Every herbalist has a few standby cold and flu remedies stocked up for the winter. I have accumulated the following herbs based on my own needs and those closest to me. Your own list will vary based on your individual needs; for instance, milder onion plasters may replace mustard for chest pain and congestion, osha or horehound may replace wild cherry for the types of cough you may have, or slippery elm and licorice may be more soothing to your sore throat than astringent sage. I generally do not have sinus infections, so my list is lacking sinus openers like horseradish and eyebright. Luckily, part of the beauty of herbalism is that plant medicines are not set into strict categories. Rather there are opportunities for overlap; I could employ the essential oil already on my list, eucalyptus, for sinus congestion as a steam, if need be.
1. The homeopathic remedy Oscillococcinum is one I always have on hand. Use it for chills, sweats, achey bones, headache, and other flu symptoms. What more can I say? This is one of the few “products” that I personally recommend. Take it as soon as you can, like within hours, to increase your chances of warding off the flu.
2. Echinacea phytocaps. This is the second “product” I have to have around. Typically, I order these from Gaia herbs, because I have visited their North Carolina farms and facilities twice and became familiar with their line while working in an herb shop. This does to colds what Oscillococcinum does for the flu; potentially stops it in its tracks. Suck on a capsule and let the echinacea drip down the back of your throat slowly, repeat every two hours for the first day. The reason I prefer this to my homemade echinacea tincture is it seems to be more effective for sore throats, which are a major problem for me. When I have a cold without a sore throat, I use the tincture instead, saving the caps for when they are truly needed.
3. For swollen throat and glands, itchy, and congested ears, mullein flowers and garlic ear oil is a year-round favorite, but gets extra use in the winter time. You can tailor an ear oil for your own needs; I add a bit of St. John’s wort oil for nerve pain. Warm up the bottle in a cup of hot water for a minuet before adding a drop to each ear, twice daily if needed. For some people, uncomfortably cracking and itching ears are the first sign of a cold; using ear oil at the onset of a cold may ease symptoms or ward off the cold completely (as I have experienced a few times).
4. I always have a bag of mustard seeds in my cupboard, ready to be freshly ground in the coffee grinder, mixed with lukewarm (not hot) tap water and spread on the chest as a mustard plaster. Do not apply directly on the skin, instead lay a thin cotton cloth down first (flour sack towels work great) before spreading on the mustard plaster on the upper chest while laying down. After about 20 minuets, peel off the cloth with plaster intact, and place it on top of an old towel before laying down on it, this time with the plaster treating your upper back.
The mustard plaster is very useful for extreme chest pain and infection. It warms to break up congestion and relieves pain. “Warms” may be an understatement; it becomes down-right hot! As soon as you feel chest pain accompanying a respiratory infection, as if your chest is cut and bruised and feels painful to touch and breath, head for the mustard plaster. Use once or twice a day as needed until the pain recedes, all the while taking your choice of lung herbs and eating simple, nourishing and warm foods and soups. As mentioned above, you may get the same relief from an onion poultice, so try that first if you have any doubt about the powerfully stimulating properties of mustard, or for children.
5. Fresh garlic are always handy. To receive full effects for the immune system, consume 1-3 raw garlic cloves a day. Make a garlic “sandwich” with thin slices of fresh garlic between apple slices to help it go down the trap.
6. Some medicines you just crave; shiitake mushrooms is one of them for me. The last time I felt a cold knocking at my door, I drank a quart of shiitake and ginger tea a day for three days. I use dried shiitakes for tea. They are easy to prepare and store. Once in a while I will splurge at the grocery store for some fresh shiitakes, which I enjoy simply stir-fried with olive oil and crushed garlic.
7. There are dozens of dozens of essential oils that stimulate and support the immune system. It is utterly amazing! I choose to keep Eucalyptus (spp. globulus) because I have had great success using it for post nasal drip, as a chest rub, and for blocked sinuses. Plus, it is one of the most easily accessible and relatively affordable essential oils. Not all eucalyptus essential oil is crated equal; my favorites are from the Minnesota company Plant Spirit and David Crow’s Floracopeia.