7 herbs that may help fight cold and flu

This winter, take a breath. And if you can’t, here are some natural remedies, from echinacea to marshmallow, commonly used to offer relief.

By Editors of National Geographic
Published 2 Dec 2022, 14:36 GMT
Black elderberry syrup, made from the plant's berries, is a common home remedy used to soothe ...
Black elderberry syrup, made from the plant's berries, is a common home remedy used to soothe and decrease cold and flu symptoms.
Photograph by Westend 69, Getty Images

Like many of the body’s systems, the respiratory system goes about its job somewhat outside our conscious awareness, at least most of the time. We hardly notice the 22,000 breaths taken on average each day—until it becomes more difficult to take one. The respiratory system’s constant exposure to the outside world leaves it vulnerable to bacterial and viral infections—such as the common cold, influenza, and tuberculosis. Yet as long as there have been respiratory illnesses, people have used medicinal herbs to combat them, with much success.

Here are seven remedies commonly employed to naturally deal with attacks of the coughs, sniffles, and sneezes that come more often in the winter season.

Many natural remedies can be found in the roots of flowers and plants.
Photograph by Getty Images


Some natural remedies are best used at the first signs of illness, but astragalus works best as a preventive. Laboratory studies support this: Extracts of astragalus root improve the function of white blood cells, even increasing antibody levels in healthy people. Astragalus may also increase levels of interferons, immune-activating proteins that fight viral infections and tumours. These benefits help prevent upper respiratory infections, especially in those prone to colds and flus. Use astragalus as a tea, capsule, or tincture.

Precaution: Those who are pregnant or nursing should not use astragalus root. Those with autoimmune diseases should consult with a healthcare provider.


This wildflower has a wealth of health benefits, including reducing your chances of catching a cold. One of the most well-studied herbs, echinacea has gained a reputation for its numerous effects on the immune system, including increased antibody responses to elevated interferon levels for fighting viruses and stimulation of white blood cells to fight infection. Several chemical compounds in echinacea vary among the three species of the plant, plant parts, and extraction techniques: Polysaccharides, glycoproteins, and alkylamides all have medicinal effects that boost the immune system and inhibit viruses and bacteria. How exactly echinacea works continues to be investigated. To see benefits, take adequate doses of a quality product at the first sign of illness. Ingest as a tea, tincture, or capsule.

Precaution: Do not take echinacea if you have tuberculosis, leukaemia, diabetes, connective tissue disorders, multiple sclerosis, HIV or AIDS, autoimmune disorders, or a liver disorder. In rare cases, echinacea can cause allergic reactions. 

Echinacea grows as a wildflower.
Photograph by Shutterstock
Various parts of the plant, including its roots, have been used for their health benefits.
Photograph by Custom Life Science Images, Alamy Stock Photo


Ripe elderberries are loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants. Studies have found that elderberry syrup can help decrease the duration of cold and flu symptoms. Elderberry preparations can also reduce swelling in mucous membranes—and so relieve nasal and sinus congestion—and lessen sneezing, itchiness, and other symptoms of allergies. Use as a syrup or lozenge.

Precaution: Unripe berries or products made from other plant parts should not be consumed. All contain dangerous compounds that may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, or confusion.


Floating in hot cocoa or melting over a campfire, marshmallows are favourite confections. These sweet treats actually have their roots in a natural remedy made from the roots and leaves of the marshmallow plant. Marshmallow contains polysaccharides, a natural mucilage that soothes irritated mucous membranes from sore throats, coughs, and indigestion. It can also soothe dry, chapped skin when applied topically. Drink as tea or as an infusion.

Precaution: None.

The pink-and-white marshmallow plant is said to be safe to consume.
Photograph by Alamy


Mullein’s grey-green leaves and stems are used to ease symptoms of bronchitis, coughs, and other throat ailments by serving as both an expectorant and a coating, soothing herb for irritated respiratory tissues. Drinking mullein leaf or mullein flower tea soothes the throat and is a very old remedy for respiratory problems. Various parts are used, including the leaves, flowers, and roots. Despite its long history of use for medicinal purposes, mullein has not been researched extensively, but it remains a respected remedy in herbal medicine today. Ingest mullein as an infusion of the leaves or flowers.

Precaution: Mullein seeds are toxic and should not be a part of any mullein extract, capsule, or tea.

Yellow verbascum is more commonly known as mullein.
Photograph by Photography By Getty Images


Pelargoniums, commonly known as geraniums, have a strong tradition of medicinal use in Africa. Pelargonium sidoides—known in modern herbal medicine simply as pelargonium—has for centuries been a part of traditional Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, and Mfengu healing. Herbal practitioners recommend the root to help reduce the symptoms of respiratory infections such as coughs, colds, sore throats, pneumonia, tonsillitis, and acute sinusitis, and to prevent secondary infections such as chronic bronchitis. It is often used as an alternative to antibiotics in some of these conditions. Pelargonium sidoides is sold as an extract, lozenges, and tinctures.

Precaution: Some users report mild stomach upset, rashes, and nervous system disorders. Avoid the plant if you are on anticoagulant medication.

Pelargonium sidoides is more commonly known as the African geranium because it is native to South Africa.
Photograph by Alamy


Like sage, thyme is one of several fragrant herbs that doubles as a medicine. Thyme’s aromatic compounds help to relieve coughs, probably in two different ways. Thyme is antispasmodic and an expectorant, meaning that the herb not only calms coughs but also helps clear bronchial mucus. It is also antibacterial and antiviral. Several of the chemicals in the herb thyme, including thymol and carvacrol, account for its aroma, its expectorant effects, and for its inhibition of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Today, herbal practitioners recommend thyme for coughs, colds, flu, bronchitis, and asthma. They also give the herb for digestive upsets, as thyme has a relaxing effect on the smooth muscles of the stomach and intestines. Take thyme tea as needed for coughs.

Precaution: Thyme should be avoided by those with hormone-sensitive conditions.

Important Note to Readers This material is meant to increase your knowledge about home remedies and recent developments in possible ways to care for your health at home, and to the best of our knowledge the information provided is accurate at the time of its publication. It is not intended as a medical manual, and neither the authors nor the publisher are engaged in rendering medical or other professional advice to the individual reader. You should not use the information as a substitute for the advice of a licensed health care professional. Because everyone is different, we urge you to see a licensed health care professional to diagnose problems and supervise the use of any of these home remedies to treat individual conditions. The authors, advisers, and publisher disclaim any liability whatsoever with respect to any loss, injury, or damage arising directly or indirectly from the use of this material. 

Portions of this material appeared in Nature's Best Remedies. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2024 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved