Respiratory System: Herbal Treatment of Children

The Function Of The Respiratory System

To ensure sufficient intake of oxygen it is vital for children to have a fully functioning respiratory system, to have plenty of fresh air and exercise every day and that they breathe properly. The quality of the air breathed in is also of vital importance. Children’s lungs are delicate organs susceptible to external factors including heat, dust, moulds, pathogenic micro-organisms and chemical irritants. The pollution in the air, cigarette smoke, carbon monoxide, lead from car fumes, etc., becomes pollution in their lungs, which is then carried in the blood all round the body.

According to Western medicine the main function of the lungs is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and the maintenance of acid-base in the body. We also know that the air we breathe is not only vital to our physiological functioning, but also to our more subtle processes. In India air is called “prana”, the breath of life. Not only are we breathing in gases vital for normal functioning of our cells and tissues, but we are also taking in the energy of the atmosphere around us which radiates from the trees and other green plants and ultimately from the sun. Correct breathing is vital for our nerves and muscles to permit relaxation and ensure rest, as well as encouraging a clear alert mind. In many cultures and religions the use of the breath is central to spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation and traditional movements like Qi Gong and Tai Chi.

Most adults inhale and exhale between 10 and 15 times each minute, while children respire faster in response to their greater need to provide energy to every cell as it functions and multiplies. This allows for the rapid growth and development and the high levels of vitality that characterize childhood. While a healthy respiratory system is vital for the normal development of every child, the immaturity of children’s lungs and the fact that they possess fewer alveoli than mature adult lungs, means that children are particularly prone to respiratory problems, which of course can compromise the adequate exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs necessary for optimum health.

Preventing Respiratory Problems

The origin of respiratory illness may arise from the respiratory system itself, as it is open to the external environment via the nose and mouth and so it is vulnerable to airborne irritants and infection. It also functions, in conjunction with other pathways of elimination of waste products, the skin, the bowels and the urinary tract, as an organ of elimination. If the body is overloaded with toxins, it can impose a greater burden on the respiratory system and this can lead to problems. If waste products are not eliminated efficiently via one pathway, the others are over-worked. If digestion is poor and diet is over-heavy and devitalized, it can lead to accumulations of toxins in the gastrointestinal tract. Constipation means these toxins are not being eliminated efficiently from the bowels and creates an overload of toxic matter to be excreted elsewhere. This may cause an accumulation of catarrh in the respiratory tract and predispose to further respiratory problems. It is also possible that stress, anxiety and other emotions can be expressed through the lungs. They have been associated with tension in the bronchial system and lowered immunity, which can predispose to chest infections and asthma. It is therefore important that the overall health of each child is ascertained through careful case history-taking when treating respiratory problems.

When considering preventative health, pollution in and out of the home requires careful consideration. It is quite possible that pollution in the home poses even more of a threat than those outside. Household moulds, bacteria, dust, damp, tobacco and household chemicals all impose their influence in the lungs. Washing bedclothes in hot water will kill dust mites, a dehumidifier will help to resolve problems from damp such as household moulds and fungi, and an efficient vacuum cleaner with a good filter will help to minimize dust, animal dander, moulds and bacteria. Certain houseplants, notably devil’s ivy (Epipremum aureum) and the Boston fern (Nephrolepis exalta) are recommended by a Dr Wolverton of NASA to reduce air pollution and toxins including fungal toxins in the home. Non-toxic cleaning materials, available mostly from health food shops, are clearly preferable to those containing potentially toxic chemicals, while clothes made of natural fibres tend to cause fewer problems than man-made materials such as polyester, although wool can be a problem for children suffering from allergies.

Herbs For The Respiratory System

The herbal approach to the treatment of respiratory problems is first and foremost prevention through diet, lifestyle and herbs to maximize immunity and resistance to respiratory infections. A diet high in fresh, organic fruit and vegetables to maximize vitamin, mineral and antioxidant intake will benefit lung function. Carotenoid-rich foods like carrots, tomatoes, apricots, winter squash and red peppers are particularly good (see also Enhancing Immunity).

Herbs such as echinacea, garlic, thyme, liquorice, ginger and turmeric all have effective immunostimulatory as well as antimicrobial actions and would all be applicable here. Research concerning children with recurrent respiratory tract infections indicates a tendency to show reduced immune function with particular depression in numbers of T lymphocytes. Treatment aimed at stimulating antibody and T-cell function in 117 children with recurrent respiratory infections produced beneficial results. Pulmonary macrophages play a key role in defence against respiratory infection, and stimulation of macrophage response appears to be a mode of action of echinacea and garlic. Both garlic and echinacea have been shown to be effective in respiratory tract infections, and have been recommended in the treatment of children.

Propolis is another excellent anti-infective agent and is particularly effective in the prevention and treatment of upper respiratory infections of children such as tonsillitis and sinusitis. A group of preschool children and schoolchildren were treated during the cold season of 1994-1995 with an aqueous propolis extract which had a rich content of flavonoids. In relation to acute and chronic inflammatory diseases of the upper airways, the analysis of the data obtained pointed out the favourable effects of this local treatment, expressed by lowering of the number of cases with acute or chronic symptoms, and decrease and sometimes suppression of the viral-microbial flora carriage of the upper airways.

Ayurvedic Approach

The lungs are the primary site of Kapha. According to Ayurveda phlegm is produced in the stomach and then accumulates in the lungs. Most respiratory disorders are therefore Kapha problems. Kapha predominates in childhood which accounts for why these problems abound in children. Kapha predominant children will be particularly prone. By reducing Kapha foods particularly in Kapha seasons (winter and early spring) and using Kapha reducing herbs (those that are warming, light and dry), many respiratory problems can be prevented.

The lungs are also pervaded by air (Vata) when prana enters the body. Vata disturbance can lead to spasm of the airways as well as lowered immunity, predisposing to colds and coughs. Immunity will generally be lowered by insomnia, stress, anxiety and grief and low digestive fire (see Immune System).

Pitta disorders of the lungs can also occur and tend to be accompanied by fever and infection. Most severe infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia involve Pitta. This may reflect a system overloaded with toxins and heat, and infection represents the body’s effort to throw these out.

Low digestive fire causing accumulation of ama tends also to predispose to mucus, regardless of the dosha involved. So raising digestive fire is always a consideration when treating respiratory disorders (see Digestive System).

Useful Ayurvedic herbs for the respiratory system include:

• Liquorice – throat and larynx tonic

• Sitopaladi ()

• Chiretta.

Children are more prone to upper respiratory infections by one of 200 odd rhinoviruses or other micro-organisms that can infect the lungs, than anything else. If they are treated speedily with simple dietary measures and herbal remedies combined with rest and nurture, there is less risk of complications requiring antibiotic treatment (which can be reserved for more serious conditions for which there is no better alternative). This is particularly important if the child has a history of catarrh or chest problems or asthma. It has to be borne in mind that many other infectious diseases begin with cold symptoms before other characteristic symptoms emerge, the rash with measles, the whoop with whooping cough for example, and early treatment may lead to a speedier resolution.

Treating The Common Cold

Chronic Catarrh


Sore Throats



Infection and inflammation of the larynx can develop from infection in the mouth, throat or nose, or postnasal drip during a cold. It may also occur with tonsillitis or bronchitis. Irritation from a dusty or smoke-laden atmosphere, excess use of the voice as in singing, talking or shouting can also contribute to inflammation.

Treatment of laryngitis

• Steam inhalations have a soothing effect on the larynx. Essential oils added to hot water, with their antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties can help relieve pain and inflammation. Chamomile, eucalyptus, thyme, rose, lavender, pine, rosewood and sandalwood are all suitable.

• The same oils can be used for compresses applied regularly to the throat and chest, or in massage oils.

• Herbal infusions can be given using chamomile, catnip (Nepeta cataria), turmeric, burdock, self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), echinacea and marshmallow (Althea off.) flavoured with liquorice or honey. Give a half to one cupful every 2 hours.

• Garlic and echinacea can also be given every 2-3 hours.

• Propolis is also useful.

• Hot lemon and honey drinks, or blackcurrant tea can be alternated with the herbal tea.

• Keep the air in the room as moist as possible, and the child discouraged from talking to allow the larynx to recover quickly.

Ayurvedic approach

Laryngitis can be caused by exposure to cold wind, or over-use of the voice which aggravates Vata, or through congestion caused by excess Kapha descending from the nose or from inflammation and congestion in the bronchial tubes related to excess Pitta.

With excess Vata there will be a dry throat, loss of voice and hoarseness. With excess Pitta there will be yellow mucus, inflammation, fever and with excess Kapha, a swelling of the throat with much mucus.

Vata: anti-Vato diet is recommended and demulcent herbs including shatavari, liquorice, bala, marshmallow (Althea off.) as well as warming herbs such as ginger, cardamom and cinnamon; j tsp of calamus ghee three times daily is recommended by David Frawley.

Pitta: anti-Pitta diet and bitter herbs such as turmeric, katuka (Picrorrhiza kurroa), burdock and barberry (Berberis aristata) are recommended. Sudarshan taken with ghee is also effective.

Kapha: anti-Kapha diet with expectorant and decongestant herbs such as thyme, elecampane (Inula helenium), ginger, yarrow, and calamus is recommended.

• Triphala can be taken at night as a general treatment.


When the larynx is swollen and inflamed, it can go into spasm and in small children can obstruct the passage of air and cause croup – with its characteristic barking or whistling sound made as the child tries to breathe through a tense wind-pipe and past inflamed vocal cords. Babies and small children are more likely to develop croup as their air passages are so narrow and more easily become blocked with mucus when they are inflamed.

Croup can be caused by various viral or bacterial infections, including the common cold and bronchitis. The typical symptoms begin after a child goes to bed with slight cold symptoms. During sleep, mucus runs down the throat, irritating the larynx, causing it to swell and go into spasm. The child wakes coughing and often struggling to breathe freely. Tension caused by ensuing fear only makes the situation worse.

Treatment of croup

• For acute bouts a bowl or kettle of steaming water nearby, or a hot tap turned on in the bathroom creates a steamy atmosphere, which can soothe the air passages and relax spasm in the throat. Herbs and oils can be added to the boiling water to soothe the inflamed larynx, clear the mucus and relax the spasm.

• The combined antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties of chamomile make inhalations of tea or essential oil an excellent treatment. Sips of chamomile tea to relax the child may also be helpful.

• Birch (Betula alba) leaves, eucalyptus leaves, lavender flowers or pine needles (Pinus sylvestris) and oils of eucalyptus, lavender or pine are also effective. A few drops of essential oil can be added to water and sprayed into the room, or dropped on a damp towel on the radiator or in a bowl of water, or used in a vaporizer, diluted in a base oil and in the bath or for hand and foot baths. Essential oils can be mixed with sesame oil (1 drop per 5 ml oil) and rubbed into the chest, throat or back, or used in compresses to apply frequently to the head or chest.

• Infusions made from chamomile, catnip (Nepeta cataria), thyme, coltsfoot (Tussilagofarfara), hore-hound (Marrubium vulgare), or marshmallow (Althea off.) with wild cherry (Prunus serotina), can be given to the child to drink in sips (or in a bottle for a baby).

• A useful recipe for croup, to clear the phlegm and reduce spasm, is an infusion of equal parts of catnip, coltsfoot, liquorice, horehound and wild cherry. A tablespoonful can be given every 30 minutes until the breathing is better.

• During the following day or two, herbal teas of chamomile, thyme and marshmallow, hot lemon and honey, or a little cider vinegar in a glass of warm water can be given.

For ongoing treatment

It is important that the bowels are kept open to help clear the toxins contributing to infection and phlegm. Sesame oil, with a few drops of lavender or chamomile oil, can be rubbed into the chest and a cup of hot herbal tea given before bed. If the air in the bedroom is kept moist, this can help prevent the child from waking with further attacks during the night. A very light diet is recommended, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, until the symptoms are completely clear. Slippery elm powder mixed with a pinch of ginger and cardamom, and honey to sweeten, and stirred into warm water, is soothing and nutritious.

Earache: Herbal Treatment of Children

Coughs: Herbal Treatment of Children

Asthma: Herbal Treatment of Children