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Herbs for Health: Thyme

Thyme is a popular herb in the kitchen but learn about its medicinal uses.

| February/March 2000

  • Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a traditional remedy for acute bronchitis, laryngitis, whooping cough, gastritis, diarrhea, and lack of appetite.
  • European practitioners use a variety of thyme products to treat spasmodic coughs, bronchitis, whooping cough, emphysema, and asthma.
  • The demulcent, expectorant, and astringent properties of mullein (Verbascum thapsus, V. phlomoides, V. densiflorum) make this herb useful in treating lung disorders.
  • Mucilaginous marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) soothes irritated mucous membranes and loosens coughs.
  • The mucilaginous inner bark of slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) soothes irritated mucous membranes.
  • Many German cough syrups rely on the antimicrobial, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory activity of fennel seeds (the fruits of Foeniculum vulgare) to relieve congestion of the upper respiratory tract.
  • Only half the respondents of a recent British survey considered the oil of evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) beneficial.
  • Lavender oil , according to a recent study, affects the exchange of calcium ions between cells, which ultimately relaxes smooth muscle tissue.

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”—that line from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 classic Scarborough Fair is the most repeated herbal phrase of recent time.

Like the three other herbs in the song, thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is best known as a common culinary herb, and many people are not aware of its rich medicinal tradition. Both fresh and dried forms have been used as a worm expellant, especially for hook worms, a digestive carminative (relieving gas in the digestive ­system), an antispasmodic (relieving muscle spasms), a mild sedative, an expectorant, and an aid to ­induce sweating in colds and fevers. Thyme has long been employed to help treat acute bronchitis, laryngitis, whooping cough, gastritis, ­diarrhea, and lack of appetite. When steeped in baths, it has been used to help relieve rheumatic pains and aid the healing of bruises and sprains.


While thyme was never a major medicinal plant in Europe, oil of thyme and the dried herb have been included in official medical treatises since the sixteenth century. In his English Physician Enlarged (1767 edition), Nicholas Culpeper also recommends thyme for lung ailments. “It is a noble strengthener of the lungs, as notable a one as grows; neither is there scarce a better remedy growing for that disease in children which they commonly call the Chin-Cough, than it is. It purgeth the body of phlegm, and is an excellent remedy for the shortness of breath.”

Why it works

Thyme, a member of the mint family, owes its medicinal value to its volatile or essential oil, usually found at concentrations of about 1 percent of the dried leaves. Thyme oil has been shown to have antispasmodic, expectorant, and carminative properties and was traditionally applied to relieve the pain of dental caries.

Caspar Neumann, a German chemist, discovered thyme oil in 1719; it was sold in apothecary shops as “oil of origanum.” In 1853, a French chemist dubbed the substance “thymol,” the name by which it is known today. Both oil of thyme and thymol were listed in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1880 through 1947. During World War I, thymol was widely used as an antiseptic.

Thymol is still used commercially, especially in antifungal skin preparations, but in its pure form it is highly toxic and irritating. Today it is an ingredient in a number of mouthwash, dental, and topical products, such as ­Listerine and Vick’s ­VapoRub. Thymol is no longer extracted from the oil of thyme, however, but is made synthetically from a menthol base. ­Thymol has also been used in fragrances as a “dry topnote” for lavender compositions and in men’s fragrances. It has been suggested as an antimold and antimildew agent for papers, a means to preserve anatomical specimens, and an ingredient in embalming fluids.

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