This spring, McNeil Consumer Healthcare recalled hordes of cold, allergy and fever medications, leaving parents who rely on them and adults who get by on them to wonder how to safely manage fevers and cold symptoms. This comes just over a year after the first children’s cough remedy recall. In answer to this recall, I will address herbal medicines that are safe and effective fever managers for both children and adults.
While a fever is the natural response of the body to illness, its occurrence can ignite a fear in the sufferer or care giver, especially if it reaches great heights. For myself, I had experience dealing with fevers at my herb store. I imagined having no problem managing fevers in my own children. That was before I had a child who, at a young age, developed a tendency toward extremely high fevers. By high fevers, I mean 105+, lasting up to 3 days.
I feared the fever and my ability to assist it naturally. I feared what others would say if I failed to manage it well and we ended up in the hospital. There were times I reached for a bottle of Children’s Tylenol or Ibuprofen. Just a quarter of a dose recommended for a child, I believed, would put my mind at rest. But it didn’t, for the fever either wouldn’t respond, or I would stress about the toxicity of the drug.
One day, as my daughters fever continued to spike to 105, and no herb or drug would move it, I heard this little voice whisper Verbena hastata, common name blue vervain. I had never tried this plant on her fever before. It was so bitter; I thought for sure she would refuse. I prepared 20 drops of tincture in a teaspoon of water. She took it, and it worked! Blue vervain became the plant that motivated me to rid our medicine cabinet of that bottle saved for the “what if mom needs it” moment. Because lets face it, my daughter made it quite clear that she didn’t.
While there are many plant medicines effective for fevers, you will find here some of my favorites. Some I administer as supportive teas, some as foot baths and some as tinctures.
Physiology of a Fever
The hypothalamus, which sits at the base of the brain, controls body temperature. When an illness is perceived by the body, it triggers a chemical message to be sent via the blood stream to the hypothalamus. This message informs the hypothalamus that a pathogen-either a virus or bacteria-is attempting to proliferate. Because our body knows that virus and bacteria are temperature sensitive, the thermostat is turned up as the battle for health begins.
There are two popular terms used to describe the stage of a fever. One is spike, and the other is break. When the core temperature begins to rise, or spike, metabolic activity is increased. The blood moves from the periphery to the interior. This leaves one suffering from a high fever almost cool to the touch. There is shivering, and a jittery feeling takes hold of the nervous system, along with the inability to relax. The sufferer may be sensitive to light and sound, and their eyes may burn.
When the fever breaks, heat and perspiration pour through the skin. The fever is coming down, and the patient is hot to the touch as blood mobilizes back out to the skins surface. The pores of the skin are red and dilated. Relaxation occurs in the individual.
Please note that while fevers have other causes, be they environmental from overexposure to heat, or a response to excessive alcohol consumption, I am limiting this article to fevers caused by a pathogen.
Plant Energetics for Fevers
As mentioned, a fevers presence is due to infection, but also inflammation. To appropriately assist the body in self defense one should use herbs that are diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory, anti-infective and anti-microbial.
In other words, to manage the fever, you must also address the infection and reduce inflammation. Luckily, the herbs I will mention do all of these things. But if the infection is serious, or the fever continues to last for more then 3-5 days without signs of breaking, seek the advice of a trained professional. There are instances where a bacterial infection is present. If the bacteria are not responding quickly enough to herbs, an antibiotic may be necessary.
Listed below are the energetic terms outlined above. Next to each are plants that hold their action.
Diaphoretics are plants that increase the temperature of the body, stimulating sweating. This helps resolve fevers, and inspires the body to fight off illness. The original concept also included the fact that when we sweat, we also eliminate toxins from our bodies, thus supporting a healing process. Diaphoretics are: yarrow, ginger, blue vervain, lavender, catnip, linden blossom, hyssop, meadowsweet
Anti-inflammatory plants reduce inflammation by cooling or heating. Their action is contingent on their ability to increase circulation, thereby stimulating the body’s ability to shuffle out and eliminate toxins, or its ability to cool and astringe the structure that is affected. The problem can be chronic, as in the case of arthritis, or acute, such as a sprain, bruise, headache or fever. Excellent anti-inflammatory herbs for fevers are: ginger, peppermint, yarrow, blue vervain, lavender, linden blossom, meadowsweet
Anti-infective plants improve the body’s own defenses against germs or parasites. They may be used when one is exposed to a pathogen to prevent infection. Some anti-infective agents are: Echinacea, ginger, yarrow, lavender, and hyssop
Anti-microbial or anti-septic plants can inhibit the proliferation of a virus or bacteria and stimulate the body’s innate ability to recover. Excellent plants in this scope are: ginger, thyme, goldenseal, cinnamon, usnea and yarrow (mildly supports, but in often not strong enough to address the bacterial infection on its own).
The plants listed below have many amazing uses, but I am noting their abilities to support the energetics listed above.
Blue vervain (Verbena hastata): Tastes: bitter, acrid; Energetics: sedative, diaphoretic, diuretic, bitter tonic and antispasmodic, anti-anxiety, soothing anti-inflammatory in cases of nervous and hot headaches
Blue vervain is not used very often now, but has a long and colorful history as a healing agent. It is an excellent diaphoretic, helping the body sweat off a fever. I find it especially useful in fevers associated with viral infections that are very high or do not respond to other measures. I have used it just as effectively on fevers associated with bacterial infections, such as streptococcus.
Blue vervain by nature backs off excess energy in the nervous system and channels it to other places in the body that are deficient, such as the digestive tract and the urinary tract. It is effective for headaches, liver congestion, and food poisoning.
Dosage: I use the tincture for fevers, not the tea, for it is not pleasant tasting. For children ages 2 and up, use 5-20 drops of tincture in a teaspoon of water every 20 min.-4 hours, depending on what is needed. For adults, use the larger dosage.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Taste: bitter, pungent, astringent; Energetics: anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-diarrheal, and anti-spasmodic, for excessive bleeding internally and externally, diaphoretic
Yarrow is one of my favorite diaphoretics. It contains salicylic acid (the little chemical that became aspirin) making it an effective treatment for headaches and body aches that accompany fevers. It is calming and mildly sedative, anti-bacterial and anti-viral. Because it is astringent and anti-inflammatory, yarrow helps manage diarrhea, and eases discomfort from sore throats. It has shown great effect in preventing colds and shortening the duration of them when combined with freshly grated ginger (1 tablespoon of each) with a teaspoon of honey.
You may use it as a tea or tincture. I often use it as a tea in higher fevers, with chamomile tea, and a supportive tincture of blue vervain.
Normal dosage is 2 teaspoons of dried herb steeped in 8 oz of hot water for 10 minutes. A tincture dose for children age 2 and up is 10-30 drops n a teaspoon of water.
Ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale): Taste: spicy, hot, dry; Energetics: warming, stimulating, diaphoretic, anti-viral, digestive aid, carminative, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, anti-infectious
Ginger is a powerful diaphoretic, especially effective at increasing body temperature when chills from a spike in temperature are occurring.
Ginger stimulates blood flow, relieves nausea, and is anti-inflammatory, appropriate for headaches, muscle and joint pain associated with illness.
Normal dosage is 1 teaspoon-3 tablespoons of fresh root in 8 oz. of water. Use the lower dosage for the younger child. Add honey to taste, and drink as hot as tolerated.
Sage leaf (Salvia officinalis): Taste: pungent, warm, oily, astringent; Energetics: astringent, anti-bacterial, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory
Sage is a mild diaphoretic most effectively used for lower fever with mild cold symptoms. I have also used it in long standing wet bacterial sinus infections combined with goldenseal and usnea.
It dries wet upper respiratory infections. Sage is astringent and anti-inflammatory, relieving mild sore throats caused by post nasal drip. Sage may dry wetness, but it inspires oil to rise from dry sebaceous glands, bringing balance to the mucous membranes.
Normal dosage is 1-2 teaspoons in 8 oz. of water, or 5-20 drops of tincture.
Linden blossom Foot Bath and Tea
Linden blossom (Tilia americana) is an excellent diaphoretic. It is specifically indicated for cold and flu accompanied by high fever, headache, and body pain. It reduces temperature where there is excessive heat and profuse sweating but an inability of the body to reduce the fever. Linden blossom reduces nausea, and is a powerful sedative, calming the over stimulated nervous system.
Bath and tea are my favorite uses. For a fever foot bath, use ½ oz. of dried flowers steeped for 5 min. in 1 quart of hot water. Soak feet as long and hot as tolerated.
As a tea for internal consumption, steep 1 tablespoon in 8 oz. of hot water for 5 minutes. I use it in conjunction with blue vervain tincture for high fevers, but not alone.
Lemon socks are an effective way to relieve or reduce a fever. They pull the heat out of the head and disperse it throughout the body. When the heat is able to move it becomes an active tool for fighting infection. I often combine lemon socks with a nice cup of fresh ginger tea with honey.
To prepare the socks, take 1 lemon, juice it, add it to ¼ cup of water as warm as tolerated. Soak cotton socks in the water, and put them on the feet. Next cover the feet with wool socks. Also cover the body to keep it warm, and add a hat to the head. Allow the socks to remain on for 20 min.
Fevers are the fearless warrior. They know how to mobilize energy into action, and are a marker of our strength. While we fear them, for they are seemingly unpredictable, we must learn to trust and assist their efforts. With practice, patience and the appropriate herbal support, this is possible.
For more specific information on how to treat other symptoms of viral and bacterial infections, please visit my website, www.redrootmountain.com. I also highly recommend the book by Mary Bove, N.D. titled An Encyclopedia of Natural Healing for Children and Infants. Its advice is appropriate for children as well as adults.