Treating The Common Cold

When using herbs to treat the common cold, the aim is to support the body’s fight against the infection and speed recovery, while at the same time relieving the often annoying symptoms.

Echinacea is one of the prime cold remedies that has received much press coverage over the last few years. Research shows preparations made from the pressed juice of the flowering aerial parts of Echinacea purpurea are an effective supportive treatment of common viral infections of the upper respiratory tract and can diminish the severity and the length of common colds significantly. Taking 2.5 ml of the tincture at the onset of infection and taken every 2 hours until all symptoms have cleared, can certainly stop a cold from progressing.

At the first signs of infection, hot herbal infusions (sweetened with honey or flavoured with unsweetened blackcurrant / apple juice or liquorice if required) can be given to ease the symptoms and if taken every 2 hours can speed infection on its way. Equal parts of the four following herbs or any of them given singly as hot infusions can be taken in the same manner:

1. Yarrow stimulates the circulation and induces sweating, helping to reduce fevers, clear toxins, decongest the airways and soothe aches and pains.

2. Peppermint is a stimulating aromatic decongest-ant. It helps to clear the airways and reduce fever.

3. Elderflower is an effective decongestant and expectorant. Taken in hot infusion it helps to relieve catarrh and fever, flu and sinusitis. Research indicates that elderberry extract is active against both influenza types A and B.

4. Boneset (Eupatorium perfohatum) is one of the best remedies to relieve aches and pains, reduce fever and clear catarrh.

• Turmeric is another effective antimicrobial; ¼ tsp can be mixed with honey and taken off the spoon or stirred into hot water every 2 hours.

• Garlic is an excellent remedy for all respiratory infections if children can be persuaded to take it. Research has demonstrated that garlic is effective for non-specific prevention of acute respiratory infections in children. It can be given as capsules, juice, chopped into a teaspoon of honey or made into a dip and given every 2-3 hours.

• Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) and eyebright (Euphrasia off.) are rich in tannins with astringent properties. They help to protect the mucous membranes from irritation caused by cold viruses and to dry catarrh and reduce swelling of congested mucous membranes.

• Eucalyptus, basil, lemon balm, hyssop (Hyssopus off.), pine (Pinus sylvestris), rosemary and thyme all contain volatile oils with antimicrobial properties. They also stimulate mucous membranes and with their expectorant properties help loosen and clear phlegm.

• Coltsfoot (Tusilago farfara), hyssop, mullein or thyme in hot infusion will also help clear phlegm in the throat or chest.

• Chamomile is useful in all children’s infections, helping to soothe a fractious child and promote rest and sleep, which in turn aids speedy recovery. Research has demonstrated chamomile’s ability to provide sedative as well as spasmolytic effects. Chamomile contains antimicrobial volatile oils which help to resolve infection, reduce fever and clear catarrhal congestion.

• If there is a sore throat or an irritating cough, demulcent herbs can be added to prescriptions to soothe irritated mucous membranes and help loosen phlegm, making it easier to clear. These include marshmallow (Althea off.), liquorice, comfrey leaf (Symphytum off.) or mullein. Research has demonstrated that marshmallow root and leaf have antimicrobial actions against a number of infections including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Proteus vulgaris and Staphylococcus aureus ().

• If the throat is painful and there are swollen or tender lymph glands, marigold, cleavers (Galium aparine) or blue flag (Iris versicolor) can be combined with other chosen herbs.

• A decoction of warming spices makes a very palatable drink and is also effective especially when there is copious catarrh and / or a blocked nose (Box Common cold recipe).

Box Common cold recipe

  • ½ oz fresh ginger root, sliced
  • 1 stick of cinnamon
  • 3 cloves
  • 3 black peppercorns
  • 3 cardamom pods.

Place in a pan and cover with 1 pt / 600 ml of cold water. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Strain, sweeten with honey if desired and give hot every 2 hours.

Local applications

Gargles or throat sprays made from undiluted lemon juice, raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus) tea, sage (Salvia off.), tea with a teaspoon of cider vinegar or ½ tsp tincture of myrrh (Commiphora molmol) in a little water, can be used several times a day.

Herbal infusions can be added to bath water and used for hand and foot baths, especially if a child is reluctant to drink. A mustard foot bath may be an old-fashioned remedy but it is helpful when it comes to throwing off a cold. A dessertspoonful of dry mustard powder is added to 2 pints / 1200 ml hot water and the feet soaked for 5-10 minutes twice daily. Cover the head with a hat / towel to increase body heat. Powdered cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and ginger can be used in the same way.


The combined mucus-clearing and antiseptic effects of steam and volatile oils make inhalations an excellent treatment for respiratory infections. Inhalations two or three times a day using a few drops of essential oil in a bowl of hot water are suitable for children over the age of 4 as long as a parent is present. Putting a towel over the head stops the volatile oils from escaping into the atmosphere and makes the inhalation more effective. For younger children the same oils can be used in a vaporizer and placed in a bedroom at night to ease congestion of the airways and to disinfect the atmosphere. Chamomile, clove, eucalyptus, rosemary, rose, lavender, pine, basil, lemon and thyme oil are all excellent antiseptics and help to clear the airways. They can be used singly or in combination. Essential oils of eucalyptus, basil, rose, lavender or pine can be diluted in a base of sesame oil (2 drops per 5 ml) and massaged into the chest, neck, throat or feet or added to bath water.

Dietary treatment

A child with a cold is best fed on light, easy to digest food, so that most of the body’s energy can be directed to resolving infection as opposed to the process of digestion. Soups, vegetables, stews and casseroles, fruit and vegetable juices are all suitable and dairy produce, sugar, red meat and grains (including bread) are best avoided. Leeks, garlic and onions all enhance the immune system’s fight against infection with their pungent and antimicrobial properties and can be added liberally to the diet. Foods containing vitamins A and C will help the body to throw off a virus. Hot lemon and honey drinks can be given freely to help clear catarrh and soothe a sore throat and chest. Blackcurrant tea is rich in vitamin C and bioflavonoids. Supplements of vitamin C with bioflavonoids, 100 mg 3-5 times a day, 1 teaspoon of cod liver oil and 5mg zinc lozenges three times daily can be given until the child recovers.

Ayurvedic treatment of colds

Ginger tea (sweetened with honey if required) sipped throughout the day can be very effective for reducing general cold symptoms and stopping a cold in its tracks.

A randomized, double-blind study using an extract of a well-known antiviral herb Andrographis paniculata on 158 patients demonstrated that this herb was highly effective in “reducing the prevalence and intensity of the symptoms in uncomplicated common cold beginning at day two of treatment. No adverse effects were observed or reported.”.

It is possible to be more specific in treatment of a common cold using Ayurveda:

Vata type colds are characterized by sneezing, scanty mucus, a dry cough, hoarseness, restlessness and insomnia. There may also be generalized aches and pains, headache, and pain in the joints.

• Diaphoretic herbs (as for Kapha) can be given combined with demulcent herbs like bala, shatavari, ashwagandha and liquorice.

• Sitopaladi is an excellent remedy and ¼ – ½ tsp can be mixed into a teaspoon of honey and a little warm water or milk and given three times daily.

• Other suitable herbs include slippery elm and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus).

Pitta type colds can be associated with fever, sore throat, yellow mucus, diarrhoea, flushing and irritability.

Pitta reducing herbs such as gokshura, punanarva (Boerhavia diffusa), coriander, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), spearmint and other cooling diaphoretics can be used.

• Echinacea, burdock and yarrow are also useful.

• Sitopaladi in honey and chiretta are particularly indicated. I have often used them in my practice at the onset of respiratory infections with success.

Kapha type colds involve more tiredness, lethargy, congestion and copious mucus, which is thick, white or clear. Kapha and ama reducing herbs and foods are indicated here.

• Ginger, cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.), pippali, tulsi, liquorice, echinacea, mint, cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata), yarrow, elderberry, ajwan (Trachyspermum ammi), burdock, lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) are all suitable as they are expectorant and diaphoretic and help induce sweating. They are best given as hot teas regularly through the day.

• Like the above a tea made with lemon juice, fresh ginger and raw honey will help to clear phlegm and resolve infection.

• Sitopaladi is excellent, ½ 1 tsp in honey 3-4 times daily.

Dairy products, sweets, fried foods, herbal tonics such as shatavari and ashwagandha, and yeasted breads are best avoided as they all increase Kapha.