Looking for alternatives to over the counter pain relievers, decongestants, and cough syrups? 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 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. It is 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. However, because Chamomile is in the Asteraceae (i.e. daisy) family, it should not 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 internally and topically to treat and prevent infections. Echinacea is most useful for treating infections when used at the first sign of illness. For prevention, smaller doses of Echinacea can be given during the entire cold and flu season. Since it is a very common herb, you can find Echinacea in tea, tincture, glycerite, and chewable tablet form. You can also use Echinacea tea or tincture to clean cuts and scrapes, although if you think a wound is infected or if the wound was caused by a bite (human or animal) you should seek medical attention.
3. California Poppy
California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a very gentle and safe herb to calm the nervous system. It is useful for restlessness, ADD/ADHD, pain, and sleeplessness. Although related to other types of poppies, California Poppy 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 aids digestion, relieves gas pain, and can slow diarrhea. It can also be used to soothe fever. Peppermint is best used in children over the age of 2 years.
5. Lemon Balm
Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis) has a refreshing lemon mint flavor and is calming to both the digestive and nervous systems. It can be useful for colic, stomach upset, restlessness, irritability, and fever. It combines well with Chamomile.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a powerful immune booster and natural anti-viral. Because it is also a food, it 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 and is tolerated well by most children. Syrup of the cooked fruit is my favorite way to take this amazing medicine, although it is also found in other forms including tablets, tinctures, and powdered drinks.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a perfect herb to have in your first aid kit. It is very soothing to the skin and also helps to reduce inflammation and kill germs. Calendula is often used for healing 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. The oil of mullein leaves and flowers is amazing for relieving the pain of ear aches. Commercial preparations of mullein oil often have added garlic and/or St. John’s Wort to improve effectiveness. The oil should be warmed before putting a few drops into the ear canal and nothing should ever be put into the ear if the ear drum has ruptured. If in doubt, always see your doctor 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 congestion or you can add a few drops of essential oil to a humidifier. Note: essential oils should be used with caution around children under 2 years of age or anyone with respiratory issues like asthma. They should never be given internally at any age without first consulting a licensed physician.
10. Nettle Leaf
The leaves of the stinging nettle plant (Urtica dioca) are high in protein and minerals, nourishing many systems in the body. Freeze-dried nettles or strong nettle tea can also be effective for relieving seasonal allergy symptoms, since it acts as a mast-cell stabilizer, reducing the release of histamine in the body. If collecting your own nettles, make sure they are from a clean location because this plant can absorb heavy metals from the soil.
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 qualified naturopathic physician or holistic medical doctor about appropriate herbs and dosages for your child’s age and 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/