Since the coronavirus has been making the headlines I’ve been getting lots of questions about how to use herbs against this virus. I’ve also been seeing a lot of confusion around what it means to be an antiviral herb. Some people think that because this is a new virus we can’t know what herbs to use for it.
That is partly true and partly not true.
Humans have been using herbs to address viral infections for thousands of years. While we may not have lab reports showing that any certain herb inhibits this particular virus, we can still use herbs to support someone with particular symptoms.
My friend and fellow herbalist, jim mcdonald, refers to these as indirect antiviral herbs. It’s not that they are inhibiting the virus directly but, instead, they are supporting your immune system and addressing your particular symptoms in a way that promotes the healing process overall.
I’ve written more broadly about using herbs for the coronavirus in this article.
This seems like a good place for a disclaimer. This article isn’t about miraculously curing any viral infection. If you need medical attention then seek it out. The current recommendation is to call ahead if you suspect you have the coronavirus.
This article is for those people who have an upper respiratory infection with mild symptoms that can be addressed at home.
Some reports coming out about symptoms of the Covid-19 virus include thick glue-like mucus that gets stuck in the lungs, making it uncomfortable and difficult to take deep breaths.
(Again, if you are at risk and/or having trouble breathing then seeking immediate care is necessary.)
If you find yourself with these symptoms but don’t require medical care then I highly recommend an herbal steam.
Herbal steams are easy, cheap, safe and very effective. (I think that is a win/win/win/win.) I use them whenever I have stuck congestion in my lungs or sinuses.
jim mcdonald hypothesizes that herbal steams may be a good idea if you suspect you have been exposed to someone with a viral infection.
With an herbal steam you are breathing in a plant’s aromatic oils and warm steam, both of which can help you to release stuck mucus in the lungs. As Shrek says, better out than in! (A phrase that is widely helpful in a variety of circumstances.)
You can use a variety of plants in an herbal steam or you can simply use one plant.
I often use mullein leaf in my herbal steams and I combine it with other aromatic plants.
Mullein leaf (Verbascum thapsus) is commonly used to support lung health. You can make it into a strong tea (filter it well) or even inhale the smoke. (I know smoking a plant seems strange when considering lung health, but in this case it gets the herb directly to your lungs.) I prefer herbal steams to breathing in smoke.
You can use essential oils in place of whole plants. I have less experience with that as I tend to reach for whole plants more than essential oils.
Place your chosen herbs in a medium bowl. (I use a handful or two.)
Boil enough water to fill your bowl halfway (or so). Pour the water over the herbs and stir to make an herbal soup.
Carefully place your face over the bowl, then drape a large towel or blanket over your head to capture the steam. I say carefully because you don’t want to burn yourself with the steam.
Once you’re settled, inhale deeply. You can experiment with moving your head closer or farther away to find where it is most comfortable. If it gets too hot, allow a bit of the steam to escape.
Enjoy the experience for as long as desired. I do it for at least 10 minutes. This is a great time for meditation (headspace app has ten minute meditations) or, if you’re anything like me, a chance to listen to 2-3 of your favorite Tori Amos songs.
Keep a box of tissues nearby to blow your nose as necessary. As you feel your lungs release, cough as desired to move mucus out of your lungs.
If the steam piddles out you can add more hot water as time goes by to create more steam.
The effects of the herbal steam can be felt immediately, but they don’t last forever. You can repeat this as desired, every 1-2 hours as symptoms warrant it.
If you are doing this with a child you can make a small fort and carefully bring in the steaming herbal soup to allow the steam to fill the fort while they play.
Taking a long bath or hot shower can release stuck mucus. Auracacia sells Eucalyptus tablets for the shower that I really like.
Drink plenty of fluids. I especially like demulcent teas (marshmallow, mallow, violet) and just a bit of stimulating expectorants (ginger, elecampane, thyme). Gage how you react and use more demulcents or expectorants as needed.
Chest poultices made of onions or mustard seeds can stimulate mucus secretion. (Lots of tutorials are available online.)
The other day someone on social media proclaimed that we can’t possibly use herbs for the coronavirus because we don’t know anything about it.
While I would definitely be skeptical of anything trying to sell you a miracle cure for this virus (or for anything really), this is where herbs really shine!
For people who aren’t sick, we can use herbs to bolster the immune system (and yes, wash your hands, social distancing, etc).
And for people who are sick with any virus, we can use herbs to support our body’s own defenses and promote healing.
When I am sick with a cold or the flu, I am constantly reaching for herbs and am deeply grateful for all that they can do for me. If I get sick with coronavirus it won’t be any different and I am sure that herbal steams will be an important part of my herbal remedies.
Many people are being hit hard by the economic turmoil caused by this pandemic. Now is the perfect time to support your local herbalists, apothecaries and herb farmers.
Now is the perfect time to reach out with herbal support to loved ones, neighbors and others in your community who are interested in herbal remedies.
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Heal. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and the Education Director for LearningHerbs. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.