Five ways stay ahead of the viruses, when someone in the house has a cold or the flu

Household contagion prevention in flu season

This is winding up to be a particularly bad flu season. This year's influenza strain is especially virulent and the symptoms are intense. To make matters worse, the flu shot wasn't well matched this time around. The net result is record levels of contagion. 

While perusing the news, I noticed a prominent article with tips on how to protect yourself and your family in flu season. Always interested in home medicine, I clicked it open. But the primary advice was "get the flu shot in October," which is useless advice at the end of January and not particularly helpful in any season this year. The secondary advice was to teach your children good "cough etiquette" in order to protect other people's children. 

Creative Commons image by Tony Alter

Creative Commons image by Tony Alter

Face palm.

This calls for a public service announcement. There are ways to protect yourself and your family from the flu which don't require time travel. 

Whether you're talking about real influenza or a flu-like virus, we all know--to our sorrow--that the best cure is rest, time and a little TLC, hopefully involving copious amounts of tea, hankies and soup brought by someone who isn't sick. Only the most severe cases require medical intervention.

Still the flu rampaging through an entire household--sometimes all at once--can take a nasty toll on jobs, education and family peace. When the flu comes near or even inside your home, it is worth taking precautions to keep as many people from getting sick as possible. 

Here are a list--from the simplest and most essential to the more specific--of the real things you can do.

1. Wash hands incessantly

This is where the people with hand-washing compulsions are simply correct. The single most important thing you can do to prevent catching the flu or a flu-like virus and/or spreading them once you have them is washing your hands at every turn. You've probably seen the on-line videos about germ-mimicking gel, but those pale in comparison to seeing it in practice. It works, and even mild soap helps.

Teach kids to wash their hands before eating ANYTHING. Wash before you even touch food, after touching food, when you come in, before you go out and randomly whenever you notice having touched a door handle.

Invest in some soothing hand cream to take any irritation away. Gentle soap is better than no soap (which may be the result if you go overboard with disinfectant soap). If the sick person is not you, encourage them to wash their hands and get them a box of wet, disinfectant wipes next to their bed. Washing your hands is harder when your exhausted and can barely get to the bathroom at all. 

2, Smudge

I mean it. I'd put this first since it is so much less well known, but hand washing is just too important to slowing contagion. Burning dried sage of any variety really does kill airborne germs.

A new study this year shows that you really can get influenza just by breathing near a sick person, so even perfect hand washing won't save you, especially once the contagion gets inside your household. And multiple medical studies have shown that sage smoke does reduce both the bacteria and virus counts in the air. 

First, bundle up anyone sick in the household and open windows to air out your rooms as much as possible. Then close the windows and light a candle. Hold a bundle of sage in the flame for thirty seconds or so, until the end is smoking vigorously. Walk carefully around the room waving the smoke into every corner. Move systematically (some people prefer to go counterclockwise to reduce anything, such as germs) to get to every part of each room in use. Pay special attention to sickrooms, common areas and bathrooms.

Be careful not to run the smudge bundle into flammable drapes, clothing or objects. It's often hotter than it looks. Periodically hold the smudge bundle in the candle flame again to keep it producing a nice plume of visible smoke. Don't touch the end of it until long after it has stopped smoking. Be especially careful of hot bits of sage falling into bedding or on flammable carpets. Stay over hard floors whenever possible. A bit of smoking sage will not burn a wooden floor but may burn a synthetic carpet or blanket. 

3. Disinfect doorknobs, remotes and sickroom surfaces

Get another box of wet disinfectant wipes for yourself and wipe doorknobs, remote controllers, the bathroom faucet handle nearest the sickroom, as well as other surfaces you think the sick person or persons might touch. It does matter and it is nearly impossible for them to keep their hands clean enough, even if they're an adult. 

If you're vehemently against all non-organic disinfectants, white vinegar on a rag (changed often for a fresh rag) is better than nothing. Add tea tree, oregano, sage and.or lavender essential oil (20 drops per quarter cup of solution) for extra disinfectant power. And even better than that is tincture with St. John's Wart, yarrow, lavender or other disinfectant herbs. See here for a tincture recipe if you didn't make it last summer. Strong alcohol on a rag also helps in a pinch. 

4. Wash dishes in very hot water and disinfectant

This is where a dishwasher with a high temperature setting is handy. But if you don't use those devices of modern excess, extra hot dish water with plenty of soap and either a touch of grapefruit seed extract or generous amounts of tea tree, oregano, sage and/or lavender essential oil in the dishwater works.

You can also wash the sick person's dishes separately and keep them separate. Designate an odd, distinctive sickie mug particularly. If all else fails, get a few paper cups for the sick person and resolve to make up for the waste elsewhere by keeping at least some family members well. 

5. Aromatherapy combined with a non-electronic humidifier

Just as burning sage kills bacteria and viruses, sage essential oil in steam can do the same thing. I put this further down on the list because it is a bit more labor-intensive and people often confuse it with those plug-in humidifiers, which are often more trouble than they're worth in flu season, because if you don't clean them constantly, they end up aiding the spread of viruses.

Humidity is a good thing for both preventing and fighting flu and flu-like viral infections. They spread better in the dry, stuffy heat of closed-in winter habitations. That's another reason why it is good to open windows often, even when it's cold. But that can't really be done enough to keep the air a bit damp. The best thing for that is a pot of water on the back of a wood-stove, making soup or ready for the next cup of tea. But many people don't have stoves going all day, so our air gets drier and drier indoors. 

You can solve this problem by either keeping water on low on a burner or using one of those candle humidifiers where you place a candle below a small bowl with water. Either way, it is helpful to forgo the soup and tea this once and add essential oils instead. Tea tree and oregano may be too intense for this. Sage and lavender are both good for disinfecting a room and are quite pleasant. Any sick people will be grateful for the addition of eucalyptus and thyme oil. Thyme is also a helpful disinfectant. 

The Acyclovir versus lemon balm debate: Cold sores vanquished

Our local doctor and I didn't get off to an easy start. He said he'd seen far too many "enthusiasts" who thought they could do without medicine and "just use herbs." He was besieged by middle-class mothers balking at immunizations.

And then there was the fact that I was about the strangest parent he'd met--legally blind, a foreigner and with two adopted kids of a background he considered at best "suspicious." He told me at one of our first meetings that I was the kind of person who would get reported to child protective services at the slightest provocation. But the only other local pediatrician had already thrown us out on even flimsier grounds, so I stuck it out.

But eight  years on, after many bumps and jolts we now have an exemplary relationship in which, if I need help, I call and he trusts my descriptions of symptoms over the phone, asks me to bring a child in or helps come up with a home solution. We brainstorm herbal medicines together when we can and I trust his recommendations when we have to use potentially harmful antibiotics.

Creative Commons image by Tristan Ferne of

Creative Commons image by Tristan Ferne of

This past spring there was a major outbreak of chicken pox in the local school. Czech doctors are not as quick to vaccinate against the disease as those in the US are now, claiming that the vaccine is low on effectiveness and high on unintended consequences. So, I set about researching chicken pox symptoms and discovered that one of my favorite herbs--lemon balm--can help to mitigate the symptoms.

When I was sure that my children had been exposed to chicken pox by paying sympathy visits to the sick, I started giving them lemon balm syrup in hopes that they would not have to suffer with too many blisters. And then my kids were the only ones in their classes who didn't get chicken pox.

The next time I talked to the doctor, I thought back on our first meetings and had to smile. He leaned eagerly across the desk, swapping information about medical trials with lemon balm. He was as curious as I was. 

Did we actually fight off chicken pox with lemon balm syrup? Given the research, it seems at least possible. But there are plenty of other possibilities. The children may already be immune one way or another. And sometimes you just get lucky--or unlucky if you actually wanted your children to get chicken pox over with in cool weather.

I told the doc how I have used lemon balm salve to deal with herpes cold sores for years and found that it is just as effective as the antiviral drug Acyclovir.

"I've concluded that it is actually more effective," he said. "And Acyclovir has so many side effects. If you know how to use lemon balm correctly, that's superior."

Lemon balm was long thought to be a very mild herb, used as an anti-anxiety tea. But then a German medical trial in 1999 showed that a cream made with dried lemon balm extract could significantly improve cold-sore symptoms and increase blister-free intervals.

Dried extract may be more easily quantified, stored and sold commercially, but it is far less effective than fresh and otherwise minimally processed plants. I have found that lemon balm salve made with fresh leaves and olive oil doesn't just improve cold-sore symptoms, it can essentially vanquish them, driving the herpes virus into a decade or more retreat. After suffering from many cold sores in my twenties, I haven't had a full blown one in ten years and only even had the mild beginnings of a sore, when I neglected to use lemon balm salve at the first sign of a potential flare up. 

Over the past two decades new research has confirmed and expanded upon the original studies, showing lemon balm to be an exceptionally powerful antiviral medicine. When even my conservative local doctor, who didn't used to like "herbal frippery," sings its praises and denigrates Acyclovir, I'd say the jury is in. 

For a salve recipe that can be used to make lemon balm salve for cold sores and chicken pox blisters click here.

For a more detailed discussion of lemon balm's herpes-fighting capabilities click here.

For more lemon balm recipes (including delicious popsicles) and uses in treating strep throat, anxiety and insomnia click here.

A faith I can see and touch

My new ESL student walks in and he's gigantic, even taller than my 6'6'' dad. He's a Czech military medical doctor and an expert on Ebola and other nasty stuff. His desire for absolutely perfect English is rivaled by few.

He's usually both tough and cheery, but on his second visit, he admitted that he had a bit of a toothache. It was making it difficult to concentrate, but he said he didn't want painkillers.

So, I cautiously mentioned my work with herbs. We had a surprisingly frank conversation about the doctor-herbalist divide. He said he resents herbal hype by supplement advertisers. I agreed that the hype is problematic and that most "supplements" are of poor quality and ineffective, explaining that fresh, local and minimally processed herbs are much more useful. 

Creative Commons image by Latisha of

Creative Commons image by Latisha of

"The important thing to me is that we see modern medicine as the primary health care and herbs and other alternatives as secondary," he said. We discussed the placement of the English article in that sentence--which is surprisingly complicated, if you get right down to it.

Then I went so far as to agree that while I use homegrown herbs for 90 percent of my family's health needs, I'm very glad for modern medicine when we really need it, such as the occasional lifesaving antibiotic or surgery.

He laughed and agreed to drink some herbal tea for his toothache. Every lesson since then he has wanted more herbal tea, even though his toothache is gone.

That discussion ended well, but his statement about primary and secondary health care stuck with me. I mulled it over for a few days, and realized that I actually disagree with that premise.

Homegrown herbs are definitely our first line of defense in health issues. Our doctor and pediatrician almost never see us and that is a good thing. It shows that we're doing something right.

During the late winter this year a series of particularly nasty viral infections swept through the local schools. Every family we know succumbed--whole groups of friends usually taking ill at once.

With a feeling of grim resignation, I dosed my children with a syrup made out of sweet glycerin, echinacea flowers and lemon balm leaves from our garden--a non-alcoholic substitute for antiviral tincture. I figured that with some advance preparation, our symptoms might at least be somewhat mitigated. 

I never thought we would escape the epidemic entirely, while everyone else I spoke with was in bed for at least ten days and two of my friends' children had to be hospitalized with opportunistic pneumonia. But the frigid, gray end of winter finally gave way to a wet and chilly spring and now the sun has come in earnest, drying out the sickness and leaving us unscathed. 

When this sort of thing happens, we never know for sure if our herbal concoctions have saved us or if it is more a combination of luck and eating vastly more vegetables than the rest of the town.

This was the first year in four that we didn't fall to the viral epidemic of the winter and also the first year I had been able to make the antiviral glycerate. Cake-decorator's glycerin is a strangely controlled substance by local pharmaceutical regulations.

So I don't exactly have proof that my herbal antiviral concoction was what saved us, but I have enough evidence to enthusiastically try it again. 

In many other situations the results are so obvious that denying them is ridiculous. Even my children know that a paste of plantain leaf will almost instantly relieve the pain of bee and wasp stings, nettle tea will immediately wash away the burning of an allergic reaction to nettles and a cough syrup of honey, plantain, thyme and mullein will quiet relentless hacking. They've seen it happen again and again.

Sometimes the same results can be had with a white, pink or colorless substance from the pharmacy in town. But too often for comfort, those substances are ineffective or cause nasty side effects.  

I take yarrow tincture just as any woman would take pain-killers for particularly bad cramps. It is as easy as popping a pill and results in no follow-up headaches. 

When my daughter caught a very unpleasant skin parasite from dangling her arms in a murky pond last summer, the local pediatrician spent six weeks proscribing medicated creams and harsh disinfectants. I am not used to skin ailments that don't quickly bow to my herbal salves, so I carefully followed the doctor's instructions. 

Finally, in despair because the weeping sores on my first-grader's arms showed no improvement either with herbal salves or the latest in pharmaceuticals, I cut large slabs of goo off of the aloe vera plant that sat mostly forgotten in our living room and mercilessly taped them on every single sore.

Then I covered the child's entire arms with bandages each night. After a week, the infection was gone. And though the aloe vera plant had been reduced to a nub, it has now rebounded to three times its former glory in time for another summer of wild children. 

The military doctor is unimpressed and calls my observations, "anecdotal." I agree that I love scientific studies--like those that have greatly advanced the use of lemon balm as an antiviral in recent years. 

"You just have faith in herbs?" he asks in what appears to be genuine curiosity.

If you want to call it that. My faith doesn't have to be "pure" and unquestioning.  I do have trust. It's a faith I can see and touch. 

Healing where the whole is greater than the parts: Home Medicine Cycle 31

When speaking and writing about herbs, I often encounter argumentative people who promote pharmaceuticals as inherently "safer" and "better" because they can be more strictly controlled from a chemical standpoint than herbs and other naturally occurring medicines. And these discussions can quickly devolve into a contest of citing studies on which specific remedy is better or safer, if the pharmaceutical proponents set the rules of debate.

Creative Commons Image by  Aotaro of Flickr. com

Creative Commons Image by  Aotaro of Flickr. com

I wish I had all the answers to settle the controversy, but I don't. There aren't as many studies about herbs as there are about pharmaceuticals because herbs are more difficult to patent and more complex to process. The profit margin will never be as high with herbal medicines as it is with synthetic and isolated chemicals. And so they aren't as widely studied in big laboratories with the resources for lengthy medical trials with large test and control groups. This fact alone leads many to dismiss herbal medicines out of hand. If it hasn't been through that expensive process of established medicine it is seen as worthless and potentially dangerous.

But let's look at this for a moment, most of these medical trials take six weeks. Only a few go on for a few years and almost none watch patients over a life-time. Very few of these pharmaceutical studies look at the overall effect of a mix of pharmaceuticals on the body over time. And yet there are clearly effects, beyond the side effects of a certain drug. The use of synthesized, isolated chemical compounds as medicine (i.e. pharmaceuticals) increases the acidity of the body and causes a variety of long-term and systemic problems. When medical people complain that herbs have not been studied enough to be "safe," I worry that the long-term and cumulative effects on the immune system and delicate biochemical balance of the body of the many synthetic pharmaceuticals we consume today are not known either.

Herbs haven't been studied by many modern studies but what has been done almost always confirms the observations of generations of herbalists concerning the particular use of an herb. Some of herbalist records are more meticulous than others, but over many centuries and a wide variety of sources, patterns emerge that are usually confirmed when they are put to a modern medical trial. The peer criticism of other herbalists has generally been enough to root out insubstantial claims about an herb. 

As a result, we know that yarrow has anti-inflammatory and anti-septic effects both from studies and from the battlefields of history. But more importantly, we know from the combined experience of many herbalists that taking moderate doses of medicinal herbs over a lifetime, strengthens the body rather than weakening it. We know that some herbs can cause liver damage if taken too often and too much. We know that others can become ineffective if the body builds up a resistance to their effects. And we know which herbs are safe to consume regularly as food, partly because they have been consumed as food for thousands of years without ill effects.

Creative Commons image by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia

Creative Commons image by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia

I certainly don't want to spread a myth that herbs are inherently safe because they are "natural." Herbs have to be treated with the same respect we treat any medicine. And it is worth remembering that any time we tamper with the balance of the body, we are likely to do more than just what was intended. That is true with pharmaceuticals and with herbs. There is some evidence that herbs sometimes carry compounds that act to compensate for the wider systemic effects of their medicinal compounds, thus mitigating some of the unintended effects. But this can't be counted on to simply fix everything. It is only a hopeful sign that should be suited further. Some of the effects of herbs may be helpful in one context but harmful in another. For example, sage tincture can be used to deal with low-blood pressure attacks and thus modulate blood pressure. It doesn't necessarily raise blood pressure on a continuum as a simple synthesized chemical might, but It could be adverse for peope with high blood pressure to take a lot of sage in a concentrated form.

My journey in learning about herbs and taking back my health over six years, when I had become very sick and vulnerable to infection due to a lot of pharmaceutical use during several rounds of in vitro fertilization, taught me many things about herbs. But the most important thing it showed me was the importance of the residual and cumulative effects of medicines.  None of the pharmaceuticals I consumed had labels warning of adverse effects on immune function and yet their cumulative effect was that I had wide-spread fungal infections and a simple cold would lay me out as hard as the flu. I was sick more days than I was well for two years.

But here's the crucial bit. I didn't take any specific herbs to "fix" my immune system either.

Creative Commons image by Bogdan of Wikipedia

Creative Commons image by Bogdan of Wikipedia

At that time, I didn't dream that herbal medicine could really help with the severity of my problems. I simply hoped that if I stopped taking pharmaceuticals, the problems would recede. I took herbs for simple things--for cold and flu symptoms that I had constantly, for cuts and scrapes and for fungal infections. And I saw that unlike the pharmaceuticals I had previously tried to fight these problems with, the herbs helped while I experienced very  few negative side effects. And instead of getting sick with something else after using them, I gradually got better over all. Over three years my immune response improved and I was sick less and less often.

At first, I thought this was simply because I had stopped taking harmful pharmaceuticals, and I am sure that helped. I noticed that if I broke down and took an Ibuprofen for a headache, I would get infections quickly in the next day or two and I would have a rebound headache two days (almost to the hour) after taking the pill. But I also noticed some of the opposite general effects when I took herbs. Not only did elder flower help with congestion as I'd hoped, I also felt stronger after taking doses of herbs and was unlikely to get sick soon afterward. If I simply suffered through an illness (as I did sometimes in the days before I had seen enough proof of the efficacy of herbs), I was much more likely to have a relapse than if I used herbs to help with the symptoms. Even though those herbs were not supposed to "cure me" or "fix" my immune system, they helped to support general health as well as deal with specific symptoms.

I never took just one herb in isolation for weeks at a time. I never overdosed on any particular "miracle" herb. Those who get overexcited about inflated claims concerning the curative powers of a specific herb sometimes end up with liver damage or other health problems. Herbs can be abused, and if they are, they won't promote overall health very well. But the moderate, well-considered and diverse consumption of medicinal herbs has wide-ranging benefits beyond just the specific condition or symptoms the herbs were taken to aleviate.

I believe this is why we find many families who use herbs as their primary medicines, who are very rarely sick. Those who use them consistently believe strongly in the abilities of herbs to benefit our health, even though there may not be a modern medical trial showing that these specific  herbs can be used in ways found to be effective by herbalists. We observe in short that the whole is greater than the parts when it comes to health. And herbal medicinals, used thoughtfully and moderately, have an overall beneficial effect on health.

That concept is unlikely to be studied in a large medical trial, even though it could be logistically. Even the part of the pharmaceutical and dietary-supplement indudstries that sell herbal remedies will not be very interested. Because the only way to reliably reap these overall benefits from herbs is to grow and make your own medicines, to make your medicine as local, fresh and individually designed as possible. While a skilled, professional herbalist may be able to provide this kind of medicine to local patients, that won't make for large-scale corporate profits.  And in many cases, health is best achieved by simply homecrafting herbal medicinals and consulting with doctors and professionals in an intelligent way. No one has found a great way to profit from the quiet, perennial craft of the home herbalist and no large, expensive trials will be funded to prove the efficacy of such a grassroots method.

Instead the individual has to rely partly on observations of what works for you as an individual--employing caution, common sense, herbalist experience and the advice of medical professionals to steer a balanced road. Eight years after I was brought to my knees by the combined effects of many pharmaceuticals, I am now as healthy as I have ever been. My children who were expected to have poor immune response and constant infections from having spent time in orphanages before being adopted are now the ones at school who are "never sick." 

We treat those things that do inconvenience us with things we grow in our own backyard. There is no one thing I did to cause this result. Instead it's a case of the whole being greater than the parts. It has come from an overall lifestyle to promote health and the careful use of herbal medicinals.  Please feel free to comment and add your own experiences on the topic of promoting general health.

Store some sunshine for next winter: Home Medicine Cycle 15

In the heart of winter, the sun doesn't rise here until 8:00 and it goes down promptly at 4:00 in the afternoon. Add to that the thick, smothering cloud cover that blankets the land eight months out of the year, and seasonal mood disorder isn't just a theory in this land. It's a fact of life.

Oh, to be able to bottle a bit of the precious summer sun that is so intense just now!

St. John's Wart in my herb garden

St. John's Wart in my herb garden

Wait a minute. You can do just that or the next best thing. There is a plant that does a very good job of capturing and preserving the essence of the sun.

That's St. John's Wart. As if to cue herbalists to start watching for sunbursts in the grass, the Christian calendar made June 24 the feast of St. John. And that's about right. By mid-July St. John's Wart is in full bloom--little five-petaled bursts waving back to the sun. 

St. John's Wart has many uses but it's signature use--the thing it does that few other plants do is lift spirits in the dead of winter, just as if it preserved the rays of the summer sun. Whether as a tea or a tincture, St. John's Wart in small doses is the herb for low-energy depression, fatigue and sagging passion.

A cup of tea or a few drops of tincture can be taken daily in the cold season to energize you and preclude depression that is chemically or biologically based. It can even help with depression caused by problematic circumstances. However, a strict schedule has to be kept where the herb is used for three weeks and then there is a rest of one week before using it for another three weeks. It's an herb with intense compounds that can be harmful if overdone. 

Note the distinctive clumps of St. John's Wart on both sides of the Atlantic.

Note the distinctive clumps of St. John's Wart on both sides of the Atlantic.

St. John's Wart is also one of the best antiviral herbs. The tincture (look here for the recipe) can also be used to fight viral infections that antibiotics can't touch. If using St. John's Wart for depression or to increase energy, you want to take about a spoonful per day (with the three weeks on, one week off schedule). For an anti-viral dose, take three teaspoons per day for no longer than a week and stay out of intense sunlight. (High doses of St. John's Wart will tend to make you more susceptible to sunburn. In winter, this may help to increase the benefit of what little sunlight you get but you should still be careful.) 

St. John's Wart is also used as a salve for burns, particularly sunburns, and for wound disinfection. I shy away from using St. John's Wart for sunburns, even though I am sure it is effective in its own right. The fact that one has a sunburn means that one is likely to go out in the sun again soon and St. John's Wart salve on the skin will also make you more sensitive to the sun. But I do put infused St. John's Wart oil in my salve for immediate first-aid use on wounds. (See here for an infused oil and salve recipe.)

My photo of red St. John's Wart juice came out too blurry. I'll try again later, but for now here is a picture where you can see that my fingers are stained red from gathering just this little bit of St. John's Wart. No, I wasn't picking berries.

My photo of red St. John's Wart juice came out too blurry. I'll try again later, but for now here is a picture where you can see that my fingers are stained red from gathering just this little bit of St. John's Wart. No, I wasn't picking berries.

St. John's Wart is relatively easy to identify. It grows in sturdy plants in meadows and grassland where there is full sun. It has clusters of yellow flowers and the lower part of the flower head is a distinctive mix of brown and purple. But when you're beginning there is a  foolproof test for identifying St. John's Wart. If the plant looks like St. John's Wart and you take a blossom between your fingers and squeeze it, the yellow flower will bleed a deep crimson liquid that will stain your fingers.

Historically herbalists noted that the tincture and the tea of St. John's Wart isn't yellow like the flower but rather a deep beautiful red, and they associated the energizing and cleansing effects of the herb with being useful to blood disorders. I haven't seen a lot of modern evidence between St. John's Wart and blood issues but the color that comes out of the yellow flowers is very startling. 

Enough musing. It's the height of herb season! Now get to gathering.

Before you go, share your herbalist experiences and ask questions below using the comments icon or share this article with your friends. 

Please note that I'm not a doctor and this is not a prescription for treatment of a specific medical problem for a particular person.

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