Summer Cold Herbal Remedies

A friend called after he had just gotten over a miserable summer cold, and he asked me what my first line of defense would have been—for next time, he said. “Would you put together a little ‘cheat sheet’ for me? I know there must be stuff I could have taken right away to reduce the symptoms.”

Well, there are. But then again, some of those symptoms are important. A little fever is the body’s way of burning up the viruses. Mucus helps rid the body of foreign invaders. Undoubtedly there are sound reasons for suffering through the symptoms of a cold. That said it is also one of the most agonizing parts of normal human existence. It is quite humiliating to be so thoroughly conquered by such tiny invisible enemies. And the heat and humidity of a Florida summer makes it all the worse.

Colds start differently for different people. With my husband it is sneezing. For me it is a telltale sore throat.

I like to begin with Echinacea as the first main line of defense and add other remedies as support and for specific symptoms. Despite its ups and downs in the media, Echinacea is a reliable and credible herb for colds. While Echinacea purpurea is a Florida native, it is not the strongest or most effective of the Echinacea species. E. angustifolia has, to date, been shown to be the most effective species, with the best results coming from the use of all parts of the plants, flowering tops, seeds, and roots. E. angustifolia will grow here after a fashion, but it prefers cooler climates and must be stratified for the best germination. But that said, E. purpurea has a long history of traditional use among native people, and there is wisdom in using plants that grow locally. Christopher Hobbs reports that Echinacea roots were chewed raw by some native people to fight colds. Research shows that Echinacea species have antiviral, bactericidal, and immunostimulant properties. Herbalist James Duke tells us that Echinacea contains a chemical called properdin, which increases the body’s defense system against viruses and bacteria.

Use roots and flowering tops of plants that are at least three years old, preferably five. Dig up the roots in the fall or early winter and “comb” out the dirt. These plants have stringy roots and are a bear to clean. They have a thick, gnarly crown where plenty of dirt accumulates. Personally, I see no need to be overly fastidious, as you are going to put the plant in 100 proof vodka, but you will want to rinse out the grit. And you may wish to clean more thoroughly if you are planning to dry the herb and use it for infusions.

At the first sign of symptoms, take 20 to 40 drops of tincture or 1 cup of infusion every 3 to 4 hours. You can do this for several days, even up to a week or more. Some studies have shown that after the first few days, the efficacy of Echinacea to reduce cold symptoms decreases.

Tea made with fresh ginger root (Zingiber officinale), although not native, is the other herb that I call into action at the first sign of a cold. Ginger root has specific constituents that are effective against rhinoviruses (sesquiterpines), and other constituents reduce fever, suppress coughing, and dispel nausea.

Other Florida natives to call into action at the onset of a cold are yarrow leaf and flowers (Achillea millefolium) and elderberry flowers (Sambucus canedensis). These should definitely be part of your first-aid kit for colds. Both flower into the summer, and both can be taken as strong teas or tinctures. Teas are great, especially for colds, but having tincture on hand for appropriate herbs is helpful when the plants or flowers are not available.

Elderflower has many talents including actions as an antiviral, a diaphoretic, and a decongestant. Sipping hot elder tea raises fever, which is sometimes beneficial to burn out pathogens. (Please note that elderflower should not be used if a fever is dangerously high.) At that point you want to be reducing fever. Despite our body’s natural defenses, it can go overboard and end up causing as much harm as healing.

While yarrow’s status as a native continues to be debated, it is well naturalized in Florida, can be found growing at many old homesteads, and has recorded use among native people. Among yarrow’s many actions is its ability to reduce fever and inflammation and provide astringent relief to swollen mucous membranes. Use the flowers and upper leaves.

Mullein flowers (Verbascum virginiana), a relative of V. thaspus, bloom well into the Florida summers. These pretty yellow blossoms are easy to gather and tincture; they pop right off the stalk. Filling a quart jar does, however, take some time, and it is necessary to find a generous stand. But you can easily make 8 or 16 ounces of mullein tincture from a handful of plants. Look for them in open, sunny fields, along the sides of roads, or even in your garden. Use mullein when your cold has descended into your chest and/or your sinuses are running. The leaves are a mild expectorant and the flowers have significant decongestant and slight antihistamine properties.

Take any of these flower remedies as a tea (1 cup) or tincture (20-40 drops) form 3 to 4 times daily.

Healing Mist
Vaporizing with steam is gentle way to open sinuses and reduce swelling. Bring a pot of water to a boil, add a dried mint of your choice, and simmer gently with a lid on for 10-15 minutes. If you are committed to using native plants, look around your yard for the first stalks of horsemint (Monarda punctata), Florida’s version of bergamot (M. didyma). Horsemint will typically appear in late summer.

Remove the pan from the stove and place it on top of a folded towel on a table. Use another towel to make a tent and inhale the steam. Come up for air once now and then, and be careful at the start: hot steam can burn your already sensitive nose.

Coughs and Sore Throats
If coughing and a sore throat are present, look to slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), elderberries, and osha (Ligusticum porteri).

Osha Root Complex Syrup, a product made by Herbs Etc. is a must for me when I have a cold. Osha grows high in the Rocky Mountains and so is not available for wildcrafting or cultivation here in Florida. However, one or two teaspoons of this light syrup, which also contains cherry bark (Prunus serotina), white pine bark (Pinus strobus), bloodroot (Sanguanaria canadenses), spikenard (Aralia racemosa), and balsam poplar (Populas balsamifera) and will quash a cough in minutes, dry up sinuses for a short time, and produce a mild sensation of relaxation: the perfect remedy for taking at bedtime when you have a wicked cold.

Gargle with neem (Azadirachta indica) tincture, sage tea (Salvia officinalis), or salt water. Neem trees are native to the Indian subcontinent, but grows quite well in south Florida. North of Orlando it succumbs to frost, but may be grown in a large pot and protected during the winter freezes. Large established trees planted in the ground may be able to withstand light frosts. I have often thought about building a removable “greenhouse” around a neem tree, taking it apart in the summer, and waiting for the tree to mature. Gargling with neem is safe, but neem has aspirin-like chemicals and should never be given to children with fevers or taken by people who are allergic to aspirin. Pregnant women should avoid internal use of neem. Neem oil should never be taken internally.

Some Not-So-Herbal Remedies
Short-term use of zinc lozenges helps mitigate sore throats and speed cold recovery. Note that creating an imbalance of micro minerals in your body is not advisable. Take zinc lozenges as directed on the package and do not exceed recommended dose.

Sore throats can also benefit from one vitamin A gel cap per day for up to a week (do not exceed 10,000 IU per day). Bit down hard on the gel cap and release the liquid down your throat. Swallow the capsule. Try not to eat or drink for about 20 minutes following this treatment.

And traditional Tiger Balm, is still my favorite heating soother for a sore chest due to a rattling cough.

So Tom, I hope this helps!


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