Have you ever gone to the doctor for help with a runny or stuffy nose only to be told over-the-counter drugs are your only hope for symptom relief while you wait it out? If there’s no fever, more often than not the docs will suggest rest and a common drugstore medicine. That’s because we really don’t have a cure for the RNA virus or root of the problem. Unfortunately, a lot of the drugstore medicines they might suggest are rather hard on the body, often including alcohol, sugar, painkillers, and even chemical dyes that are hard on the liver and kidneys. Most herbalists would agree that it makes little sense to reach for potentially destructive extreme medicines when we have a wealth of easy, practical ways to ease the symptoms of the Common Cold, Allergies, and related viruses and flus that affect the upper respiratory tract.

CWhat is the Upper Respiratory Tract and why do we talk about it as seperate from the lower bits?

The Upper Respiratory Tract includes the sinuses, nose, mouth, and throat. Think all the parts needed to breath in the head and neck and you’ve got a good idea of the upper part of the respiratory system and the beginning of why we break the system into two parts when we talk about treating it. The Upper Respiratory Tract is more directly exposed to the outer world and more accessible to physical intervention without surgery. In other words, if you might be able to reasonably touch it with a swab it’s probably part of the Upper bits. If not, it’s probably part of the lower bits. That makes for a fairly easy break when you’re thinking about the symptoms and illnesses you might encounter in each area.

Symptoms of illness in the Upper Respiratory Tract

Most often, herbalists encounter the classic symptoms of the common cold:

  • Runny Nose
  • Stuffy Nose or Congestion
  • Sore Throat, including Sore Upper Palate
  • Dry Nose (but not that often!)
  • Sinus Pain (often strongly related to Stuffy Nose and Congestion)

How can I Use Natural Therapies to Mange Upper Respiratory Tract Infection, Illness, and Allergies?

Whether an infection is present or not, we’ve got a a ton of herbs and techniques to help us manage these symptoms naturally. One of the keys to choosing the right ones is getting clarity on the elemental nature of the symptom. We look for imbalances that point toward specific energetic imbalances on a pretty simple level. Is the symptom suggesting more heat and activity than needed or not enough heat and activity to clear the problem? Is the symptom of an excessively dry or damp nature? A runny nose, for instance, is pretty clearly excessively damp, but is the stuff running out of it white or clear (indicating a more cold nature) or is it yellow to green in color (indicating a hot nature)? Understanding the general energy of the symptom will help you narrow your selection of herbs rapidly, which is quite helpful when you’re helping a family member who’s suffering and has little patience for trial and error!

Some questions to consider:

  • Is the nose runny (damp) or stuffy (potentially damp) or dry and possibly sore or crackling (dry)?
  • Does the throat look or feel inflamed or bright red (hot) or is it more swollen-whilte-pale (cold)?
  • Is there stuffiness in the back ear canals or when swallowing (potentially damp)?
  • If pain is present, is it dull and aching (cold) or sharp and burning (hot)?

Look to the Tongue for Cold and Flu Symptom Evaluation

After asking a few questions about the symptoms to help narrow your field, you can also take a look at the tongue for a few clues, too. In general, if the tongue looks pale or has a white coat that suggests a damp and potentially cold situation. If it’s red or has a yellow or yellow-tinged coat, that suggests heat. A swollen or thick tongue suggests dampness as does an excess of saliva or liquid on the tongue while a thin and dry tongue suggests dryness. Larken Bunce gave a terrific intro to using the Tongue to recognize the general energy of illness or imbalance in the Herbs in Action Summit Here. Especially if you’re working with small children or those who have a hard time putting what they’re experiencing into words, this technique can be really helpful. When you’re working with someone who is articulate, the clues you get from looking at their tongue will confirm what you’re hearing, or they may lead you to ask a few more clarifying questions to help make your choice of herbs easier.

How do I Create a Formula of Herbs that Work Best for Sinus Symptoms?

Once you’ve got a handle on the general nature of the symptoms or imbalance you’re facing, you can select some herbs. I like to pair herbs to reduce or manage symptoms with those that aim to drive the illness out of the body. Often, that means I’m looking for anti-microbial herbs with an opening quality, like diaphoretic herbs or herbs that move energy up and out. For instance, for a runny nose with clear to white mucus and a mild sore throat that’s neither clearly hot or cold in nature, I may select Sage for it’s drying and slightly warming and anti-microbial qualities, yarrow for it’s anti-microbial and diaphoretic qualities, and Rosemary for it’s stimulating or heating and anti-microbial qualities. These three together help the body warm up (to balance the white nature of the mucus), dry a bit (to handle the runny nature of the nose and sinuses) and move whatever’s causing the problem out of the body (rather than drain down the back of the throat, which is likely the cause of the mild sore throat).

Herbs to try for Upper Respiratory Tract

Some of my personal favorite herbs for Upper Respiratory Tract include:

  • Sage – warming, drying, anti-microbial
  • Rosemary – warming, drying, anti-microbial
  • Oregano – warming, drying, anti-microbial
  • Yarrow – warming, diaphoretic
  • Elder Flower – warming, diaphoretic, affinity for sinuses
  • Lemon Balm – warming, anti-microbial
  • Spearmint – slightly cooling, anti-microbial, opening to the sinuses
  • Catnip or Catmint – slightly cooling, anti-microbial
  • Lobelia – opening/moving energy, affinity for lungs and respiratory tract, anti-microbial
  • Spilanthes – anti-microbial, pain-reducing

For more Herbs to consider for your formula, see Cold and Flu Resources.

How Do I Use My Cold and Flu Formula?

There are many ways to get good herbs into your system to combat illness. My favorite three for handling symptoms of the Upper Respiratory System are Herbal Infusion, Herbal Steam, and Herbal Compresses. All three are good for getting the herbal actions to the tissues in need.

So what about the Herbal Compress?

At its most basic, an Herbal Compress is herbs wrapped in a cloth of thin paper, all of which have been soaked in hot water and wrung slightly, then applied wet and hot to an area. While that sounds rather complicated, it’s really an easy and effective way to use herbs at home. I particularly like making my herbal compresses without whole herbs wrapped in the cloth but rather using them to make a rather strong tea in which I dip the cloth before applying it to the area. When i’m working with sinus symptoms, most especially sinus infection or pain, I fold the compress into a rectangle that’ll fit neatly across my cheeks, eyes, and bridge of my nose. I soak it in the hot tea, wring it out, then lay it across my face until it cools off. Then, I do it again. I like to keep re-applying the compress as long as pain or symptoms are present or as long as my tea’s still warm. For sinus pain connected with allergies, I’ve found the Herbal Compress to be my favorite way to ease the pain naturally. If you’re working with small children or sensitive individuals, watch the heat; often the same hot tea that works for adults is too hot for youngsters or sensitives people. If needed, wait until the tea is still warm but cool enough to not cause distress to your charge.

Recipes and Ideas to Try

Search the Recipes section at The Practical Herbalist for more ideas and recipes for preventing and managing cold and flu symptoms.