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. 

Linden: Golden comfort in myth and medicine

As a child my heart was captured by the songs and poems in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Creative Commons image by Bixentro of Flickr. com

Creative Commons image by Bixentro of Flickr. com

I learned by heart the song Legolas sings of Nimrodel and I wondered over the light leaves of linden, which I imagined to be a mythical tree of Middle Earth, since there were no such trees in the semi-desert where I grew up.

When Galadriel sings of an eternal golden tree in the land across the sea, I thought this too must be the linden, so often referred to as golden by Tolkien. 

As a young adult, I was delighted to find that linden trees are real, though sometimes called lime trees in the US. They don't bear limes and I assume there are also lime trees of a completely different sort that do. And while linden trees have a stately and magical beauty to them, they are not usually golden. They turn bright yellow in the fall.

Creative Commons image by  Alexis Lê-Quôc

Creative Commons image by  Alexis Lê-Quôc

Yet they also turn gold for a brief moment in the late spring, or early summer. The tree gives an impression of burnished gold for the week or so when the blossoms are in full bloom and the tree is surrounded by an ecstatic cloud of honey bees--and often as not an herbalist or two.

Tea made from linden flowers and leaves is so widely accepted as a cold and cough remedy in Central Europe that even the most medical-model doctors may suggest it. Linden tea is very pleasant and a light, pretty yellow in color. It can be a great comfort for anyone with an upper respiratory infection. It loosens phlegm so that it is easier to expel. 

The tea can also be used to help with insomnia and migraines. In some situations it has been used to help with certain circulatory problems, including high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat, but it should be noted that there is an unconfirmed suspicion that it may exacerbate preexisting heart disease if drunk too often. 

Creative Commons image by CameliaTWU of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by CameliaTWU of Flickr.com

Linden is said to ward off bad luck and it is holy to Slavic peoples. It was often planted in town centers centuries ago in western Slavic countries and even in Germany. It's a national symbol of the Czech Republic as well as of Slovakia and Slovenia.

The wood of the linden tree is very fine grained so it can be sanded exceptionally smooth. It also resists warping once cured and it is relatively soft for a hardwood. This has led to its use as a carving wood for statues, musical instruments and barrels throughout the centuries.

In Lithuania women prayed to a goddess of the linden tree called Laima. Even the seeds of the tree are treated with respect and once they were spoken to as if they were human.

For me linden symbolizes my new land across the sea and the changes that have made me part of this country. It does not grow in the dry land of harsh and expansive beauty that I left behind. I have planted a linden tree at the top of my property here in this softer, smaller land. Now I wait for the day when it will bear flowers. It can take as long as fifteen years for the tree's first flowers. No wonder it is a tree marking the deep roots of people in a place. These things take time.

Lungwort: Breathe easy, free from toxic pollution

Finding lungwort growing wild in my yard is a special treat and as close as Mother Earth gets to praising organic urban homesteading. Lungwort only grows in places that are particularly lacking in toxic pollution.

Creative Commons image by Prof. D. Richards of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Prof. D. Richards of Flickr.com

Often it's found in idyllic forest glades for just this reason. But for the past twelve years, it has grown by some stone steps my husband and I built by hand. The pretty little plants appear to avoid the east side of our house where coal smoke from the town sometimes rolls up just below our front door. 

Lungwort was identified centuries ago as a plant that could be beneficial for those with respiratory ailments. Some scholars today ascribe this to the medieval "doctrine of signatures," which held that plants vaguely resembling a part or attribute of the human body could help in that reflected area. The leaves of lungwort are vaguely lung-shaped and have spots on them that some people think might mirror what a diseased lung would look like. 

Remedies developed based on the "doctrine of signatures" have been widely discredited by empirical trials. Mostly it appears plants simply don't resemble human body parts all that much and any accidental similarity is just a fluke. (Yet another blow to the conceit that the universe revolves around us.)

However, it is worth noting that most theories get started somewhere. And lungwort, being a particularly ancient European herb, could have been among the reasons some healer long ago developed the doctrine. In a world ruled by religion, like Europe in the Middle Ages, it would be tempting to believe that an all-knowing God would put clues to healing in the appearance of plants and lungwort has a handy shape.

Creative Commons image by Normanack of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Normanack of Flickr.com

But the connection is likely reversed from what most believe. Lungwort has been proven in studies, including those by the University of North Carolina, to be helpful in soothing lung irritation caused by pollution or allergens. It is also used to treat asthma, bronchitis, tuberculosis and coughs accompanying viral infections. Medieval healers may have known of these properties and used the plant's resemblance to a lung to come up with the "doctrine of signatures."

Lungwort is sometimes available in capsules of freeze-dried, ground leaves or in tincture, but not enough study has been done on these processes and there is anecdotal evidence from herbalists to suggest that lungwort is not very effective unless used in its unprocessed form as fresh or air-dried leaves and flowers. The mucilage (a slimy substance) in the leaves as well as antioxidant compounds appear to account for its benefits to the respiratory system.

Creative Commons image by  Andrii Zymohliad

Creative Commons image by  Andrii Zymohliad

Lungwort is relatively easy to spot because it is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring, with violet and pink blossoms as well as lush, slightly hairy dark-green leaves with their distinctive shape and pale spots.

Lungwort leaves are also used in fresh salads. That is the best way to get the full antioxidant effects, which are good for the skin and general health. But they do have a bit of a bitter bite like some other dark greens.

Lungwort is also used to aid the treatment of urinary tract infections, heavy menstrual bleeding, thyroid problems and digestive bloating. Medical research with lungwort is particularly scarce, possibly because of its association with the "doctrine of signatures," so there is less data available about its other benefits than for its use with lung ailments, but experience bears it out.

Superhero of the natural healing, propolis takes down viruses, bacteria and possibly cancer: Home Medicine Cycle 29

It isn't an herb but it comes from the sap of conifers and poplar trees. It's so effective that the name essentially meant "defense of the city" in ancient Greek. And unlike many natural healing substances it was specifically designed for the purposes we use it for. It just wasn't designed by humans.

That's propolis, the superhero of natural healing.

Public domain image of propolis in a hive

Public domain image of propolis in a hive

It's concocted by bees specifically to be antimicrobial and anti-fungal. To them it's literally the "defense of the city." They form a kind of gunk from sap and other specially selected plant materials and use it to patch their hives and cover up anything gross or infectious in the hive. Sometimes called "bee glue," it's sticky and eminently unwashable but for all that it can be used for serious medicinal power.

There are two words of caution about propolis. First of all, it can be an issue for people with allergies,. particularly bee allergies. It is never entirely free of bee products and enzymes, no matter how purified it is. So, be cautious with it if you have any sort of bee allergies or other serious allergies. 

The second issue is simply the practical considerations of use. Propolis doesn't dissolve in water much at all. It dissolves reasonably well in alcohol and some in glycerin. As such, it's most effective when used as a tincture. Some people also just chew a piece for mouth infections and colds. But tincture is the most common form and the resulting mixture is very potent and usually bright yellow. It will coat anything it touches with an unwashable layer of bright yellow, including your teeth.

Mind you, it's very good for your teeth and would be great for preventing cavities, but your teeth would look horrible for a couple of days. So, most people try to knock it back to the back of the throat and swallow it without letting it touch their teeth. This is tricky and even the glass you use will be impossible to clean with anything but strong alcohol. (Paper cups are a good option with proplis.)

Yes, there are sanitized versions of propolis you can buy that aren't sticky and don't turn everything they touch bright yellow. But I suspect those preparations have so little propolis in them that they don't contain enough of the medicinal qualities. I have a toothpaste that supposedly contains propolis and it's okay but nothing spectacular. It also is only very mildly yellow. 

I like the taste of many bitter herbal remedies but I'm not personally fond of propolis, even though many people describe the taste as pleasant. I do take it, however, because there is nothing that will deal with fungal infections or a sore throat like propolis. It can compete well with many synthetic antibiotics and fungicides and is far better for you. 

You can usually obtain propolis from bee keepers. The best way to process it is:

Propolis chunks - Creative Commons image by Rade Nagraislovic

Propolis chunks - Creative Commons image by Rade Nagraislovic

  1. Freeze the pieces.
  2. Then crush them with a hammer or mortar and pestle while they're still frozen and brittle. 
  3. Put the resulting powder into a jar you are prepared to devote to propolis tincture forever.
  4. Pour 80 to 100 percent alcohol over it. About one part propolis to two parts alcohol is recommended.
  5. Shake well and let it sit for a couple of weeks.
  6. I've been told that some people strain the stuff but I have never found anything that will strain the liquid without becoming immediately plugged by the propolis itself. Instead, I let it settle and skim the more liquid tincture off the top of the jar for use. 

Here are some of the ways natural healers are using propolis extracts, according to the latest research.

  • Gargle with propolis tincture diluted in water for sore throats, thrus, cancer sores and other mouth infections. The tincture applied topically in the mouth and throat is very effective. Swallowing it also has systemic immune boosting and antimicrobial results.
  • A study found that propolis is superior to the drug acyclovir in fighting genital herpes. It is also used for cold sores around the mouth for the same reason.
  • Propolis shows significant antimicrobial activity in the treatment of peridontitis, a stubborn mouth infection.
  • Propolis is used for sores and bacterial infections (including tuberculosis). It is also active against many viruses (including influenza, H1N1 swine flue and common colds)
  • Propolis fights fungus and infections of single-celled organisms called protozoans. 
  • People sometimes apply propolis directly to the skin for wound cleansing abd as an oral rinse for speeding healing following surgery around the mouth, nose and throat.
  • Propolis is used to treat chronic ear infections in children with a history of ear infections and no known cure.
  • A study from the 1990s showed the usefulness of propolis extracts in preventing viral respiratory infections or colds in children in preschools and schools.
  • Studies are ongoing with exciting findings about how propolis and its flavonoid constituents protect human white blood cells from radiation sicknesses.
  • New research is showing incredible anti-cancer potential in propolis compounds. It is already being used to treat cancers of the nose and throat; for boosting the immune system; and for treating gastrointestinal problems. 
  • Caffeic Acid phenethyl ester (or CAPE) is a molecular compound found in propolis and almost nowhere else. CAPE has grabbed the interest of researchers for its medicinal properties, but its anti-cancer capacity is the most stunning. A study from the "Journal of Radiation Research" shows that only two days after being exposed to a medicinal compound with CAPE, "46% of lung cancer cells had been destroyed and the cancer growth was reduced by 60%. Three days after the treatment 67% of cancer cells were dead." Other studies have found that CAPE prevents the growth of colon cancer cells and induces cell death of the malignant cells without harming healthy cells. Other types of cancer cells also respond to treatment with the CAPE in propolis, including breast, gastric, skin and pancreatic cancer and glioma cells, a form of inoperable brain cancer. When propolis is used as a whole the effects are even better than with isolated CAPE compounds.

Propolis is one of the more advanced medicinals I have featured here. I do so simply because of the fantastic results, though I do caution that it is more difficult to use than many herbs and it's good to get a licensed herbalist's or doctor's individualized advice with a lot of these health concerns. 

I love to hear from you and I'd especially like to hear of the experience of other homecrafting herbalists with propolis. Drop a note and be sure to share this post in order to spread up-to-date information. 

Herbs to help you breeze through cold season: Home Medicine Cycle 28

In many places winter is already coming on. The weather is wet, cold and grayish. The season brings plenty of physical problems - from driving conditions to cutting wood - and then there is the chaos around family holidays. The last thing you need is a cold. 

It may not be the worst illness to have, but unlike a lot of illnesses you usually don't get to stay home in bed and watch reruns when you have a cold. You just feel worse, have less energy and have to deal with a runny nose, headaches, a sore throat and some coughing, while doing all the other things you normally do.  That make colds highly unpleasant and the lack of rest makes them hang on for weeks sometimes. 

One of the first things to do in cold season is to make sure you're getting enough rest and fresh air. Both will help to prevent and cure colds. Rest is the most important component of any strategy to boost your immune system and fresh outside air doesn't carry viruses as well as the air in buildings full of people. If the weather is actually freezing, your risk of catching a cold can go way down if you bundle up warmly and spend at least an hour outside each day. Viruses don't do well with frost. 

That said many of us live in climates where several months out of the year are more dank, cold and rainy than frosty and viruses love this weather. Beyond that, if you work or study in a crowded environment, your immune system would have to be spectacular to avoid the latest cold virus going around. So the chances are that most of us will get a cold at some point. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

If you use pharmaceuticals to beat back the symptoms you will often prolong the cold and while your nose may not run, you will still have less energy. That will often cause you to drink more caffeinated drinks and that will disturb your sleep. And less sleep will mean more colds.

Beyond that, synthetic medicines often suppress the immune system over the long term and have other systemic side effects that aren't listed officially because they are caused by the overall intake of pharmaceuticals rather than by one specific drug. Colds are one area in which you can use herbs very effectively and thus reduce the need for harmful pharmaceuticals. 

Here are the basic steps to using herbs to deal with colds:

Prevention

The primary preventative herb today is still Echinacea. It stimulates white blood cells, which make up the best-understood part of the immune system. It also includes virus-fighting substances and boosts the ability of immune cells to engulf and destroy invaders. 

There is controversy in medical circles about Echinacea largely because there have been some studies conducted using commercially available pellets of freeze-dried Echinacea juice, which showed that the pellets were not very effective in preventing colds. There are studies showing the effectiveness of Echinacea in other forms, however. I took those freeze-dried pellets for a few years because I was traveling and I hoped to get some herbal medicine even when I couldn't grow my own or brew concoctions. And I have to say that I didn't notice any dramatic effect by taking the expensive Echinacea pills. Combine that with the problem that many commercially available Echinacea "supplements" contain only a tiny percentage of actual Echinacea (and sometimes none at all) when they are subjected to lab tests and you could become very skeptical about this herb.

However, none of these facts have any real bearing on the herb itself. Poor use of an herb doesn't make the herb itself ineffective. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

The best way to use Echinacea is to grow your own or find a local supplier of fresh or freshly dried herbs. Then use dried Echinacea flowers (stored in an air-tight, non-metallic container) as a cold prevention tea for children and adults. It has a very pleasant, almost spicy taste reminiscent of the smell of bee hives.

For adults, Echinacea tincture is also excellent. It's best taken as needed the moment you notice a tingling of a cold in your throat or nose. I personally prefer Echinacea flower tincture and have found it most effective in cold prevention. If I can take a large spoonful of Echinacea flower tincture within an hour or two of the first signs of a cold or when other people around me have colds, I almost never end up with a real cold and if I don't take it my immunity to colds is not very good.  Here is a basic recipe for tincture.

I have read that many herbalists prefer Echinacea root tincture. However, in order to make a tincture with enough potency they must use several batches of Echinacea root for each batch of alcohol. This means soaking finely chopped roots in alcohol, then straining the alcohol after a few weeks and pouring it over another bunch of roots for several more weeks and repeating the process at least three times. The process is complicated but the results may be even better than Echinacea flower tincture. 

Echinacea works best if taken at specific times when immune support is needed. The immune system may become too accustomed to that support if it' s taken constantly. I use Echinacea flower tea when flu and cold season is in full swing on a regular basis and take Echinacea tincture as needed within hours when I can feel something coming on.

Treatment 

Even herbs don't provide an actual cure for colds. Once you have a cold, rest is the closest thing to a cure and often rest is hard to come by. Most herbs for colds treat specific symptoms and you can choose the best ones based on the symptoms you have. Treating symptoms is far from useless when it comes to curing a cold because many cold systems will interrupt your sleep and sleep is key.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

One general anti-viral herb to take after a cold has set in is St. John's wart. St. John's wart helps to fight a wide range of viruses and it gives the body energy needed in fighting an infection.

There is a myth that one should stop taking Echinacea once a cold has set in. I have found that this is bad advice. First of all your immune system doesn't just prevent infections, it also fights ongoing infections. So, the need for the immune support of Echinacea doesn't end simply because the cold temporarily got the upper hand. I have also experienced long-term colds and coughs that hung on tenaciously and would only recede when i took Echinacea tincture each day and for several days AFTER the symptoms disappeared. I stopped several times once the symptoms had disappeared and the infection returned, until I had the discipline to continue taking Echinacea tincture daily until about a week after the symptoms had cleared up. This has happened to me enough times that I consider it to be a pattern.

Herbs high in vitamin C are also good for general treatment. Rose hip tea and even more so buck thorn syrup  contain vitamin C (as does homemade sauerkraut).

Treating congestion

Now we get into the nitty gritty of treating specific symptoms.

One of the best herbs for treating the congestion that comes with a common cold is elder, particularly the flowers. My family uses dried elder flowers for tea (which is quite pleasant). And the adults use elder flower tincture as a powerful decongestant. If you do have to continue working when you have a cold, elder flower tincture is essential. It will clear out congestion as effectively as many pharmaceutical cold medicines but without the negative health effects associated with those. 

If you don't pick all the elder flowers off of your local elder bushes in June, you can also make a syrup from the elder berries themselves. This contains many of the properties of the flowers plus vitamins that are helpful for recovering from colds.

Another way to deal with stubborn congestion is to put a drop of thyme or eucalyptus essential oil and a few table spoons of salt into a bowl of hot water and breathe in the steam from it. You can put a towel over your head to catch the steam and clear out built up congestion that keeps the infection inside and interferes with rest.

Treating sore throats 

Lemon balm leaves and linden flowers are both excellent for treating sore throats. Lemon balm has been recently found to specifically fight the bacteria that cause strep throat. This is essential when you have a cold because while a cold is minor by itself it will often weaken the body and allow a bacterial infection to set in. I drink lemon balm even if I don't have a sore throat with a cold in order to prevent strep. Making lemon balm syrup (with this recipe) is one excellent way to combat sore throats.

Raw honey is also good for a sore throat. Gargling with salt water or a bit of propolis tincture diluted in water are also useful methods. You can even chew a piece of propolis if you don't have propolis tincture although it will temporarily stain your teeth bright yellow. 

Treating coughs

I covered the treatment of coughs in another post which you can find here. In brief, the best herbs I have found for coughs are thyme, mullein, marshmallow, longwort and plantain. 

I love hearing about your experiences with herbs. Let's have some discussion on what really works in the comments section below.