Herbs for Health: Natural Cold and Flu Prevention

A supplement to The Herb Companion from the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation

| February/March 1996

  • American ginseng
  • Cayenne peppers
  • Purple coneflower
    Photography by Steven Foster
  • Slippery elm
  • Echinacea cultivation, Trout Lake Farm, Washington
  • Asian ginseng
  • Marsh mallow
  • Milk thistle
  • Dried cayenne peppers

It’s cold and flu season again. The cascade of symptoms that may accompany these acute viral infections of the upper respiratory tract includes stuffy and dripping nose, sneezing, lung congestion, coughing, sore throat, pressure headache, muscular ache, fever, and possibly gastrointestinal distress. Left alone, most cold and flu symptoms generally abate within five to seven days, although some, such as congestion or cough, may last for as long as two weeks.

Unfortunately, there is still no known cure for these most common of ailments. However, if we look at both traditional use and the scientific literature, we find several herbs that may help reduce the severity and duration of cold and flu symptoms, and at least one that even seems to help prevent the infections.

How Do You Spell Relief?

Herbs traditionally used to relieve cough symptoms and soothe irritated mucous membranes include coltsfoot leaves (Tussilago farfara), mullein flower (Verbascum thapsus), marsh mallow root (Althaea officinalis), and slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra). Today, the use of coltsfoot is discouraged because it contains liver-toxic pyr­ro­li­zidine alkaloids, and claims for mullein are not well substantiated. Marsh mallow, however, is officially recognized in Germany for its soothing action, and slippery elm bark is an ingredient of a few over-the-counter drugs in the United States.

Herbs traditionally used to help expel phlegm from the upper respiratory tract include thyme leaves (Thymus vulgaris), horehound leaves (Marrubium vulgare), licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and eucalyptus leaves (Eucalyptus globulus). All are recognized in Europe as expectorants but need further testing for official recognition in the United States.

Ephedra (Ephedra sinica), or ma-huang, which has been used in China for more than 5000 years to treat bronchial asthma and related conditions, may help relieve bronchial congestion from colds and flu. How­ever, people suffering from severe hypertension, glaucoma, hyperthyroidism, prostate enlargement, or coronary thrombosis should not use it. Members of the mint family, especially peppermint (Mentha ¥ piperita), have traditionally been used to help reduce fevers, but this use has not been tested scientifically. For a more comprehensive overview of herbs useful in symptomatic relief of colds and flu, see Varro E. Tyler’s treatment of the subject in Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals.

Echinacea in the Flu Season

Once obscure, echinacea now outsells all other dietary supplements, according to a poll of retailers and distributors of natural foods published in the May 1995 issue of Health Foods Business magazine. The editors attribute its popularity to its reputation as a cure for colds and flu.

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