. Use the references listed below to become familiar with the properties and uses of common herbs. Whether you buy cold remedies in a health-food store or pharmacy, read the labels carefully and follow dosage directions exactly: more is not necessarily better with any medicine, herbal or pharmaceutical.
Lessons From a Cold
If nasty colds lay you flat more than occasionally during the cold-flu season, it may be wise to pause in the daily rush of life and heed the message that your body is trying to send you. Take a closer look at your life-style—at your eating habits, amount of exercise and activity, outside interests, the way you handle stress, how long and how well you sleep, and your support system of family and friends. The importance of life-style to health is generally accepted today, and many of the herbalists who filled out our questionnaire emphasized this relationship as well.
An oncoming cold might be a good excuse to forget about the world for a day. Plop down on the couch, bury your feet in the dog’s back, read a mystery or watch vintage movies or listen to the birds outside the window. Have a cup of herbal tea, and keep the echinacea nearby. Go easy on yourself.
Castleman, Michael. The Healing Herbs. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1991.
Duke, James A. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 1985.
Hoffman, David. The New Holistic Herbal. 3d ed. Dorset, England: Element Books, 1990.
Mills, Simon Y. Out of the Earth. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.
Ody, Penelope. The Complete Medicinal Herbal. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1993.
Tyler, Varro E. The Honest Herbal. 3d ed. Binghamton, New York: Haworth Press, 1993.