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Herbs for Acute Respiratory Illness

(Note: These recommendations are for acute illness. If you have a chronic lung condition, please seek the advice of a trained practitioner or physician.)

Before the leaves turn and fall, the first little tickle begins in the throat, and a cough erupts. The season for respiratory illness is here. While the country struggles to understand what conventional cough remedies are effective and safe, I make the point that plant medicines are not only safe and effective, but easy to use as well.

The nature of a cough is to protect the lungs. It is a defense mechanism of the body to expectorate mucus and keep the lungs clear. The problem is how disruptive and irritating it can become. Sleep and relaxation that is needed to allow the body to recover from illness is constantly interrupted. And pain is caused or made worse. A cough with too much irritation can also cause inflammation and extreme amounts of mucus, thus interfering with breathing. In cases of croup, pneumonia, or bronchitis, to name a few, this is not only scary, but life threatening.

That being said, it is important to monitor and manage coughs. In this article I will map out instructions on how to use plant medicines to manage coughs, and diminish the level of irritation they produce so that your body can rest and recover.

Approach of Natural Treatment for Acute Respiratory Illness

When treating a cough, a good overall formula must cover multiple bases. Suppressing the cough is not enough. It should include plants that are demulcent (sooth mucus membranes) and decrease inflammation, stimulate innate immunity, act as an anti-spasmodic to control the frequency and severity of the cough, and support the body in expectorating and balancing the amount of mucus produced.

The plants chosen must also be appropriate for the condition. For example, is the cough wet and productive, or dry and irritating? Is there pain, or inflammation accompanied by trouble breathing? Is it a lower respiratory infection or an upper respiratory infection? Is the infection viral or bacterial?

If you can answer these basic questions, you have the ability to choose plants that are specific to your needs. This way you will be met with greater therapeutic success.

Materia medica: The Plant List

Many plants can be used for respiratory illnesses, colds and flus. The following Materia medica includes herbs that I will focus on in this article. Remember that these plants have multiple uses beyond what is stated here. My description will be on the applicable topic.

Echinacea (Echinacea pupurea or angustifolia): a lymphatic herb that stimulates the body’s innate ability to fight off acute illness by increasing white blood cell count, and killer T-cells; also strengthens healthy cell integrity and increases macrophage count (immune cells located in the liver and lymphatic system) that help the body deal with waste produced by the body’s fight against the illness.

Ginger (Zingerber offician): stimulates blood flow, warming and stimulating expectorant, anti-viral action.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis): anti-viral especially effective against herpes and flu, carminative, diaphoretic, colds, flu, delayed menses, intestinal viruses.

Licorice root (Glycerhiza glabbra): expectorant, antiviral, demulcent (soothes mucus membranes) and anti-inflammatory.

Lobelia (Lobelia inflate): native to the United States and used by the Native Americans; antispasmodic to the lungs, taken in very small amounts (5-15 drops of tincture); I use 2-4 drop doses with my 3 and 6 year old; appropriate in cases of bronchitis, asthma, pertussis, croup…I use this a lot.

Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis): my favorite demulcent for very dry coughs-it works very quickly; anti-inflammatory; great for croup, where a dry and irritated larynx and throat is the underlying cause of the inflammation.

Mullein leaf (Verbascum thapsis): demulcent, expectorant, and anti-inflammatory; considered a lung tonic, as it restores the integrity of the mucus membranes in the respiratory tract; not the fastest worker, and is best used with other demulcents in the case of a dry cough, but supports long term health of mucus membranes.

Plantain (Plantago major): demulcent, speeds healing of mucus membranes, anti-inflammatory.

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): when a spastic cough does not respond to an anti-spasmodic that addresses the muscle spasm, such as wild cherry bark, skullcap calms the nerve responsible for that muscle spasm, thus stopping the cough-a very important plant to have around! Use it in combination with other anti-spasmodics.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): anti-bacterial, damp coughs, colds, flu, digestive complications associated with viral or bacterial infections, mild expectorant.

Wild cherry bark (Prunus, spp.): Bronchial antispasmodic (works to decrease frequency of the cough); effective with chest colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, pertussis, and croup; also effective for spasms of the diaphragm, which is one of the muscles of the respiratory tract.

Yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum): powerful antiseptic and antispasmodic; used for cold wet lung conditions; specifically for bronchitis or pneumonia.

Plants and Their Actions on the Respiratory Tract

It is important to know the plants, but it is also important to know how to use them effectively when putting together a formula. Here you will find defined actions, and which plants support the desired action. It is the beauty of nature that plants have more then one use and action on the body; for example, licorice is antiviral, demulcent, and anti-inflammatory. This simplifies the number of herbs needed in a formula for the desired result. I have also included plants of interest that were not mentioned in the Materia medica.

Expectorants are substances that stimulate the release of mucus from the lungs and bronchial mucosa. In the case of a very wet condition, use a stimulating expectorant, such as horehound, elecampane, or yerba santa. For a tight and dry condition, a relaxing expectorant is necessary, like thyme, licorice, or grindelia. Other expectorants are ginger, elderberry, plaintain, and good quality dark chocolate.

Immune stimulants work to stimulate white blood cell counts and other processes of the immune system that support us in warding off illness. Recommended immune stimulants are, echinacea, ginger, elderberry.

Anti-microbials are a group of plants that work in several ways. They can inhibit the proliferation of a virus or bacteria, and stimulate the body’s innate ability to recover. I recommend ginger, licorice, elderberry, thyme, yerba santa, usnea and echinacea.

Demulcents sooth irritated mucus membranes, and, though most practitioners don’t profess, are also anti-inflammatory. Because tissue irritation is present and needs support in healing regardless of the wet or dry nature of a cough, it is important to include a demulcent in all formulas. The best demulcents for dry coughs are marshmallow root for supper dry, plantain, and licorice for less then supper dry. Demulcents for wet coughs are mullein leaf, licorice and plaintain.

are substances that relieve small muscle spasms. In the respiratory tract, they help control the frequency of the cough, thus giving the body a much-needed break to heal. Some might call this suppressing the cough. Plants in this category are lobelia, wild cherry bark, mullein leaf, and yerba santa. When a cough does not respond to a muscular anti-spasmodic, it is time to employ skullcap. This plant, as mentioned in the Materia medica, calms the nerves that control the muscles of the respiratory tract, thus calming the cough.

Anti-inflammatory plants decrease or prevent inflammation. Two of the ones listed here are also demulcent. They are licorice, mullein leaf, and ginger.

Bronchodilators are necessary to open the airway passages in the lungs. They are extremely useful in cases of RSV and bronchitis, or any time an airway passage has become constricted. Since ephedra is now illegal, and not available to the general public, I have another favorite, coffee.

Mucosal anti-inflammatories reduce inflammation and histamine production in mucus membranes. This reduces the amount of mucus in the sinus and respiratory tract. There are times when this problem alone is triggering a cough. Support can be found from hyssop, eyebright and sage.

Making the Medicines

Formulating for coughs takes practice, and as you see, there are many considerations and options. If you are too overwhelmed to do it yourself, you can use a sample formula given here. There are products at natural food stores available as well. Two products I like are by Gaia Herbs, and are formulated by Mary Bove for kids. There is a formula for wet coughs, and one for dry coughs. They both work very well, and I have taken them myself in a pinch.

But keep in mind that by making your own medicines, you save a lot of money, and have the ability to choose plants that are specific to you, which delivers the best results. I recommend having bulk herbs, honey and glass jars on hand. This way you are ready when the time comes.

Making the medicines is fairly easy. For the formulas that follow, put the measurements of plants recommended into the water. Bring the plants and the water to a boil, turn the heat down, and let sit to steep for 15 minutes. Strain, add honey and store in glass mason jars. The amount of honey used depends on your taste. I add about ¼ – ½ cup of honey per quart of water. Roots take longer, and where applicable, I will give instructions.

To store, you may keep the jar out of the fridge in a cool dry place for about a week without fermentation. The jar can also be kept in the fridge, but the preference is to use the formula at room temperature. If there is any left over after the illness has passed, freeze it for the next time. Remember to label and date everything.

Three things I always have in the freezer to be used separately are ginger syrup, garlic syrup, and marshmallow root tea, which is very thick. To make the garlic syrup, peel, and cut up 4 pods of garlic. Let the garlic sit in the open air for 15 minuets before adding to a quart of cold water. This process of oxidation preserves the chemical constituents of garlic that are anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Bring the garlic to a boil, and then turn the flame low. Let steep for 30 minutes. Strain, and add ½ cup of honey. Use about a tablespoon 3-6 times daily. The ginger and marshmallow root can be made the same way, eliminating the 15-minute oxidation process.

There is a specific reason the marshmallow root should not be put into other herbal formulas. There is some concern that it interferes with the absorption of the other plants, because it is such a powerful demulcent. It is worth the extra step. I give marshmallow root tea in does of 1-2 tablespoons about 5 minutes after the main formula is taken.

General dosage guidelines for the formulas bellow are 2-3 tablespoons, 4-6 times daily. Do this as long as symptoms persist, plus a few days.

Sample Formulas

Formulas for wet and dry coughs are quite general, and can be modified for specific illnesses.

A starter Wet Cough Formula is 1 oz. each of the following dried plants: yerba santa, wild cherry bark, thyme, ginger, and mullein leaf, and ¼ oz. of lobelia. Add this to 2 quarts of water and follow instructions above. For a Dry Cough Formula, take 1 oz. each of licorice root, ginger, wild cherry bark, and plantain. Since roots take longer, add the licorice and ginger to a quart and a half of water, bring to a boil, and then turn low. Let steep for 15 minuets. Add the other plants, and let steep over low heat 20 minutes. Use this for severe dry coughs in combination with marshmallow root tea.

Croup is a virus that affects mostly children, and causes an inflammation of the larynx. It can be fatal, for if the larynx swells shut, air cannot pass into the lungs. Working with croup means lessening irritation, inflammation, using anti-virals, and keeping the child calm. The virus that causes croup only lasts 48 hours, and is often accompanied by a cold. Unfortunately, in our family we have a lot of experience working with croup. The beauty of that is we also have great strategies and success using natural remedies in dealing with it. I recommend avoiding herbs that dry, or are heating and stimulating for 48 hours. Use garlic syrup. A good formula is 1 oz. each of dried licorice root, wild cherry bark, and mullein leaf, with ¼ oz. lobelia. Follow instructions from above using a quart of water. Marshmallow root tea is a gift here, and should be used liberally. After 48 hours, add ginger to the mix.

Bronchitis is an infection that causes inflammation of the mucosal lining of the bronchial tubes. It begins as a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, and moves deeper into the lungs. The cough is harsh and painful at first, and eventually becomes less painful with easier expectoration. Cold and flu symptoms may cause discomfort as well. A formula for Tight and Dry Cough: grindelia, licorice, thyme, mullein leaf, lobelia, ginger. Add 1 oz. each of grindelia, licorice, thyme, mullein leaf, 2 oz. of ginger, and ½ oz. of lobelia and 1 ½ quarts of water. Use method that allows extra cook time for roots. Marshmallow root tea is also helpful in this stage. Formula for Wet and Over productive: elecampane, pleurisy root, licorice root, lobelia, wild cherry bark. Use 1 oz. of each plant, and ¼ oz. of lobelia, to 1 ½ quarts of water.

In cases of bronchitis there is also a need for a bronchodilator. I have had great success at home and with clients using coffee. It is not only effective in adults, but also with children who have RSV, a bronchial infection. Children ages 1-3, can take 1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons as needed. It works well to increase air passage to the lungs. I have seen these kids recuperate quicker, and be better able to eat and drink as well. For kids over 3, 1-2 tablespoons as needed, and for adults, be your own judge, but don’t over do it. You want to rest, not be over stimulated by caffeine.

For colds and flu, a nice general Warming Formula for Respiratory Infection is ginger, echinacea, elderberry, sage (if wet with throat irritation), thyme, and mullein leaf. I add extra ginger in this one.


Whether your cough is a result of a seasonal allergy, a cold, or a more serious viral or bacterial infection, you can manage it without over-the-counter medications. It just takes practice, and a little extra work. Be sure to know when and if your symptom picture changes, and change the plants you employ accordingly. And please be conscious of when you need medical intervention. If symptoms are worsening and you are not getting better with in 5-7 days, consult your doctor. You can usually continue your alternative therapies along with drug therapy, and sometimes a diagnosis can help you more appropriately chose what alternative approach you enlist.


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  • Very nice blog!!
    This is a very informative blog and i really liked this blog. Thanks for your such a beautiful share with us.I really liked the way in which you have described.

  • Really a fabulous article on curing the acute respiratory illness…. The herbs as well as the natural plants suggested here to do this are very useful ones….Thanks to the author for making us a part of it..

    • And thank you for your comment.  It is greatly appreciated.  Warm wishes, Kathy Eich

  • BrooklynMamaAllNatural

    I was diagnosed with acute bronchitis (sadly including coughing up blood!!) today but went to the coop today to buy the herbs you mentioned here including mullein leaf, licorice root, ginger, echinacea, and marshmallow root-boiled them all together for a while and dropped in the lobelia at the end- drank three cups throughout the day. I also had two cups of coffee today (even though I am not a coffee drinker at all,) and I am already feeling better and seeing far, far less green mucus coming from my lungs and feeling significantly less chest pain. The advil helped as well (200 mg this morning-not much at all) and I plan to take some more. I absolutely refuse to take any more anti-biotics and believe that I can heal myself on my own through rest, fluids and herbs instead of “rushing” my body to go back to work and take drugs that will only weaken my immunity over time. Just wanted to say thank you sooooo much for this advice. I took your advice at my own risk, but really feel that it was sound, solid advice. God bless, let you know how I am doing in a few days!

    • Thank you so much for your note.  I so appreciate the hard work you are doing to maintain your health naturally.  Because lets face it, doing it naturally is a bit more work than taking anti-biotics.  Your comment made my day.  Often, it’s just me at home with my students and clients, putting information out into the world via a smallish plastic box with wires and do-dads.  I love hearing peoples stories about what they do with the information, and how it supports their personal process and beliefs.  Stay strong, Plant Woman.  My hope is that you clear this well, and perhaps even learn a bit of how to help others with their infections.  The world needs more informed herbalists!  I look forward to hearing more of how it goes.  Healing potent acute infections takes time and, sometimes, copious amounts of herbs.  But it can be done.  Warm wishes, Kathy

    • Can you remember the quantities of each herb that you used ?

      • Hello. Thanks for writing. Some of the recipes have amounts of each herb in them. Which formula are you speaking of specifically?

        • The one you mentioned for Bronchitis, mullein leaf, licorice root, ginger, echinacea, and marshmallow root-boiled them all together for a while and dropped in the lobelia at the end- drank three cups throughout the day. I have had terrible blocked up lungs for almost two years now and no amount of Anti-Biotics will clear them. I have tried the above recipe and just sort of guessed at the amounts. I have noticed a slight difference in the mucus in that it’s not as thick and not as much coming up, but it is still there.

  • BrooklynMamaAllNatural

    Forgot to add that I also added 7-8 sprigs of thyme into the tea.