Use These Herbs to Fight Cold & Flu Viruses

When the common cold or its cousin, the flu, has you feeling blue, turn to herbs for relief as alternatives or supplements to pharmaceuticals.

by Dawn Combs
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Sneezing, sniffling, stuffy nose, cough: These are unfortunately symptoms of the cold and flu season. We are exposed to an endless array of germs indoors, and building up the immune system is an important focus of herbalists everywhere. But even the most prepared are bound to be taken out by the dreaded cold and flu bugs at some point. Armed with these herbs, you’ll be on your way to putting up a good fight.

Sage Advice

Sage (Salvia officinalis) has been valued medicinally as far back as Pliny and Dioscorides, having been used as a general tonic and virtual panacea. It has a special affinity for the mouth and throat and is featured prominently in cold and flu remedies. There are many old proverbs concerning sage, from the one suggesting that there is never a reason for a man to perish from an illness as long as he has sage growing to the one that says as the home business grows, so grows the sage. Let’s hope they’re both true!

In addition to adding sage into your winter foods, you can make it into a simple infusion: Pour 1 cup boiling water over 2 to 3 teaspoons sage, and allow it to sit in a covered vessel for 10 to 15 minutes. The resulting tea was traditionally drank first thing in the morning for digestion, flu prevention and even joint pain. As a refrigerant, it helps to cool the body, so it’s great for fever relief, too.

Shii-Take That!

mushrooms quiche herbs

Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) are great for winter health, but you can also use maitake, hen of the woods or any number of other local delicacies. Mushrooms are easy to use as food while also being powerful antivirals and immune stimulants, containing important minerals, such as selenium and potassium. You can get mushrooms in tincture form—which is helpful for ones that are too tough to use culinarily, such as reishi—but for an extra boost, just sauté your favorite varieties into your morning eggs or evening stir-fry, or include them in a quiche.

Bone(set) to Pick

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) is a fairly common plant. It’s not widely used in today’s herbal practices, but it should be. It’s a potent antiviral, and when used as a hot tea, it’s also a diaphoretic, meaning it helps to bring down a fever by encouraging sweating. It’s a perennial that’s easy to grow and can provide a sustainable supply for years to come.

Mind Your Elders

So many of us know elder (Sambucus canadensis) only for its berries, which are antiviral and great in a syrup for cold and flu, yet traditional societies that lived with the elder knew it as a first-aid mecca. All parts of this plant were used at one time or another and addressed bruising, respiratory ailments, digestion, colds and more.

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Elder blossoms, when used as a hot tea (pictured at the top of this post), can bring about the sweating necessary to break a fever. It’s easy to grow the elder, as it’s not too particular about its soil. Once you get one started, you can easily take stem cuttings and start many more so that you have fresh fruit and medicine for years to come.


Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia) is known to stimulate the immune system response during colds and other illnesses. Native Americans used these coneflowers explicitly for situations where there was severe inflammation, such as the case of a sore throat with patches of pus—something like strep throat. It’s very useful for conditions that involve advanced infection or degeneration of tissues. It can be used if your body has been overtaxed with stress and illness, as the plant’s compounds marshal white blood cells to move efficiently toward a place of infection. It was not typically used to -prevent illness or prime the immune system in a tonic manner.

The United Plant Savers, a native medicinal plant organization, lists Echinacea as At Risk. By using the plant parts growing above ground, you can help maintain the roots and allow them to spread. By planting it yourself or sourcing from responsible sources, you can help ensure that this beauty is around to heal future generations.

More than a Garnish

parsley herbs smoothie

The most remarkable thing about parsley (Petroselinum crispum) when it comes to the immune system is its nutritional profile. Parsley is high in vitamin C and is readily available in culinary herb gardens and at the grocery store. The vitamin C is a tonic for adrenals and is a specific to protect the immune system from stress.

You can grow a lot of parsley, and it doesn’t have to just sit on the plate as a garnish. There are wonderful recipes that call for a giant handful of parsley, including jambalaya, tabbouleh, soups and breakfast smoothies.

Rosy Outlook

Like parsley, rose hips (Rosa spp.) are packed with vitamin C. We simply don’t get enough of this vital antioxidant, and it can be difficult to get the nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day to get us to the recommended values. Adding rose-hip jelly or tea to the daily routine can make it easier.

Rose hips will form on both wild and cultivated roses—they are simply the fruit that forms after the rose is pollinated—but the hybrid teas don’t tend to produce them as well. If you have a wild or shrub rose on your property, you are set. They are easy to grow, take quite a bit of abuse and are quite hardy. Hips begin to ripen slowly, turning red, through the fall and are best picked after the first light frost. They can be frozen, dried or made into various preserves, and enjoyed as a mood lifter and immune-system tonic throughout the winter.

Ah, Horseradish!

Fresh horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) root is extremely aromatic and very healthy. The root has a long history of being both a digestive and immune system tonic. Just grinding the roots will give you a chance to clean your sinuses, but if you add that root to a medicinal tonic, such as a traditional apple-cider vinegar recipe called Fire Cider, you can use it to fight off colds and flus.

Horseradish can also be used alongside mustard seed and ginger in a poultice to break up congestion. Using a cloth barrier between it and your skin, spread the ground horseradish over the area of congestion to stimulate sluggish digestive, circulatory, immune or reproductive systems. You might take a tablespoon of horseradish before eating to encourage the gallbladder to digest the fats in your meal more efficiently. It has also been found to be effective as a topical poultice for arthritic joints.

Cold-and-flu season is unavoidable, so stock up now with remedies to nip illness in the bud at the first symptom.

This article appeared in Healing Herbs, a 2018 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. Aside from this piece, Healing Herbs includes articles on herbs that can help with pain relief, sleeplessness and stress relief; herbs for teas; how to cut and dry herbs; preparing and preserving herbs; foraging for medicinal herbs; and becoming an herbalist. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such as Living Off the Grid and Best of Urban Farm by following this link.

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