Herbal Support For Smoke-Related Symptoms: Wildfires and Prairie Burn Season

By Staff
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Driving through the Flint Hills, the smoke from Spring prairie burns is thick and lingering. The foggy haze engulfs Kansas this time of year, coupled with dry condition wildfires and wind. Our respiratory systems become under assault with this noxious stimulant and can trigger allergic type reactions, irritation and damage to sensitive mucosa. Coughing, bronchial spasms, scratchy throat, sinus irritation, sneezing or runny nose, headaches, stinging and burning eyes, are just some of the symptoms of short-term or long-term smoke exposure. Long-term inflammation can lead to secondary health issues (e.g., immune system) as well. People who have asthma, COPD pulmonary obstructive disease, emphysema, heart disease, or even seasonal allergies will be extra susceptible.

When the body is under stress or environmental assault, it is important to nourish your body with good nutrition, high quality whole foods such as bone broth and fermented foods. Get adequate rest and push fluids (drink water!!).  Nourishing herbal infusions to drink daily, such as Mullein leaf, Nettle leaf, Oatstraw, or Violet leaf, provide an excellent source of absorbable vitamins and minerals, combat fatigue, ease nerves, and support numerous bodily systems (respiratory, adrenal, immune, cardiovascular,endocrine, etc). Directions on how to make nourishing herbal infusions can be found at the end of this article.

Medicinal mushrooms such as Reishi (ganoderma lucidum)contains steroid-like anti-inflammatory compounds that inhibit inflammation and histamine, the chemical responsible for allergy symptoms such as runny nose, watery eyes, and bronchial constriction. Cordyceps fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) and Maitake fungus (Grifola frondosa) also support the immune system.

Onions also have an anti-histamine response in the body! The high sulfur and quercetin have been found to alleviate allergic responses. Quercetin prevents immune cells from releasing histamines, chemicals that cause allergic reaction.

Bee pollen and raw organic local honey can ease allergic reactions.

Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica) infusions support the respiratory system, contain natural antihistamine properties, and provide natural energy and stamina when you feel fatigue.  Nettles contain calcium, magnesium, potassium, silicon, iron, boron, and zinc. It is also an excellent source of vitamins A, D, E, and K.  Herbalist Susun Weed explains “since the minerals and other phytochemicals in nourishing herbs are made more accessible by drying, dried herbs are considered best for infusions.” Put one ounce by weight (about a cup by volume) of the dried nettle herb in a quart jar. Fill the jar to the top with boiling water and cover tightly. Let steep for at least four hours; overnight is fine. Strain herb out and drink the remaining liquid. Drink hot or iced. Refrigerate your nettle infusion after straining it and drink it within a day or two. Another option, is to eat 1/2 cup of fresh cooked nettle greens (add them to noodles or stews).  Nettle leaf alcohol extract (tincture) can also relieve allergies, but is not an effective way to get the nutritive and vitamin value. Expect to use nettles regularly for one week to one month before realizing significant improvement and relief. Inhaling the steam of Nettle, rising off the reheated infusion or in a sweat bath, is an effective ally when healing yourself during and after inhaling smoke, allergens, bronchitis, or other (especially watery) chest complaints.  Precautions: Nettles does contain Vitamin K; if you are taking blood thinners, just be aware that nettles, like other greens as spinach, can reduce the bloods thinness, so you may have to have warfarin etc adjusted.  Also, because of its diuretic and hypotensive actions, nettle leaf may lower blood pressure. If you are taking diuretics or other drugs meant to lower blood pressure, consult your doctor before using nettle leaf.

Wild Violet (viola odorata, viola tricolor species) leaf infusion also supports the immune system, helping to clear infections of all kinds. Soothing and cooling, violet leaf helps reduce fever and inflammation. It can be useful in treating sinus infections, sore or irritated throat, hoarseness, bronchitis and other respiratory issues. Violet leaves and flowers are expectorant and help remove mucus from the respiratory tract.  Violet flower is high in Vitamin C and makes a delicious syrup, infused honey and vinegar.

Two other common, and often overlooked, yard weeds nourish the lungs when dealing with allergies, pollen reaction, colds, cough, Plantain broad leaf or skinny leaf (Plantago major or lanceolata) is an antispasmodic (calms spasm) tonic to mucous membranes and loosens and brings up phlegm.

Chickweed (Stellaria media), is a very moist, juicy plant that loves wet, cool weather of spring and fall.  One way to identify what you have is chickweed, is to look for a line of tiny hairs running along just one side of the stem.   Chickweed tincture/alcohol extract (30-40 drops) can be taken or diluted in water and sipped.

Nettles, violet, plantain, and chickweed are all edible and can be incorporated for additional benefit in foods. Nettle loses its sting when cooked and can be used in soups, stews, rice and noodles, just as you would kale or spinach. Plantain, Violet leaf and chickweed are good in salads, and chickweed makes a good pesto, or sprout substitute on sandwiches or wraps.  You can find useful recipes online. Of course, it’s imperative to positively identify any wild edibles before chowing down. And when in doubt, consult one who knows.

Lemon Balm (Melissa) Fresh balm is much better than dry, for it loses its fragrance in drying. Drink lemon balm as a tea, use in tincture form, or infused honey, or as a bath tea (place it in a bag or pour the tea into bath; you, and plumbers, won’t appreciate plants clogging drains). Lemon balm is mood boosting, uplifting, calming and nourishing to the nerves (can combine with Oatstraw or milky oats). For headaches, lemon balm tea or a handful in some white wine, helps ease the pain. Other herb nervines (nervous system support) such as skullcap tincture in low doses can relieve headaches. Lemon balm assists energetically in healing from the effects of smoke/smoking, so try rubbing lemon balm infused oil on your chest.

Mullein ( Verbascum thapsus) leaves are an excellent tonic for the entire respiratory system. To soothe and relieve hacky or wheezing cough, throat irritation and lung problems try drinking 2-3 cups of mullein leaf infusion daily. As an expectorant, mullein aids the lungs in expelling mucous and phlegm. To strengthen the lungs, or to restore health to lung tissues after “assaults” such as smoke or radiation: Susun Weed suggests “1-2 cups of mullein infusion daily for six weeks. To relieve allergies and asthma, 2-4 cups of mullein infusion every day for 6-8 weeks is helpful”. Mullein leaves are soft but fuzzy, so either use a muslin bag for making your infusions, or strain the liquid through tightly-woven cloth (cheesecloth or even a coffee filter) before drinking. Drink warm or cool according to preference. Some people like to add honey or milk to their infusions. In addition, a compress made from the leaves strained from the infusion, can be applied to swollen throat glands or to the chest to ease congestion.

 Elecampane (Inula helenium) I find helpful for deep lung ‘barking’ where there is wet, wheezy, dampness in the lungs. Usually used as a tincture because it is a bitter, but elecampane root also makes a nice infused syrup. I like combining elecampane with homemade elderberry syrup.  I’ve had good results with low dosages ( 5-10 drops up to 3 times a day) to avoid a deep cough from developing into bronchitis.

Another plant to ease wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tension and congestion is New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae). Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald says “The tincture seemed clearly indicated as a respiratory remedy, being uniquely clearing, relaxing & decongesting to the head & lungs. It is, however, uniquely antispasmodic for the lung tissue; it relaxes and dilates the respiratory passages.”. Herbalist  Sean Donahue  writes of his experience, “A tincture made from the flowering tops can immediately relieve muscle constriction around the airways.   I tend to use about 15 drops in acute situations – most effective when the is tightness around the airway that signals that an attack is imminent but spasms have not begun.”

Marshmallow root (Althea) is a cooling, soothing demulcent–relieving inflammation or irritation to lungs, dry tissue, mucous membrane. You can use the dried root, velvety leaves and flowers in infusions and the powdered root in honey pastes/balls to help moisten the lungs and soothe dry tissues. To make a mallow root cold infusion , simply fill a jar 1/4 of the way with dried marshmallow root. Then fill the jar with lukewarm water and cover with a lid. Let sit for a minimum of 4 hours or overnight. The water should change color to a soft yellow. Strain off the roots. The resulting liquid should be thick and viscous. Marshmallow can boost the immune system, soothe an inflamed sore throat and moisten the lungs in cases of dry hot conditions, such as hot coughs with little to no expectoration.

Along with Althea, Elm is a soothing plant with gooey coat.( Red Elm ,Siberian Elm,Slippery Elm Ulmus rubra, Ulmus pumila – and allied species). The mucilaginous bark is mild and sweet tasting and wonderful as a daily nourishing infusion during fire season. You can use powdered elm to make honey balls/throat lozenges or add into applesauce to encourage dosage compliance in youngsters. The Elm young green samaras (seed pods) are edible and nutritive as well.

Aromatic Herbs in steam loosen mucus, ease stuffed up nose, cough, chest congestion to make breathing easier. Steaming also clears up the ears in the process of clearing the nose and sinus. Usually, fresh or dried herbs are added to hot water and the steam inhaled. However, it is possible to create an herbal steam in the bath or shower.


Let food be your medicine. Straight from the kitchen into a airtight jar, chop a few garlic cloves, horseradish, and add slices of lemon, then pour local organic honey over all and let it sit a few days out of direct sun to meld together. Take by the teaspoon or add to a hot tea or vegetable juice.

 Goldenrod(Solidago sp) Contrary to PR and use in allergy ads on tv, no one is, no one can be, allergic to goldenrod pollen. Why? It has virtually none. What little pollen it makes is sticky, all the better to stick onto insects who pollinate the goldenrod (most people are allergic to ragweed which blooms at the same time). Solidago has far more antioxidants than green tea. It appears in many herbal seasonal allergy formulas and for many people, it completely eliminates the itchy-red-eyes, runny-nose and excessive sneezing symptoms. Herbalist Matt Wood recommends it in small drop doses. You can also take as a tea: 3 TBS in one quart of hot water, steeped 30 minutes, daily. I find goldenrod tincture or tea helpful for sinus pressure and headaches. In my state we have multiple goldenrod species with variability of the flavors and scents/aromatics. Take time to explore the subtle differences in goldenrods.

Medicinal white Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) tea, tincture/alcohol extract, reduces congestion and post nasal drip and as a steam brings relief to nasal and respiratory congestion.

Eyebright  (Euphrasia spp.)  fresh tincture  is useful for helping to dry up excessive sinus secretions, stabilize mast cells and inhibit histamine response.

Osha root (Ligusticum porteri), Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica), and Kudzu root/ (Pueraria lobata) are also used with conditions of excessive nasal secretions, either clear or white in color, and post-nasal drip.

Jim McDonald offers suggestions from his personal experience with sinusitis on his website herbcraft.org/sinusitis.html.  Nasal washes can be administered by neti pot or nasal spray bottles. Mixtures of sinus herb teas in spray bottles are not preserved and will spoil, so they must be used within a day and made again fresh. McDonald makes a Yerba Mansa nasal spray for chronic sinusitis and attests to its efficacy. He prepares the spray as follows: 5-30 drops Yerba Mansa Tincture    (I’ve always used 5-10 drops, which seems to work fine) combine with 1 dram (about 60 drops) Glycerine and enough distilled water to make 2 fluid ounces of the mixture. Herbalist Michael Moore noted that Yerba Mansa both astringes the tissues of the sinuses (which lessens secretions), and promotes circulation to those tissues (which helps resolve chronic inflammation or infection).

Smoke/Allergen Eye relief

Herbal teas carefully strained and cooled before application, are used to make herbal eyewashes to ease redness, dryness, itching and burning. If using a homemade eye-wash please strain the liquid through doubled coffee filters to remove any particles or even the smallest piece of foreign matter from plant material.

A common culinary herb, fennel may help bring moisture to dry eyes. Apply a fennel compress to cool, refresh and restore moisture to dry, tired eyes. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 tsp. of dried fennel, allow the mixture to steep for at least 15 minutes, and then fully strain the herbs from the liquid. Make a compress by soaking a clean cotton cloth or cotton pads in the warm tea.  Apply to closed eyes and leave on for at least 10 minutes, or until your eyes are no longer dry. Another option is to get fennel tea bags and use those.

Chickweed (Stellaria media) To prepare a poultice, gather a large handful of fresh chickweed and rinse it under cold water. Shake dry. Bruise it until juicy and apply a quarter or a third of the bundle over the infected eye and cover with a cotton cloth (or if preferred, chop the herb and wrap in a thin cheesecloth/tea bag. When the poultice feels warm, discard it and replace it with another third of the bundle, continuing the process for about 20 minutes.   It is critically important to use fresh chickweed for each application so bacteria are not reintroduced. Generally symptoms will at least start to go away after the first application, but use several more chickweed poultices, once or twice a day for several more days.

Susun Weed’s Chickweed Eye Lotion
4 oz/125ml distilled water
4 oz/125ml witch hazel
1 Tbs/15ml chickweed tincture

Combine all ingredients in a clean plastic dispenser-top bottle. Use pre-pared witch hazel from drugstore. Shake well.

To use: Wet a cloth or cotton ball with lotion and apply to closed eyes for 3 minutes. Discontinue if eyes are sensitive.

Chamomile  (Matricaria ) and Calendula  both soothe eyes, reduce swelling, itching, sticky discharge and inflammation.  Use home grown, bulk herb, or even tea bags to make eyewashes and poultices.  Simply place cool, moist bags on each closed eye for about 10 minutes. Repeat this every couple hours. Make certain if you are buying tea bags that chamomile or calendula is the only ingredient. If you have your own or order bulk flowers, you can simply fill and use a muslin tea bag. You can also just wash the eyes out with the well strained tea, make a compress with a cloth, or even soak a cotton ball in the tea and wipe the eyes every so often. Chamomile and Calendula are both Asteraceae family; if you are allergic to other asters, like daisy or ragweed, you may be sensitive

Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) would be a choice as well. To make eyewash, infuse a teaspoon of the herb in a cup of hot water. Allow to cool, strain. Put the tea in an eye cup (available at pharmacies) and use it in the recommended way. Similarly, you can wash the eye by first boiling then cooling 1 cup of clean water and then adding 5 drops of eyebright tincture to the water. Never use straight tincture in an eye.

How To Make Nourishing Herb Infusions

Making nourishing herbal infusions is simple,affordable, they taste great and are an excellent source of absorbable vitamins and minerals. Nutritive herbs were meant to be consumed on a regular basis as a part of our food. They were intended to help nourish our bodies and keep them strong. These nutrients found behind the cell wall of the plant, release themselves only after steeping dried (drying makes the cell wall more fragile) plant material for 4-8 hours. Nettle leaf, oatstraw, red raspberry leaf, mullein leaf, linden are just a few nourishing herbs to make infusions. An herb “tea” is not brewed very long. An infusion is a large amount of herb brewed for a long time to free up the vitamins and minerals. Typically, one ounce by weight (about a cup by volume) of dried herb is placed in a quart jar which is then filled to the top with boiling water, tightly lidded and allowed to steep for 4-8 hours. Use muslin bags or a tea strainer, etc for ease; Strain the plant matter out (please return it to the ground not the trash). After straining, a cup or more is consumed, and the remainder chilled to slow spoilage. Drinking 2-3 cups a day is usual. You can start out slowly with 1-2 cups. Since the minerals and other phytochemicals in nourishing herbs are made more accessible by drying, dried herbs are considered best for infusions.

You can make infusions at night before bed and they are ready in the morning. You can drink infusions either hot or cold/iced. You can mix part infusion, with your drinking water initially if you want to, rather than drink full strength. You can also add infusion to soups, stews, etc. as a liquid (if recipe calls for 2 cups of water, use 1 C. infusion, 1 C. water or etc..). You can freeze infusion in ice cube trays and use in cooking that way also. I even know one woman who made morning coffee with water and part oatstraw infusion so her husband could get the benefits and not even know he was having his coffee made with it!

Drink the quart of infusion within 36-48 hours typically, or until it clouds or smells off (you’ll know). You can use any you do not use to water house plants–they will love the nutrients!

Once you make an infusion of oatstraw or violet leaf or calendula flower for examples, you can use infusions by adding them to your bath (to aid skin/ease sunburn) or use some of them as a wash or compress (wet cloth on )for cuts, scrapes, swellings and rashes.

Joanne Bauman (Prairie Magic Herbals) is a Kansas wise woman herbalist, teacher, writer, herb grower and medicine-maker with two decades of experience. She passionately shares her love of the medicine plants and common healing weeds. Her easygoing teaching style makes learning and making your own herbal items accessible to everyone. Joanne presents at Mother Earth News Fair, Midwest Women’s Herbal and other conferences. She is Herbalists Without Borders International (HWB) Community Herbal Apothecary Project Coordinator and Kansas Chapter Coordinator. www.prairiemagicherbals.com

This educational information is not intended to replace conventional western medical treatment. Any suggestions made and all herbs discussed/listed are not intended to diagnose, treat,cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Any statements made about products, herbs, and/or remedies have not been evaluated by the FDA. It does not cover all possible uses, actions, precautions, side effects, or interactions of the herbs/plants discussed, and should not be considered medical advice or consultation. .Joanne Bauman, Prairie Magic Herbals,assumes no responsibility for the results of self-diagnosis and/or self-medication. If you are on other medications/ drugs, or are pregnant or breastfeeding or have a diagnosed medical condition, please consult your health care professional before taking any herbs/botanicals,dietary, nutritional,or homeopathic products.

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