An Herbalist’s Approach to Getting a Cold

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My Strategy

This is a chronicle of what I do when I get a cold – my basic strategy, the herbs I use, why I choose them and how I prepare them. It is intended to stimulate critical thinking rather than give blanket advice on which herbs are best for the cold season.

First off, it is good to know how herbs can potentially help with the common cold. If used right, they can:

Halt an infection when caught very early.

Lessen the severity and duration of an infection.

Alleviate symptoms like cough and congestion.

Prevent secondary lung infections.

I have a basic 3-step strategy for treating the common cold with herbs:

1.     Know the Pattern

2.     Be Prepared

3.     Treat Hourly at First Sign

Know the Pattern

No two people are alike and no two people get sick in exactly the same way. Knowing the pattern of how you typically get sick can help you choose herbs more effectively. The best remedy will be a match to your specific symptoms.

For example, my colds are always centred in my throat, manifesting as dry, swollen and irritated during the infection stage. When my body shifts into the resolution stage, my sinuses release copious amounts of mucus, and I have a minor dry cough.

In stage one, I have inflammation and dryness. Since I am actively fighting the infection I will choose herbs which are antiviral, immune boosting, anti-inflammatory and herbs which help to soothe the dryness.

In stage two, I have a combination of dampness and dryness. At this time I utilize herbs which will keep the mucus flowing and help my body expel it, relax my cough, and soothe the dryness in my lungs.

Being Prepared

Once I know my pattern and the herbs which will best treat my symptoms, the next thing I want to do is get prepared in advance of the cold season. I need to have some basic remedies at hand before I actually get sick. The first rule of thumb is that herbs only work if you use them! So best to have them ready and available.

For me being prepared is easy because I have an herbal dispensary with up to 200 different herbs at my fingertips. Preparedness for you might entail finding a local herbalist to supply remedies (like me!), visiting your local health food store or purchasing herbs through a trusted online supplier. I have listed some Canadian-based resources at the end of this post.

When you are purchasing your remedies be sure to get enough product so that you can have something available at home, on your person and at your place of work. This is actually a critical step because you do not want to miss the early onset window of your cold.

Treat Hourly at First Sign

The single most important thing you need to know about the common cold is that viral populations can double within 8hrs. If you go to work feeling a bit off and don’t take your remedy all day, the infection can be well established by the end of the day.

This is the difference between a minor cold that lasts a few days or a major one that lingers for weeks. I take a small dose of herbs every hour (or every two hours if I get busy) for the first two days. During sleep the immune system ramps up, so we can let the body do its own magic through the night.

The Herbs – Active Infection Stage

When I am actively fighting infection and my throat is dry and irritated, I use:

·      Echinacea

·      Propolis glycerite

·      Ginger juice

·      Licorice

·      Marshmallow

·      Honey

My Method

I treat every 1-2 hours with Echinacea, Propolis and Ginger using the following preparations:

1.     Tincture of Echinacea angustifolia
1 dropper (0.5-0.7ml)

2.     Glycerite of Propolis
1 dropper (0.5-0.7ml)

3.     Juice of Raw Ginger
3-4 ounces

I take these three herbs undiluted to encourage direct contact with the throat tissue, where they can actively fight the infection locally. I allow the herbs to drizzle down my throat and linger before following up with some water.

All three herbs have anti-viral properties and Echinacea additionally boosts immune system activity. Propolis as a glycerite will coat the throat and reduce irritation. Ginger in its raw form is more potently anti-viral and less drying than boiled or dried ginger.

For more information on using and preparing raw ginger, check out my article, ‘Ginger in the Raw’.

This particular combination of herbs and consistent intake during the early onset stage lessens the intensity and duration of my cold. If I get adequate rest and sleep, I will be done with the cold in 3-5 days.

Sore Throat Tea

Additionally I make a tea with Licorice root, Marshmallow root and honey to alleviate the dryness and irritation in my throat.

I steep the marshmallow root in cold water overnight than heat it up to a simmer in the morning and add the licorice, simmering both for 15-20min in a covered pot. I strain the herbs out and stir in honey to taste while the brew is still warm. I use two teaspoons of herb per cup of water when making medicinal herbs teas.

I sip on this through the day to control the inflammation and irritation in my throat. Licorice has a three-fold action – it soothes dryness and inflammation, it disrupts viral replication (anti-viral) and it is the best herb for a dry cough bar none.

The Herbs – Resolution Stage

During the resolution stage I address the dampness with herbs that make it easier for me to expel mucus, as well as relax and soothe my dry cough. I will adjust my original tea to include a couple of aromatic herbs: 1) fennel or anise, and 2) a pinch of cardamom. I find cardamom to be particularly useful for clearing sinus congestion, while fennel and anise works to relax the dry cough.

A Final Note

Since I am not prone to intense or productive coughing nor secondary chest infections, I do not need herbs which work more deeply on the lungs like mullein, elecampane, coltsfoot, osha or lomatium. A little licorice and fennel is sufficient for me.

In my experience, both personal and professional, OTC drugs do not even touch the level of effectiveness that herbs can offer for treating the common cold. OTCs work very well at suppressing cold symptoms but in no way do they bolster the body’s own natural defenses like herbs can.

The problem is that herbs are less accessible and require some knowledge to use effectively. With herbs education is always a pre-requisite. Many of you may know which herbs are good for a cold, but do not how to use them in the best way. I hope my personal protocol sheds a little more light!


The Herbal Clinic & Dispensary (Toronto)

Richter’s Herbs (ON)

Rebel Roots Herb Farm (ON)

Organic Matters Foods (BC)

Harmonic Arts Botanical Dispensary (BC)



Janna ShaperoComment