Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only. It is not intended for diagnosis or to replace professional medical advice. Herbal medicines can produce adverse effects and are not suitable for all people.
With the Center for Disease Control estimating that adults suffer 2 to 3 colds every year, it is clear that common respiratory illnesses are a regular annoyance. Modern medicines may help relieve some symptoms, but they rarely address the underlying causes of the infection and can leave you feeling drowsy and lethargic.
If you’d rather not reach for the medicine box every time a cold strikes, there are a number natural remedies that can help relieve your symptoms just as effectively as over-the-counter medications, and help keep infections at bay. And the great news is, many of them may already be growing in your back yard!
Tea made from fennel seeds can help with asthma and shortness of breath.
The tea can be made by steeping seeds in hot water, or for a stronger effect boil the seeds for ten minutes.
Wild fennel has stronger medicinal properties than common fennel, and sweet fennel is milder still, but all three have been used to treat respiratory conditions.
Hazel is not a commonly-used herbal medicine, but the treatment is good for persistent coughs that won’t seem to clear. The medicinal form of hazel is based on hazelnut milk mixed with honey and warm water.
To make the milk, soak the nuts in the refrigerator overnight, mix them in a blender until they are finely ground, and then strain through cheesecloth to separate the fibrous part from the milk. Adding a little black pepper adds decongestant properties to the mixture and is perfect for treating a head cold.
Licorice has been used in traditional medicine for a variety of conditions across a variety of cultures, from ancient Egyptian to ayurvedic medicine. Tea made from the boiled root helps suppress a cough and relieve wheezing and shortness of breath.
A word of warning: taking too much licorice can have side effects, including raised blood pressure and low potassium levels. From scientific studies, it is recommended to limit your intake to around 100ml of licorice tea each day.
There is no doubt you are familiar with marshmallow as a confectionary product – but did you know that marshmallows were originally a throat medicine?
Centuries ago, doctors used to make throat lozenges from the roots of the marshmallow plant, Althaea officinalis, mixing the juice with egg white and sugar to create a meringue.
This was the origin of today’s marshmallows, although the modern recipe no longer has a medicinal effect.
If making lozenges seems like a lot of work, tea made from the roots or leaves of the marshmallow plant boiled with honey makes a soothing throat medicine. The seeds can also be boiled in milk to make a good treatment for chest infections.
Mint is a famous herbal remedy, and menthol extract is found in most over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for its decongestant properties.
It breaks down mucus, relieving blocked noses and heavy coughs.
At home, mint steeped in boiling water can be used either as a tea to drink, or it can also be used for inhalation in a steam bath.
The common nettle is a great treatment for respiratory illness. Boiling the roots or leaves, with honey or sugar to sweeten if you prefer, produces an infusion that can be taken as a tea to help open the airways, or used as a gargle for tonsillitis and sore throats.
Cotton wool dipped in the infusion can be applied to the nose to stop a nosebleed.
Take care when harvesting nettles to avoid being stung, either by wearing thick gloves or by harvesting the leaves in a downward motion, opposite to the direction of the stinging needles.
Related: How to Cook Spring Nettles
Pine needles contain vitamin C to support your immune system, as well as having antibacterial and expectorant properties.
Pick the young needles and steep them in boiling water to make a tea to treat common coughs and colds.
Sage, the common kitchen herb, makes an effective treatment for coughs and sore throats. Infuse either fresh or dried leaves in hot water to make a tea, which you can drink or use as a gargle.
Be careful not to steep the leaves for too long, as the tea can be very bitter if it is too strong.
Thyme is another common herb for cooking that has long been used in traditional medicine.
The leaves contain flavonoids which have a host of health benefits, from liver protection to cancer prevention.
Specific to respiratory illnesses, they have antimicrobial and antiseptic properties.
Tea made from thyme leaves can relax the throat and ease a cough.
Onions have a host of health benefits in our diets, and it is no surprise that they are also good for respiratory illnesses.
Roasted onion helps release tough phlegm and ease a cough.
If you like leeks, you’ll be glad to hear they share some of the same properties as onions, being closely related. Their effect is not as strong as onions, but can still help support your respiratory system when you are fighting off a cold.
Blueberries, and their European cousin Bilberries, have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.
The oldest recorded use of blueberries as medicine originates from Native American medicine, where blueberry juice was used to treat coughs.
Blueberry pulp boiled with sugar to make a jelly is also used as a cough relief. The high vitamin C levels in these berries contribute to a strong immune system.
Not exactly a herb, but honey has been used in traditional medicine throughout the world for its antibacterial properties. These have been scientifically proven, and honey is even used in wound dressings in modern medicine to prevent bacteria from infecting the wound.
While honey has many immune-supporting functions and health benefits, understanding how the antibacterial properties work is important for using it correctly as a medication.
As honey contains such concentrated sugar, when it comes into contact with bacteria, it kills the bacteria by literally drawing water out of the bacterial cell.
To maximize this effect when treating a sore throat, swallow a spoonful of undiluted honey and then hold off eating or drinking for 30 minutes while the medication takes effect.
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