Looking for alternatives to over the counter pain relievers, decongestants, and cough syrups for your kids? Herbal remedies have been safely used for thousands of years to treat common ailments from cold and flu to upset stomach. Herbs can be especially great for kids, but not all herbs are safe for children. Children are more sensitive to medications than adults and respond well to gentle and mild remedies. Here are a list of my 10 absolute favorite herbs to have in your family’s medicine closet!
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, Matricaria recutita) is a star children’s herb and has historically been used for everything from colds, teething, colic, indigestion, restlessness, anxiety, and irritability. It is the perfect herb for cranky infants and toddlers who are in pain and can’t get to sleep. Chamomile has a mild sweet flavor with just a hint of bitterness. In part, it’s the bitter flavor that helps to relieve gas pain and digestive upset. Chamomile tea is readily available from many grocery and natural health stores. A small amount of honey can be added for children over 12 months to make the tea even tastier. Chamomile tea is generally considered safe, even in infants (6 months and older). Because Chamomile is in the Asteraceae (i.e. daisy) family, it shouldn’t be given to anyone with an allergy to other species in this family.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustofolia) is a superb immune herb and can be used both orally and topically to treat and prevent infections. Echinacea is most useful for treating infections when used at the first sign of illness. You can find Echinacea in tea, tincture, glycerite, and even chewable tablet form. You can also use Echinacea tea or tincture to clean cuts and scrapes, but if you think a wound might be infected or if the wound was caused by a bite (human or animal) you should always seek medical attention.
3. California Poppy
California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a very gentle and safe herb to calm the nervous system. It’s useful for restlessness, ADD/ADHD, pain, and sleeplessness. Although related to other types of poppies, California Poppy is a different species from the Papaver varieties and does NOT contain opium. California Poppy is best used in children over the age of 2 years.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is a tasty medicinal and culinary herb. It supports healthy digestion, relieves gas pain, and can even slow down bouts of diarrhea. Peppermint can also be used to soothe fever or relieve congestion. Peppermint is best used in children over the age of 2 years. My favorite form of peppermint is as a tea. A small amount of honey can be added for taste. Honey can also help to calm cough and studies have shown that it’s more effective than over-the-counter cough syrups.
5. Lemon Balm
Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis) has a refreshing lemony mint flavor and is calming to both the digestive and nervous systems. It can be useful for colic, stomach upset, restlessness, anxiety, irritability, and fever. In folk medicine, Melissa is often referred to as the Gladdening Herb. You can use lemon balm as a tea, tincture, or glycerite. Lemon balm is also easy to grow in your home garden!
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a powerful immune booster and natural anti-viral. Because it’s also a food, elderberry is gentle enough to take daily during cold and flu season to prevent illness. Studies have even shown Elderberry to be effective at fighting the H1N1 flu virus (aka “Swine Flu”). Elderberry has a sweet, pleasant, fruity flavor that most kids love. Syrup of the cooked fruit is my favorite way to take this amazing medicine, although it’s also available in other forms including tablets, gummies, tinctures, glycerites, and powdered drinks.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a perfect herb to have in your first aid kit. It’s very soothing to the skin and helps to reduce inflammation and kill germs. Calendula is commonly used to heal diaper rashes, minor burns, and cuts and scrapes. Calendula tincture can be applied topically to small wounds. For sensitive or very irritated skin, you can use a calendula cream or salve.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a common plant found growing wild in many gardens and roadside areas. Mullein is often used in tincture form to soothe dry, irritated coughs. The oil of mullein leaves and flowers can also be used to relieve the pain of ear aches. Commercial preparations of mullein oil often have added garlic and/or St. John’s Wort to improve effectiveness.
NOTE: Don’t use ear oils or other over-the-counter products if the ear drum has ruptured. Because of the risk of complications, I always recommend seeing a medical professional for any suspected ear infection.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a lovely respiratory herb that is also anti-microbial (i.e. it kills germs). The fresh or dried herb can be made into a tea to relieve cough and congestion or you can add a few sprigs to a pot of hot water to use as a decongestant steam inhalation.
10. Nettle Leaf
The leaves of the stinging nettle plant (Urtica dioca) are high in protein and minerals and are nourishing to many systems in the body. Freeze-dried nettles or strong nettle tea can be effective for relieving seasonal allergy symptoms. Nettle acts as a mast-cell stabilizer, reducing the release of histamine in the body. For children you can open up nettle capsules into applesauce or combine nettle powder with nut butter and honey to make medicine balls.
NOTE: If you’re collecting your own nettles, make sure they are from a clean location because this plant can absorb heavy metals from the soil.
Herbal Medicine in Children
It’s worth saying that although the herbs mentioned above are generally regarded as safe every child is different and no medication, herbal or otherwise, is right for every body. Talk with a licensed naturopathic physician or integrative medical doctor about appropriate herbs and dosages for your child’s age, weight, and health conditions.
- Tea: Herbs steeped in hot water to extract the taste and medicinal properties. For bulk herbs, use 1 heaping tablespoon in 8 oz of boiling water.
- Tincture: A medicinal liquid herbal extract made from steeping plant material in alcohol and then straining.
- Glycerite: A non-alcoholic liquid herbal extract made from vegetable glycerine. Many children’s formulas are glycerites rather than tinctures. Glycerites have a naturally sweet flavor.
- Syrup: A concentrated extract made by boiling juice with added sugar or honey.
- Salve: A thick ointment used to promote healing of the skin. Salves often contain oils, herbal extracts, and beeswax and are for topical use only.
Selected Resources for Further Reading
- Romm, Aviva Jill. Naturally Healthy Babies and Children: A Commonsense Guide to Herbal Remedies, Nutrition, and Health. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 2003.
- Krumbeck, Erika, ND. “Dr. K’s Favorite Herbs for Kids!” Montana Whole Health. May 23, 2013. http://www.mtwholehealth.com/2013/05/favorite-herbs-for-kids.
- Sears, William, MD. “Echinacea.” Ask Dr Sears The Trusted Resource for Parents. 2013. http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/childhood-illnesses/echinacea.
- Fedurco, Milan; Gregorová, Jana; Šebrlová, Kristýna; Kantorová, Jana; Peš, Ondřej; et al. “Modulatory Effects of Eschscholzia californica Alkaloids on Recombinant GABAA Receptors”. Biochemistry Research International. 2015 (2015). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4609799/