This year, winter came to Minnesota early and confused us, but even though the snow has strangely melted already, the cold season is still far off. It's as if there was an acute scarcity of tissues in the state the moment the first few snowflakes fell (okay, not really, but the idea is conveyed). Noses started to get stuffy, and throats began to hurt.
The common cold is caused by a virus—more than 200 viruses, to be exact. Since there are numerous strains of the virus, unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for it, and it is incurable. The virus that causes colds attaches itself to the throat and nose mucous membranes, effectively taking over the local cells and driving them to divide into new virus cells. Really, everything is very ominous. The symptoms, which include coughing, sneezing, sore throats, general congestion, and mild fatigue, appear when your body tries to fight off the virus.
The goal of remedies is to minimize these symptoms so that you can remain comfortable as your strong immune system fights off the virus. You can customize many of the below home remedies for colds to suit your preferences, such as using a different essential oil or adjusting the decongestant's level of spice. I try to give some variety here, but there may be some overlap with sore throat and cough remedies. You'll eventually develop your own go-to cures and recipes.
1. Hot Ginger Tea
This is one of the best teas to sip when you’re feeling stuffed up and yucky. The ginger is delicious, warming, a just a little spicy. Aromatic constituents such as capsaicin (found in chilies) or piperine (found in black pepper) are part of a family of compounds that provide numerous healing benefits. In ginger the compound of that family is called gingerol (original, right?), and it helps relieve congestion in a couple of ways. First, it lessens inflammation of mucous membranes that line the nasal passages and the sinus cavity, and this inflammation contributes greatly to the buildup of pressure and congestion. When the swelling goes down, mucous can flow out instead of getting all jammed up. Although slightly less scientific, there’s also the fact that its spiciness has enough of a kick that it can just perfectly loosen up built up phlegm. The tea itself is wonderful for you because you’re getting extra fluids, which your body needs desperately when fighting off an illness, and breathing in the steam vapors can also help loosen up any congestion you may be expecting. The below recipe is for an infusion, rather than a decoction (which is when you actively steep the herb in simmering water), but you can do either or.
You will need…
-6-8 tablespoons of freshly grated ginger root
-A pinch of cinnamon (optional)
-A squirt of lemon juice (optional)
-A dash of honey (optional)
-4 cups of freshly boiled water
-A glass jar (at least 1 quart)
Place the ginger in a 1 quart glass and sprinkle in some cinnamon if you are using it. Bring the water to a rolling boil, and then carefully pour it into the jar to cover the ginger. Steep for 30-40 minutes, and be sure to cover your jar-this is important because it keeps all that evaporating essential oil goodness right where it belongs-in your cup! Strain (use hot mitts or a towel as the jar may still be quite warm) and then pour yourself a piping fresh mug. You may find that you want to reheat the tea slightly. Add honey and lemon if you are using them, sip and savor, and be sure to breathe in the steam. Store the rest of the tea in the fridge for up to 24 hours, reheating and drinking 3 times throughout the day.
2. Essential Steam
One beautiful almost instant fix for a stuffy nose is to steam it out. This is a favorite remedy of mine and worth repeating in numerous remedy lists. You can glean the benefits of steam by breathing it in from a mug of hot tea, taking a hot shower, or filling a bowl with a hot water and adding an essential oil. The best essential oils to use for this are the strong ones like tea tree, peppermint, or eucalyptus (tea tree and eucalyptus being the best in my opinion.) The anti-bacterial/anti-viral properties of tea tree oil can be carried via the steam, which will help fight off any bug that you’re battling. Both tea tree and eucalyptus are, of course, rather strong smelling, which also helps dislodge congestion.
You will need…
-5-10 drops of eucalyptus, tea tree oil, or a combination
-A heatproof bowl
Put the essential oils in the bottom of the bowl and then pour in several cups of boiling water. Start by putting your face over the bowl at a comfortable distance-steam can do some damage if you aren’t careful. Eventually have your face directly about the bowl as close as comfortably possible. Drape the towel over your head to trap all that healing steam, and take deep breaths. Resurface as needed if you become too warm. Have some tissues handy to blow your nose after! Repeat 2-3 times daily, adjusting the amount of essential oil to your preferences. Some people find that too much will make their eyes water, so start with less.
3. Go with a Classic Cure
I love old time home remedies-the ones that we don’t need to question on chemical level, picking apart why they work or why they don’t work. They simply are, just as they have been for generations, and just as they will be for years to come. One of these classic home remedies for colds is comprised of three familiar ingredients-garlic, lemon, and honey. You can combine them in more involved ways if you wish, but this recipe is about as simple as it gets. It’s particularly useful for a cold that is accompanied by a sore throat and a dry cough.
You will need…
-1 medium clove of garlic
-1 teaspoon of honey
Crush up the garlic clove and place it in a glass along with the juice from the lemon. Top it off with the honey (you can add more to taste if you like) and then top it off with warm water. Give it a stir, and then drink entirely. Repeat 2-3 times a day for the duration of your symptoms.
4. Make a Honey-Onion Syrup
This recipe is great for cold that come with a nasty cough. The honey is wonderful for healing a sore throat while the onion works its wonders through antibacterial and anti-inflammatories actions. It can also help loosen up phlegm deep in the chest.
5. Mmm-mmm Mullein
This might be a home remedy that you’re tempted to pass over because you don’t recognize the name of the herb. It’s too much of a bother to try and figure out what the heck mullein is and you’d much rather just go for the apple cider vinegar or something you can pull off the spice rack, right? While that is nice, the beauty of the internet is that you can get these herbs and other ingredients without having to hunt down an obscure natural health store somewhere across the state border.
Mullein is a biennial (grows every other year) plant that can be found alongside roads in temperate climates, or zones 5-9 in the United States. It is tall, with small yellow flowers and leaves that start out soft and downy. It is an EXCELLENT expectorant, which means it thins out and loosens up phlegm so you can cough it out. This is very helpful if you have a lot of congestion, particularly in the chest. It works very well when combined with other expectorants, such as thyme, which is added here as well.
You will need…
-1-2 tablespoons of dried mullein OR 4-6 tablespoons fresh (flowers or flowers/leaves)
-2 1/2 teaspoons of dried thyme OR 5 teaspoons fresh
-1-1 ½ cups of fresh water
-Honey/lemon to taste
Place your herbs in a large mug and bring water to a rolling boil. Pour over the herbs and cover, steeping for 15-20 minutes. Strain, stir in honey or lemon if you’re using it, and savor each healing sip. Drink 2-3 times daily to help clear up congestion.
6. Make a Simple Syrup
No…not the kind that’s just sugar and water, but truly medicinal healing syrup that is wonderful and tasty and oh-so satisfying to make. Syrups are great for kids as they are much more inclined to take them rather than trying to get them to drink a bitter tea. Syrups are, actually, just a boiled down extra strong medicinal tea with some honey. They are one of my all-time favorite things to make and are easy to take, even when your throat is aching and you have no appetite. This particular syrup includes marshmallow root, licorice root, cinnamon, and ginger. Ok so this syrup isn’t the sweetest of examples, but it is effective! Marshmallow root and licorice root are infamous for helping soothe racking coughs and sore throats, as they are rich in mucilage which provides a soothing coating for the mucous membranes. Cinnamon and ginger help with congestion, flavor, and pain-relief.
You will need…
-1 tablespoon licorice root
-1 tablespoon marshmallow root
-1 tablespoon ground cinnamon OR 6 cinnamon sticks
-1 tablespoon chopped ginger
-4 cups of water
-1 cup of organic raw honey
-Glass jar with a tightly sealing lid
Mix together the herbs, cinnamon, and ginger and then add it to a saucepan along with 4 cups of cold water. Over low heat simmer the mixture until it has been reduced by half. Strain the herbs and then pour the liquid back into the pot. Over the lowest level of heat stir in the honey and let it sit, bubbling gently, for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and bottle, being sure to label the date you made the batch on. Take a maximum of 1-2 tablespoons 3 times daily for relief from coughing, sore throat, and congestion. In the refrigerator this will last for 3-4 weeks.
7. Make Your Own Healing Inhaler
DIY inhalers may sound a little…sketchy, but I love them. They’ve saved my tush on more than one occasion when I got bogged down with a bad cold, and they are a fabulous way to utilize essential oils. They also allow you to bring the benefits of your essential oils pretty much everywhere you go. This cold and flu inhaler is perfect when traveling or for use at home.
8. Chest Salve
There’s a good recipe for making your own vapor rub here, but this simple blend can be whipped up in a hurry if you’re running short on time, ingredients, or just feel to crummy to do anything else. While I prefer the former recipe, this works well if you just want a little something to use in conjunction with a hot water bottle (see below.) The menthol in the essential oil is what creates the cooling sensation that makes you feel like you can breathe easier, even when you’re all stuffed up.
You will need…
-1/2 cup of coconut oil
-15 drops of peppermint essential oil
-An airtight container
Over a double boiler, melt down the coconut oil. Remove from the heat and pour it into a heat safe airtight container. Add the essential oils, stir, and seal off while it cools. Once it has completely cooled, simply rub a little on your chest or under your nose (be careful not touch your eyes-I have rubbed peppermint essential oil in my eye before and it is not pleasant!) This will keep in a cool dark place out of direct sunlight up to 3 years.
9. Loosen Up With Heat
A good old fashioned hot water bottle can help loosen phlegm and really deep congestion in the chest. The gentle steady warmth will loosen up your muscles, and soften up the phlegm to help it come up. It’s a very simple, non-invasive home remedy that is very soothing. If you like, rub a little of the above salve on your chest to increase effectiveness.
You will need…
-A hot water bottle
-A piece of soft flannel or similar fabric
I am very particular about how I fill my hot water bottles-you don’t have to be as meticulous, but I’ll share my favorite method anyways. Start with hot water (it doesn’t have to be steaming hot-whatever your comfort level is really) and fill the bottle half-way. “Burp” it to get the air out, and then continue filling almost to the top, leaving 1-2 inches of space at the top. It shouldn’t be a hot hard lump; it should be a little squishy. This way it rests easily across whatever surface you’re laying it on, and I find it more comfortable. Wrap it in a thin piece of flannel or something similar (I often find towels much too thick) and lay it on your back between your shoulder blades. You can also rest it on your chest if you prefer. Try keeping your head a little propped up if you have a really stuffed up nose. Who knew hot water bottles could be so involved?
10. Sinus Clearing Bath Salt
No, I am not referring to an illicit drug. Making up a blend of scented bath salt is a wonderful way to ease a tired, sick, body and clear up congestion. It’s the perfect thing you need when you’re trying to get over a nasty cold, especially if you happen to be stricken during the frigid winter months. The aromatherapy combined with the relaxing warmth of the bath just can’t be beat! This recipe calls for a simple combination of classic cold-curing essential oils, but you can mix and match and come up with your own personal favorite blend.
You will need…
-1 cup of Epsom salt
-3 drops of eucalyptus essential oil
-3 drop of peppermint essential oil
-3 drops of lavender essential oil
-A small dish for blending
-A glass airtight container, or a PET plastic one
Pour the salt into your container and, in a different dish, blend the essential oils. Add the oils to the salt and stir thoroughly with a spoon. When taking a bath fill the tub half way, add 2-3 tablespoons of salt, and fill it up the rest of the way. Breathe deeply and relax!
11. Make It Hot
If you’re someone who can take the heat of hot peppers, munching on one is a temporary way to take out congestion fast. The constituent in peppers that makes them spicy is called capsaicin and, in addition to numerous other benefits, it can help loosen up mucous so you can expel it. Of course there’s also the fact that something about the spiciness just seems to knock it out, natural expectorant abilities or not.
You will need…
-1 hot pepper
Fairly straightforward-take a bite of the pepper, or just eat some spicy foods. Consuming a spicy broth is also wonderful, as you get the fluids, the heat and steam, AND the expectorant actions.
12. Sore Throat Gargle
To help clear up a sore throat, gargle with a mixture of sage, apple cider vinegar, and salt. The salt, through that magical force we call osmosis, will draw excess fluid out of the tissues in your throat that has been causing uncomfortable swelling. The apple cider vinegar may help to kill off the bug, but even if it doesn’t, it still seems to help with the pain. Sage is a wonderful herb when it comes to colds. It is astringent, which means it will also help draw excess fluid out of tissues, and anti-bacterial. The amount of sage used results in a very concentrated tea-it isn’t the tastiest infusion, but it is good at its job.
You will need…
-1 cup of apple cider vinegar
-4 tablespoons of dried sage or 8 tablespoons fresh
-1 teaspoon of salt
-1 cup of water
-A glass jar with a tightly fitting lid (should hold 2 cups of liquid.)
Place sage leaves at the bottom of a mug and cover with 1 cup of boiling water. Steep for 15 minutes, covered. While the sage steeps, pour 1 cup of apple cider vinegar into your jar and sprinkle in the salt. When fully infused, strain the sage tea and add into the apple cider vinegar. Gargle a mouthful at least 3 times daily for pain relief. Keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
13. Rock on With Radish
Just a plain ‘ol spicy radish will do the trick here. This delightfully crisp, spicy vegetable is both anti-septic and full of vitamins and minerals. While horseradish is the more powerful decongestant, regular garden radish works just as well for some people-especially those who are sensitive to spice. If you find yourself feeling stuffed up, eat a couple of these little gems and you may be pleasantly surprised to find yourself clearing up in no time.
You will need…
Eat 2-3 radishes twice daily to help with congestion. I like to keep mine in the refrigerator at all times so they are extra cool and crispy and go down easily.
14. Less-Involved Elderberry Syrup
There is a more involved version of elderberry syrup in the Everyday Roots Book that I absolutely love, but sometimes you just need a simple version. Sometimes the list of ingredients and the process can deter people, but it really is a lovely remedy-and delicious to boot. Elderberry is great for anything cold related, as it lessens inflammation of the mucous membranes, allowing you to breathe better and relieving congestion. It can shorten the duration of the cold, and potentially keep your immune system in better shape should another bug try to strike while you’re down. The mucilage constituent may also help with a sore throat that’s been ravaged by coughs or one that’s just downright painful. Be sure to only use what is commonly called black elderberry (Sambucus nigra), as other members of the family can be toxic. Do not eat raw elderberries in any form.
You will need…
-a generous 1/2 cup of dried elderberries
-3 cups of water
-A generous 1 cup of honey
Put your berries and water in the saucepan and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat and let it simmer for 50 minutes. Strain the liquid through a strainer, making sure to use the back of a spoon the push any extra liquid out of the berries. Add one heaping cup of raw honey to the liquid once it has cooled to roughly room temperature and stir until it is combined thoroughly. Bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months. Take 1 tablespoon daily to prevent illness for adults and 1 teaspoon daily to children old enough to safely have honey. If you have a cold, take the dosing every 3-4 hours until recovery.
15. You’re Golden
Goldenseal grows wild in the damp mountainous regions of North America, where the ground is covered in dead leaves that feed the rich soil it plants its roots in. Native American’s prized goldenseal, and would mix it with bear fat to use as insect repellant, or make it into a lotion of sorts for wounds or even sore eyes. An astringent and antibacterial herb, it is also wonderful at working on the mucous membranes, which are obviously adversely affected when it comes to the common cold. It’s antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and astringent properties are most likely contributed by its isoqinoline alkaloids (berbine*, canadine, and hydrastine.) In a very broad sense, the isoqinoline simply refers to the structural backbone of the alkaloids, which are nitrogen-based organic compounds found in the plant. Sadly, goldenseal has been extremely over-harvested, so do get yours from a sustainable reputable source.
*Berbine can stimulate contractions, so do not take goldenseal in any form if you are pregnant.
You will need…
-1 cup of fresh water
-2 teaspoons of dried goldenseal
-Honey or lemon to taste
Place the goldenseal in a mug and cover with fresh boiling water. Steep, covered, for 10-15 minutes. Stir in honey and lemon to taste, and drink 2-3 times daily.
16. Rub it Out
Acupressure is a wonderful way to relieve discomfort for a number of ailments, and colds are no exceptions. If you are experiencing sinus pressure or discomfort with your cold, there are three main pressure points that you can utilize to relieve the pressure and release congestion. Your sinus cavities are mucosa lined air filled pockets located within the bones of the face and skull. Each one opens into a corresponding nasal meatus (aka, nasal passage.) There is the superior meatus, middle meatus, and inferior meatus. When your sinuses fill up with mucous and become inflamed, not only is breathing obstructed, you will also have a face full of pressure and pain. By triggering the right pressure points, your can open up the blocked sinus cavities and open up your nasal passages, relieving pressure and releasing blocked congestion.
B2: B2 is on the bladder meridian, and will affect your frontal sinuses, which are located behind the brow ridges. This point itself is located in the indents of your upper eye sockets, on either side of the bridge of your nose where it meets the ridge of your eyebrows. Rest your index fingers alongside your nose with the tips in the indents, and gradually apply pressure, holding the points for 2-3 minutes. Towards the end, gradually lighten the pressure. Breathe deeply.
LI20: LI20, or large intestine 20, will open up and relieve the maxillary sinuses. The maxillary sinuses are the largest, and are typically what you think of when you think of sinus pressure. The point is located underneath your eyes, just beneath the cheekbones. You will find if you press up there will be a little indent that may or may not feel a little tender. A gentle pressure is all that is needed here. Hold the points for 2-3 minutes, gradually increasing the pressure, and lightning it at the end. Breathe deeply.
St3: St3, or stomach 3, also relieves the maxillary sinuses. The points are located just a little bit further out and a tad below LI20. You can apply pressure to St3 at the same time as LI20, which can sometimes have a greater effect. Also hold the points for 2-3 minutes, gradually increasing pressure and then decreasing it at the end. Breathe deeply.