My oldest kid is a pneumonia factory. Seriously. Every time he gets a cold, he tries to dial it up to 11. The first year he got pneumonia he was only 18 months old, and I didn’t know what I was doing. By the time I figured out that he was bad sick, it was an antibiotics-for-breathing type of sick. That’s when I started learning about herbs for kids, because the American Academy of Pediatrics specifically says
“Demonstration of the efficacy of antitussive preparations in children is lacking, and these medications may be potentially harmful. Decongestant (sympathomimetic) components of these mixtures administered to children have been associated with irritability, restlessness, lethargy, hallucination, hypertension, and dystonic reactions.The clearance and metabolism of the components of cough mixtures may vary with age and disease state. Great variability in the enterohepatic circulation of these drugs is noted in adults, which affects drug response, especially with repeated dosing. The relative immaturity of hepatic enzyme systems that metabolize drugs in young children may enhance the risk of adverse effects of such medications”
…aka cough medicines generally don’t help and may hurt young kids.
Fortunately herbal medicine is safe and effective- and you often have what you need to help your child out in your kitchen.
Keep in mind as we talk about coughs that
1) Coughs are necessary. You don’t want to suppress a cough for long because coughing is how we get irritants and mucous out of your lungs. Without effectively moving mucous out of the lungs, you end up with less breathing. I think we can all agree that breathing is not an optional activity at any age.
2) You need to recognize when a cough is abnormal. You and your kids should not be using muscles in your neck to breathe. You should not see weird muscle use at the bottom of the ribs either. Both of those are called accessory breathing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-RfbrnMJZE) and if you click the link, you’ll see a video on how to spot that. Other warning signs include blue lips, blue fingers, and blue toes. You don’t want to turn colors. That’s not good. Barking coughs, leaning forward and letting their drool fall out of their mouths, coughs that last so long they throw up or pass out- All bad. Those kinds of coughs need help.
3) If you are treating the wrong thing, the herbs may not work. An extreme example of this is treating pertussis or tuberculosis with simple cough herbs- you’re gonna need a bit more help. Correct diagnosis may need a medical degree, and not the kind that google hands out.
Alright, now that we’ve got all of the caveats out of the way, let me tell you about my top 5 kid’s respiratory herbs.
Rosemary, aka Rosmarinus Officinalis, will basically take over your yard if you let it. It’s hard to kill, and that’s the best kind of plant for a novice gardener like me to keep on hand. It’s also handy and growing year round here in the PNW. The leaves contain flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, tannins, terpenoid bitters, phenols, and volatile oils like borneol, eucalyptol, and camphene. Hopefully things like eucalyptol and camphene ring a bell- those are the things that you see in products like vicks vaporub and essentially every other chest rub. Rosemary is a good warming, activating herb that helps relax skeletal muscles while increasing smooth muscle activity. This helps increased cardiac and lung function, so it’s a particularly great medicine for run down, pale, whiny kids that aren’t coughing that mucous out in a productive way.
I have a blurb on how to get kids to take herbs over in the spring newsletter but to reiterate- this is the perfect type of medicine to overseason your food with. Kids like rosemary potatoes and rosemary fish and rosemary whatever you were already eating. It’s a good flavor, and a simple way to get them to take the herb. This is also a great candidate for making your own salve with to create your own vaporub without all of the petroleum and toxic byproducts.
Thyme, aka Thymus vulgaris, is another incredibly hard to kill plant that is used extensively as groundcover in landscaping. This plant stimulates the thymus gland (some things are so named on purpose, yeah?) which is the gland in charge of putting your white blood cells through bootcamp. This is another warming and stimulating herb that will help promote a productive cough, and has been used throughout history for laryngitis, bronchitis, constant fits of coughing, shortness of breath, pneumonia, poor appetite, and low immunity. Thyme plays out warmer than rosemary, and some kids may not take it as well. At our house I typically give it as tea, and then I call it “pizza water”. Your mileage with that term may vary, but again it’s a food level herb so you can overseason things you’re already eating and throw it in your broth.
Oh, sweet lemon balm. Known by the latin name of Melissa Officinalis, herbalists sometimes call it liquid joy. You’ll see it more in anti-anxiety condition formulas, but despite the lack of love that many herbalists lend to this ubiquitous, good tasting, and easy to grow plant, I put it in pretty much everything. For starters, lemon balm is antiviral. And not just a little bit- like, used for shingles and herpes kind of antiviral. I have people that were able to quit taking acyclovir by doing a ton of lemon balm. We know that kid’s coughs are generally viral, but not usually the sort of viral that we usually give antivirals for. Lemon balm is a general antiviral that will kick a cold’s butt. Beyond that, it actually tastes good- if you look back over the centuries, you’ll find recipes for lemon balm lemonade, lemon balm muffins, and even lemon balm cheesecake. You’re not going to have trouble getting your kid (or yourself) to take lemon balm. I sometimes add this to my smoothies just because it’s tasty.
Linden aka tilia or basswood is another underrated herb. This pollinator attractor has many uses and grows locally, though it’s not particularly native to the region. Unlike Rosemary and Thyme, Linden will help cool down a hot cough. It’s also helpful for overactivity and nervousness, making it the perfect nightcap tea- you’ll help sooth down a cough that’s overactive, open up the lungs for better air exchange, and get that kid to sleep. I put it into almost every cough formula that I make. Sometimes I will make the tea, add blueberries and honey, blend it all up and freeze it into “popsicles” which my kids think are extra dessert. They’re always thrilled to get 2 or 3 “desserts” before bed. Your milaeage again may vary, but it’s a sweet tasting tea that is very soothing. I don’t get many refusals for linden here.
White Horehound aka Marrubium Vulgare is “one of the half dozen grand old cough remedies of European folk and professional herbalism, sharing that distinction with such herbs as elecampane, coltsfoot, mullein, and marshmallow” according to Matthew Wood in the Earthwise Herbal. If you haven’t read The Earthwise Herbal, I highly recommend it. I’ve logged 7 years in those books, reading and rereading indications and preparations of herbs- it’s very accessible and positively regarded in the herbal community. These are all the herbs that you’re going to read on lists in the herbal cough syrups by wise woman, wishgarden, and other decent herbal companies. It’s also an easy to grow, hard to kill, grandmother’s remedy. Some of you may remember your grandmother making horehound candy, or reading about it in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Since you can make it into a candy, again your kids aren’t likely to fight you on taking this- if anything they’ll ask for more. Here’s a recipe that I’ve used to make Horehound candy before. I like to make it with honey for kids older than 1, as the honey is good for soothing a cough too and often outperforms cough medicines in clinical studies
Don’t be afraid to make your own medicine. This is the medicine that saves my biggest kiddo from being a pneumonia factory, and because it’s in the yard, I am more able to treat him at the first sign of a cough. These plants are growing all around you and learning to take what’s already in your yard and make it into something you were already cooking is about 100 times more convenient than going to the store.