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[Herbal Rootlets]: No. 100 – Some Herbal Options for Viral Outbreaks

**Edited to add in a few extra links.

This is going to be a rather lengthy article! I apologize in advance, there is so much to say on this topic. I tried to be as succinct as I could.

In my last article, I talked about how to help boost and keep the immune system healthy. There’s been a lot of fear and talk about the coronavirus so I thought I would talk about herbal remedies today and how they can be incorporated into healing according to symptoms.

Antivirals for all?

One thing I can’t stress enough is that there isn’t a one size fits all herb for any illness or person. Each person is an individual, and we all react to viruses and healing modalities differently, based on our own individual body types.

For instance, I run cold. I’m forever bringing a sweater, jacket, or even blanket with me (I keep a wool blanket AND a down blanket in my car at all times) because I never know when I’ll get cold. My partner, on the other hand, is always warm. While I may have 2-3 blankets piled up on me in bed, he’ll have the covers tossed aside, sleeping with a sheet or less covering him.

At the same time, some people have very moist bodies, lots of mucus or sinus congestion, with supple skin that never needs moisturizing while others have dry bodies, presenting with dry, flaky skin, dry noses that may lead to nose bleeds, and often chapped lips.

When we think about herbs, we have to think about how that herb reacts with our bodies. The person who has dry skin may benefit from frequent cups of marshmallow leaf tea, which is very moistening and emollient, while the person with the sinus congestion finds the marshmallow leaf tea makes those conditions even worse.

Previously I wrote a post about teaching kids the 6 tissue states. This is a great overview of how herbs work in conjunction with hot/cold, warm/dry, and tense/lax to bring about balance.

Keep these thoughts in mind when you are considering an herb for a virus and pay attention to how the herb you are considering may affect that person based on the energetics of the herb.

What is my experience with the recent new virus, COVID-19?

Like other herbalists who have written about COVID-19 and herbs that may be helpful, as of this writing I have not seen any cases first hand so I do not know how these herbs will react with the actual virus. That remains to be seen once we start working with those who are affected. Herbalists are now starting to see cases so hopefully more information will become available soon.

Before I tuck into my favorite herbs for viruses, coughs, and other respiratory issues, I want to share some links that I’ve found to be helpful and comforting during this time period.

  • For a sobering but important understanding of what’s going on with COVID-19, read this article by Tomas Pueyo.
  • The American Herbalists Guild has put together a list of growing resources regarding COVID-19 here.
  • For a series of informative articles written by midwife, herbalist, and medical doctor Aviva Romm, go here.
  • New York Times podcast for kids explaining the virus.
  • Several herbalists have posted great articles/handouts about various herbs and aspects. Here is a rather short list of the ones I felt had concise information:

So now let’s take a look at some herbs.

General antivirals and how to offer them to your children

The following is a list of herbs that I rely on for helping to ward off viruses. Remember that this is just a drop in the bucket of what herbs we have available that may be effective against viruses.

Not listed in depth but worth noting: Cinnamon also makes a great antiviral, is a pleasant tea and can be combined with other herbs to make them more palatable. Many other kitchen herbs such as Rosemary, Basil, and Sage work similarly to Thyme.

Echinacea* Echinacea spp.

Energetics/tissue states: pungent, bitter, cooling, drying

Part(s) used: whole plant

Why I like this herb: I like Echinacea at the first sign of illness. Often, several high doses at the onset can help to reduce or eliminate the illness altogether. Echinacea is helpful for sore, scratchy throats, boosting the immune system, and works on the lymph system to help clear stagnation, helping to flush it out.

Pairs well with: Spilanthes, Yarrow, Peppermint, Lemon Balm, Elderberry

How to use it: I prefer to use the aerial parts only, as the plant is an “at-risk” native medicinal plant. Because it is easily cultivated, I feel comfortable using it and only harvest my own plants. It can be made into a tea by steeping 1/4 cup dried in 1 quart of water for 15-20 minutes. Drink at the first sign of an illness, 1/2 cup for children, 1 cup for adults every hour for the first day. Tinctures help to get large doses of the herb more easily and I use 1 drop of tincture for every 2 pounds of body weight – a 100 lb person would take 50 drops – every hour for the first day. After the first day, it’s best to back off and use other herbs.

How to get your children to use it: The tea is fairly mild and can be spiced up with a bit of honey and a pinch of peppermint or a tablespoon of Lemon Balm to enhance the flavor. This tea blend can also make a great popsicle.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use though those with compromised immune systems need to use with caution as it can be overstimulating for some.

Elderberry/leaf/bark/flower* Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis

Energetics/tissue states: sour, cooling, drying

Part(s) used: Berry, flower, leaf, bark

Why I like this herb: Elder is very versatile and has traditionally been used for colds, influenza, and other viruses. It is full of vitamin C, which has been shown to be effective in helping to counteract viruses, and is an immunomodulator, helping to balance out the immune system. This herb is often taken to help prevent illness and at the first sign often taken in conjunction with Echinacea to help ward off sickness. The flowers are often found in fever reducing recipes and the leaf and bark have more antiviral properties than either the flowers or the berries. The leaf and bark are not often used due to their potential emetic properties – no one wants to throw up when they are already feeling ill! However, in small doses, this herb has the potential to kill off many viruses. Elder can also help to break up mucus in the lungs and help to move the mucus out of the lungs. Berries and flowers also help to sweat out a fever when used in a hot tea.

Pairs well with: Yarrow, Peppermint, Echinacea

How to use it: Elderberry can be made into a syrup or used in a tea. Elderflower is used as a tincture or tea. To make a tea of berries, simmer 1/4 cup dried berries in 1 quart of water for 20 minutes or steep 1/4 cup dried flowers in 1 quart of boiling water for 15-20 minutes. Elder leaf and bark are made into a tincture and taken 1-30 drops 3 times daily.

How to get your children to use it: Elderberry syrup is generally sweet enough that children won’t mind taking it as is. Tea can be made with the flowers and can be flavored with Lemon Balm or Peppermint and frozen as popsicles.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use though those with a compromised immune system need to watch how their body reacts to it. See the articles I referenced at the beginning for more information specifically on using Elderberry. Elder leaf or bark may cause nausea and should be started out with a half dose, increasing 1-2 drops each time it’s taken until the full dose or nausea is reached. Back down to lower dose if nausea occurs. Use all parts of Elder with caution to determine tolerance and if symptoms worsen or nausea occurs, discontinue use.

Ginger* Zingiber officinale

Energetics/tissue states: sweet, spicy, hot, drying

Part(s) used: rhizome

Why I like this herb: Ginger is spicy and warming, great for those who run cold and are dealing with cold respiratory conditions. It is pleasant tasting and well received by children. Ginger eases a sore throat, helps one to sweat out a fever, and can lessen the duration of an illness. Ginger eases nausea, stimulates the circulation, and helps to warm cold lungs.

Pairs well with: Cayenne, lemon

How to use it: The tea of the rhizomes is spicy and can be sweetened with honey if needed. Brew up a tea of fresh rhizomes about 2 tablespoons chopped to 1 quart of water and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Serving size is about 1/4 – 1/2 cup for children to 1 cup for adults, several times daily. You can turn that tea into a syrup by following these instructions and substituting rhizomes for the berries in the recipe. Take 1 teaspoon – 1 tablespoon syrup several times a day to soothe coughs and sore throats.

How to get your children to use it: The sweetened tea can be made into popsicles if your child is hot and craving cold items. Ginger syrup can also be made into a “soda” drink that children enjoy by adding 2 ounces of syrup to 6 ounces of seltzer water.

Cautions: This herb is contraindicated in large doses for pregnant women and can irritate peptic ulcers, acid reflux and some inflammatory issues. Don’t use in combination with blood thinning medications.

Honeysuckle* Lonicera spp.

Energetics/tissue states: sweet, bitter, cooling, drying

Part(s) used: flowers, leaves, stems

Why I like this herb: First of all, much of the Honeysuckle that grows here in North America is an invasive species. So, the use of this plant helps the native plants to thrive. Honeysuckle is great for hot, damp conditions. Think an upper respiratory infection that is hot and full of mucus, often painful. This herb is great for assisting with fevers as well and is often used for pneumonia, influenza, and colds. This is one of the herbs that has been used in China to help combat COVID-19.

Pairs well with: Peppermint, Yarrow

How to use it: The tea of the leaves and/or flowers is mild tasting and can be sweetened with honey if needed. Brew up a tea of fresh leaves and/or flowers, about 1/2 cup to 1 quart of boiling water or 1/4 cup dried to 1 quart water and steep for 15-20 minutes. Serving size is about 1/2 cup for children to 1 cup for adults, several times daily.

How to get your children to use it: The sweetened tea can be made into popsicles if your child is hot and craving cold items.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use.

Read more about Honeysuckle here (includes a recipe for infused honey).

Lemon Balm* Mellissa officinalis

Energetics/tissue states: sour, cooling, drying

Part(s) used: Leaves

Why I like this herb: Lemon Balm has a delightful smell and taste – it reminds me a bit of Fruity Pebbles cereal. Lemon Balm helps to lower fevers when drunk as a hot tea, and is well liked by most children without any additions. It works well against a variety of viruses, most notably chicken pox, cold sores, colds, and shingles, to name a few. Lemon Balm is also calming to the nervous system so a cup of this tea can help to calm down anxious children (and parents).

Pairs well with: Echinacea, Spilanthes, Thyme

How to use it: Lemon Balm can be used as a tincture, 30-60 drops 5 times daily or made into a tea with 1/4 cup dried herb to 1 quart boiling water, steeped for 15-20 minutes. Drink 1/4-1 cup of tea 5 times daily.

How to get your children to use it: This herb is great as is, most children will drink the tea straight or sweetened with a bit of honey. The tea also makes a delicious popsicle.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use though pregnant women should use with caution as it is an emmenagogue in large doses.

Spilanthes* Spilanthes acmella

Energetics/tissue states: pungent, salty, warming, drying

Part(s) used: aerial parts

Why I like this herb: Spilanthes is great for boosting the immune system and stopping viruses. It has been used against influenza, malaria, dengue, and tuberculosis. You’ll find that Spilanthes has a tingly numbing effect, similar to Echinacea and makes a great throat spray to help soothe sore throats. Spilanthes can also help to reduce fevers.

Pairs well with: Echinacea, Lemon Balm, Thyme

How to use it: Spilanthes is best used as a tincture due to the taste. I generally use 30-60 drops at the onset and repeat hourly. 

How to get your children to use it: This tincture is rather shocking so it’s best to add it to a bit of water, juice or herbal tea to disguise the taste. Some children enjoy the effect of chewing on a fresh flower – they find the tingling tongue and drool hilarious. This is probably an activity best saved for when they are feeling well!

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use.

General demulcents and how to offer them to your children

Demulcent herbs are helpful when the bronchial tubes are hot and dry as they help to cool and moisten the lining, reducing inflammation in the process. They are soothing to dry coughs.

Licorice* Glycyrrhiza glabra

Energetics/tissue states: sweet, slightly bitter, cooling, moistening

Part(s) used: root

Why I like this herb: It is naturally sweet, making it a great flavor enhancer to less than tasty herbs. I also like to add Licorice in with herbs that are drying in nature (see the herbs in the antiviral section) when the lungs are dry and need some mucilaginous action to help moisten dry and inflamed tissue. Licorice is specific for respiratory ailments with dry, hacking coughs, sore throat, hoarseness, wheezing, shortness of breath, and inflammation. This root helps to bring up stuck mucus from the lungs. It is also an antiviral and antibacterial and is often used for pertussis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and influenza.

Pairs well with: Other herbs when moistening and cooling is needed or when needing a flavor enhancer

How to use it: Licorice is naturally sweet and makes a great decocted tea. Add 2 tablespoons cut and sifted root to 1 quart of water and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Drink 1/4 – 1 cup up to 5 times daily. A tincture can also be used, 15-60 drops 4-5 times daily.

How to get your children to use it: As Licorice is sweet, most kids will drink the tea readily.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use but should be avoided if you have high blood pressure.

Read a bit more about Licorice here.

Marshmallow* Althaea officinalis

Energetics/tissue states: sweet, cooling, moistening

Part(s) used: leaf, root

Why I like this herb: Marshmallow is cooling and soothing to the mucus lining of the respiratory tract. The sweet flavor makes this another easy to use herb, though the wrong infusion can make it hard to drink so be sure to read the ‘how to use it’ portion! Marshmallow helps to break up stuck mucus in the lungs, cooling inflammation and soothing dry, irritated passages.

Pairs well with: Other herbs when moistening and cooling is needed

How to use it: Add 1/2 cup dried root to 1 quart of lukewarm water and steep for 4-8 hours. If you use hot or boiling water, you will end up with a slimy concoction that few find appetizing to drink. Alternately, you can make a tea from the dried leaf, with 1/4 cup dried herb to 1 quart boiling water, steeped for 15-20 minutes. Drink 1/4-1 cup of tea 5 times daily.

How to get your children to use it: Marshmallow root tea is generally naturally sweet so kids will usually drink it without complaint. Other herbs can be added to flavor it, as well as to add more medicinal value. The leaf tea is a bit bland and can be sweetened with a bit of honey or licorice root. Old fashioned marshmallows can be made with Marshmallow root as an alternate to a cough drop.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use.

Decongestant herbs and how to offer them to your children

If you’re needing herbs to help reduce congestion and to help dry out the mucus, look for some of these herbs to help. Many of the antiviral herbs fall into this category as well so be sure to double check that list.

Onion* Allium cepa

Energetics/tissue states: pungent, warming, drying

Part(s) used: bulb

Why I like this herb: Onion is easy to find and generally in the pantry of every home. Onion can help to dry up mucus and congestion, as well as help to remove it from the lungs. Onion can also help to ward of influenza, colds, and other viruses.

Pairs well with: Use Onion in conjunction with other herbs to reduce coughs and congestion

How to use it: Besides adding it to food, Onion is great as a plaster on the chest, helping to draw congestion out, easing coughs. To make a plaster, slice 1-2 red or yellow onions and sauté them in a bit of coconut oil or butter. When they soften add 2-4 tablespoons of cornmeal and stir until it makes a paste-like consistency. You can also use any flour of choice instead of cornmeal. Place the mixture onto a square of flannel cloth, spread evenly and fold closed. Place the flannel on top of the sick person’s bare chest while they are lying down and cover with a hot water bottle then bundle them up with warm blankets. If the pain is greater in the back, you can place the plaster on the back instead of the chest. Leave the plaster on for about 20 minutes then remove (remove sooner if it seems to be irritating). For best results, follow up with an oil infused with Sage, Rosemary, Eucalyptus or Mint.

How to get your children to use it: Children are generally pretty accepting of the Onion plaster and often find it soothing. You can also make a syrup, the instructions can be found here.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use.

Herbs to help with coughs and how to offer them to your children

Coughs are generally a good thing, helping to bring mucus up out of the lungs but at times they can become overwhelming. These herbs can help to reduce coughing through various actions.

Elecampane* Inula helenium

Energetics/tissue states: bitter, pungent, sweet, warming, drying

Part(s) used: root, leaf, flower

Why I like this herb: Elecampane contains camphor, which helps to clear up stuffed up passages. Elecampane helps to draw out deep stuck mucus, opens up bronchial passages to reduce constriction, going deep into the lungs to break up, thin and move out stuck mucus to remove it from the lungs and ease coughing. Elecampane has been used for pleurisy, colds, influenza, pneumonia, pertussis, and asthma.

Pairs well with: Ginger, Spilanthes

How to use it: Tincture is a popular way to take Elecampane as the root can be quite strong, 10-90 drops up to 6 times daily. Candied root and Elecampane syrup are also quite palatable since the honey helps to mellow out the flavor a bit. Follow the instructions for Ginger to make a tea/syrup and take 1 teaspoon – 1 tablespoon syrup several times a day to soothe coughs and sore throats. To make candied roots, place 2 cups fresh or 1 cup dried roots in a saucepan with 1 quart water and simmer for about 30 minutes, adding more liquid if needed. Strain off the liquid, reserving 3 tablespoons, then add 1 cup of sugar to the roots and the 3 tablespoons of reserved liquid. Bring back to a boil, stirring often and cook until the roots are transparent and the liquid has almost evaporated completely. Reduce heat and cook until almost dry, turn off the heat and cool. Toss with super fine sugar to coat, spread on parchment paper and dry overnight. Store in an airtight jar. Use in place of a cough drop as needed.

How to get your children to use it: Even though Elecampane is strong, the syrup and candied roots are often a hit for kids.

Cautions: Elecampane should be avoided in large doses during pregnancy. Large doses may cause diarrhea, stomach cramping, or vomiting so don’t overdo it!

Read more about Elecampane here.

Thyme* Thymus vulgaris

Energetics/tissue states: pungent, mildly bitter, warming, drying

Part(s) used: aerial parts

Why I like this herb: This herb is easy to find and is probably in your kitchen cabinet right now! Thyme is useful for soothing sore throats and easing spasmodic coughing – it was one of my go to’s when we had pertussis. This herb also helps to dry up mucus, helping to reduce the amount of mucus that may end up in the lungs. Thyme contains thymol, which seems to be effective against COVID-19.

Pairs well with: Ginger, Cinnamon, Spilanthes

How to use it: For a sore throat, a tea of thyme can be made and used as a gargle. Thyme can be drunk as a tea by adding 1/4 cup dried herb to 1 quart boiling water, steeped for 15-20 minutes. Drink 1/4-1 cup of tea 5 times daily. For sinus congestion or dry, inflamed lungs, try an herbal steam by pouring the hot tea in a bowl and covering your head with a towel while you lean over the steam and inhale it.

How to get your children to use it: The tea is mild enough that most children will drink it. It can be flavored with other herbs to add more interest, or sweetened with a bit of honey if needed.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use.

Read more about Thyme here (includes a recipe for Thyme Honey).

Wild Cherry* Prunus serotina

Energetics/tissue states: bitter, sweet, warming, drying

Part(s) used: inner bark, leaf, fruit, flower

Why I like this herb: Wild Cherry helps coughs that are hot, both dry and wet, soothing and relaxing tight, constricted lungs. Wild Cherry also helps to relax the nervous system, helping sleep to come easier when a cough keeps you up at night.

Pairs well with: Ginger, Echinacea, Spilanthes

How to use it: The original cough syrup! Wild Cherry tastes great, like cherry so it can be taken as a syrup, which can also be cooked down to hard ball candy stage to make cough drops. A tincture can be used as well, 10-60 drops up to 5 times daily. For syrup, take 1-3 teaspoons full as needed for a cough.

How to get your children to use it: The syrup or cough drops are your best bet! They are sweet, taste like cherry and sooth sore throats and coughs quite well.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use but can cause drowsiness if taken in large doses.

Herbs to help relieve fevers and how to offer them to your children

Fevers are another line of defense our body has and help to burn off viruses. As long as your child is comfortable, allow their fever to burn. You’ll often notice that the fever will rise and fall, similar to a thermostat in your house – when it gets too hot, it will allow the body to cool off, but then when it gets too cool will kick up again. The body is helping to burn off the virus. Herbalist jim mcdonald has a great article about fevers, you can find it here.


Boneset* Eupatorium perfoliatum

Energetics/tissue states: bitter, pungent, cooling, drying

Part(s) used: aerial parts

Why I like this herb: Boneset has the nickname of ‘bone break fever’ indicating its use with fevers. Have you ever had the flu to the point that your entire body ached so much that any movement was a nightmare? Boneset is specific for that. This herb also helps to lower fevers, when drunk hot as a tea and has been used for fevers resulting from measles, mumps, scarlet fever, yellow fever, typhoid fever and more. Boneset helps to move mucus that is stuck in the lungs by stimulating the cough reflex while helping to relieve stronger spasmodic coughing by relaxing the diaphragm.

Pairs well with: Peppermint, Yarrow, Lemon Balm, Licorice

How to use it: Boneset works well as a tea but is not pleasant tasting. Some people find they actually don’t mind it when they are not feeling well, as if their body is craving what they need. To make a tea, steep 1/4 cup of dried Boneset in 1 quart boiling water for 15-20 minutes. Drink 1/4 – 1 cup as hot as possible 3-5 times daily. A tincture can also be used, 3-10 drops up to 5 times daily for up to two weeks.

How to get your children to use it: This tincture is rather bitter so it’s best to add it to a bit of water, juice or herbal tea to disguise the taste. They may find the tea palatable if diluted with juice.

Cautions: This herb has pyrrolizidine alkaloids and should not be used more than 2 weeks. If you have any liver issues, do not use Boneset.

Peppermint* Mentha x piperita

Energetics/tissue states: pungent, sweet, cooling, drying

Part(s) used: leaf when in flower

Why I like this herb: Peppermint (and other mints such as Spearmint) is a flavor that is well received by kids and adults alike. It is a refrigerant and helps to cool the body from the inside out, bringing down a fever fast when it has been ongoing and is uncomfortable. This herb also contains menthol which helps to sooth spasmodic coughing. Peppermint works well against colds, influenza, chicken pox, measles, and more to lessen the duration, move mucus from the lungs, and ease pain and inflammation.

Pairs well with: Boneset, Yarrow, Elderflower, Echinacea

How to use it: Peppermint works well as a tea, 1/4 cup dried herb to 1 quart boiling water, steeped for 15-20 minutes. Drink 1/4-1 cup of hot tea 5 times daily for fever reduction. For sinus congestion or dry, inflamed lungs, try an herbal steam by pouring the hot tea in a bowl and covering your head with a towel while you lean over the steam and inhale it.

How to get your children to use it: Children will generally drink a tea made with Peppermint. Spearmint is a bit milder and sweeter and is sometimes better tolerated. Either tea can be made into popsicles.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use. Pregnant women should avoid large doses and nursing mothers should drink with caution as it can reduce breast milk.

Yarrow* Achillea millefolium

Energetics/tissue states: bitter, pungent, mildly sweet, cooling, drying

Part(s) used: aerial parts

Why I like this herb: This herb will help to sweat out a fever, which can be helpful when a fever just continues without breaking. As with most diaphoretics, the herb is best drank hot. Yarrow is antiviral and often used for influenza and colds.

Pairs well with:  Peppermint, Elderflower, Thyme, Ginger, Echinacea

How to use it: Yarrow can be drunk as a tea by adding 1/4 cup dried herb to 1 quart boiling water, steeped for 15-20 minutes. Drink 1/4-1 cup of hot tea 5 times daily for fever reduction. A tincture can also be used for antiviral properties, 10-30 drops 4-6 times daily.

How to get your children to use it: This tea is best flavored with a bit of Peppermint, Lemon Balm, or Ginger and a bit of honey.

Cautions: This herb is generally safe for all to use but avoid use if pregnant.

As I have previously mentioned, this is a very short list of herbs that may be helpful. Again, it’s always important to pay attention to how symptoms are presenting in a person and matching the herbs to best alleviate their concerns.

If symptoms are getting worse, seek medical attention immediately.

*for more information on these herbs, look for the corresponding issues of Herbal Roots zine.


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