Changeable, cold weather gives our bodies an extra challenge in fighting disease and it’s during the winter months that colds and influenza cause the greatest suffering. Winter respiratory infections often become epidemics, causing widespread absenteeism in our schools and workplaces.

But winter doesn’t have to be a time of fretting and suffering. There are a lot of things you can do to prevent the winter sniffles and there are some very effective herbal techniques that can nip your respiratory infections in the bud before they’ve had time to make your life miserable. Practitioners of natural healing believe that whether you contract a viral or bacterial infection or not, much depends upon you. These microscopic creatures depend entirely on their host to provide them with suitable conditions to proliferate.

From your own experience, you will probably recall that you only “caught” a virus when you had become run down. Perhaps you’d been going without adequate sleep. Maybe you were skipping the healthful meals that emphasize whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables. Or you were burning the candle at both ends or so stressed out that you overlooked your regular exercise routines. All reasons for immune systems to be less than effective in protecting us.

A bacterial infection does not necessarily have to follow. The bacterial cough or inner ear infection need not always be the result of a viral cold. It usually occurs only if there is congestion and stagnation in the airways, such as thick viscous mucus to provide a focus for a super-infection. That’s why it’s so important for people who are susceptible to respiratory problems to pay careful attention to diet (particularly the avoidance of mucus forming foods such as pasteurized dairy products, sugar or white flour). Similarly, adequate regular ventilation of the respiratory passages through exercise (20 minutes outdoors daily) and daily changing of the air in the house is bound to improve any respiratory condition.

Feed A Cold

Hippocrates’ truth that food should be our medicine is especially relevant when we realize that there are some foods that actually have an antiviral effect. Fresh lemon juice is an old standby for staving off the early signs of a cold. Some people swear by raw onions or garlic and cumin or turmeric (Curcuma longa), an important ingredient of Indian cuisine, which can stimulate the system concerned with the defence against microbial infection and the removal of worn-out blood cells. This has powerful immune-boosting activity.

Another natural technique that helps the body regain its equilibrium just as it’s about to stumble into a downspin is circulatory stimulation. This approach is effective if you have been feeling chilly or had cold hands or feet recently. A little cayenne pepper (Capsicum minimum) can be added to each meal or taken in the form of a foot bath: one-quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper with a half a cup of apple cider vinegar in a basin of hot water (bath temperature) to soak the feet in for 10 minutes. Cayenne is a central circulatory stimulant and it improves nutrition and waste removal at the cellular level. Alternatively, or in addition, hot ginger tea can be drunk–a cup of boiling water poured over a teaspoonful of freshly grated root of ginger will do. Add some lemon juice to make it more powerful.

Another good routine is daily skin brushing over the surface of the whole body with a natural bristle brush.

Although it may not be strictly true that a chill causes a cold, getting thoroughly chilled certainly drains energy away from the protective immune system. There is much wisdom in the simple advice of always maintaining an even temperature in the body by wearing a warm coat, hat and scarf, especially when going between overheated buildings and cold automobiles or bus stops. And when your body does start to flounder, it’s time to go to bed. This will save your recovery.

If the bug does bring you down, your first step should be to limit the damage. Start by decongesting the respiratory system. Make a pot of hot yarrow, elderflower and peppermint tea (Achillea millefolium, Sambucus canadensis and Mentha pierita)–half a teaspoon of each per cup of boiling water and keep the steam in while steeping 10 minutes. This breaks up thick mucus, improves breathing and promotes sweating. You may also be able to prevent secondary bacterial infection of the bronchi or the lungs by massaging the chest with oil of eucalyptus four or five times a day.

If you feel the cold is starting to settle into your chest, herbal expectorants will be helpful. Teas made from thyme (Thymus vulgaris), elecampane (Inula helenium) and white horehound (Marruboium vulgare) are both decongesting and antibacterial to the respiratory tract. Fresh garlic is also useful as a respiratory antiseptic. And marshmallow (Althea officinalis) has long been used as an ingredient of herbal cough remedies to soothe irritated mucous membranes and calm an over-active coughing reflex.

Lung infections can be nipped in the bud with a mustard poultice–one part powdered mustard to two parts bruised linseed, made into a paste with warm water and applied to the chest for no more than three minutes to prevent burning. If you do not experience a great improvement within a day or two though, your condition may be more serious. The longer you delay seeking professional advice, the more difficult and lengthy your recovery. In the case of elderly people who do not have the same resilience, lung infections can be life-threatening and it is prudent to obtain health care advice as soon as possible.

About the Author

Keith Stelling has retired from active practice and resides in Southampton, ON.