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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Herbal Medicine Chest: Add Steams During Cold and Flu Season

Oct 30, 2020 08:59AM ● By Katja Swift
One of the best herbal techniques for cold and flu season is a thyme steam, although other herbs like oregano, sage, rosemary, lavender and even peppermint or pine needles will work. The key is using really “smelly” herbs—the smell comes from the volatile oil component of the herbs.

The volatile component of these herbs (they are all in the mint family, except pine/spruce) has anti-microbial action, but only if direct contact is made with the microbes. Breathing it in on steam allows for direct contact with the entire respiratory tract.

Those volatile oils also stimulate the lungs’ own immune response action. Plus, the steam itself helps to moisten up the lungs, which will thin out phlegm to make it easier to expectorate. Moreover, the heat helps to create an unlivable environment for the virus. Pathogens cannot survive in warmer environments, which is why we run a fever when we are sick. When we breathe in hot steam, we raise the temperature of our lungs without having to build a fever ourselves. An herbal steam helps to thin and release sinus and nasal congestion, as well, so be sure to have a handkerchief or tissue on hand.

Steams are best with dried herbs; if only fresh herbs are available, double the amount. Also needed are a bath towel or a blanket and a handkerchief.

To prepare an herbal steam:

1. Bring a medium-sized pot (two to four quarts) of fresh water to a boil, covered.

2. Set the pot in an area where it will be comfortable for you to sit with your face over the pot*.

3. Cover yourself and the pot with a towel or blanket to make a tent that will keep the steam in.

4. Uncover the pot and toss in a handful or two (one to two cups) of dried herbs.

5. Breathe in the steam as deeply as possible. Inhale through the nose, if able to.

6. Remain in the steam tent for 10-15 minutes.

7. You can drink the leftover infusion, cook with it, soak your feet in it, or pour it into a full bath to get more medicine from the plant material. Alternately, a second steam can be done with the water and plant matter from the first steam by then adding half as much again; it is not necessary to start over each time.

*If doing this with a child, try draping a blanket over a table to make a much larger tent. Then, a parent and the child can be in the tent together, where the child can be protected from accidentally touching the hot pot. Children’s faces do not need to be directly over the pot—the steam will accumulate in the tent at a concentration that is sufficient for kids.

Katja Swift is a clinical herbalist and director of the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism, in Boston. To learn more about herbal remedies for colds and flu season, visit