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 season of coughs looms but the herb cupboard is well-stocked: Home Medicine Cycle 25

Whether you've been busily flitting from wildflower to wildflower this past summer to gather your herbs or you are looking for a good local supplier of freshly dried and tinctured herbs, this is the time of year to take stock of your herbal supplies. The season of colds, coughs and flu brings infections, seasonal light deprivation, slumps in immune function and other problems that modern medicine has difficulty solving is at hand. 

Wild thyme - Creative Commons image by Summi of German Wikipedia

Wild thyme - Creative Commons image by Summi of German Wikipedia

I dread taking my kids to a doctor for a checkup at this time of year because we're sure to catch something in the waiting room. And if someone in our family is sick with a viral infection, we're much better off staying home to rest with a cup of tea than we would be exposing ourselves (and others) to more problematic infections. As hard as doctors and nurses try (and they do try mightily) to combat bacteria, serious infections from antibiotic resistant bacteria are widespread in hospitals and spreading to all types of medical facilities. When you are already weakened by a virus, your chances of contracting a life-threatening resistant bacterial infection are higher.

As much as I love having a good doctor nearby, I would rather chat with her in line at the grocery story than visit her office. And one of the most important ways to avoid that office at this time of year is to know how to handle a cough on your own. Here are my tips:

Know your cough

There are two basic types of cough--a productive cough (where you are actually coughing up mucous) and a dry cough.  And these different types need different approaches. While most of the pharmaceuticals sold over the counter attempt to suppress a cough at all costs, this can actually lead to worse infection and often simply doesn't work. With a productive cough, you don't need to be hacking and coughing all the time to get the troublesome mucous out. If you can loosen up the mucous a productive cough doesn't have to be a too unpleasant or last more than a few days.

In these posts, I try to stay away from terms that aren't clear to lay people, but there are two herbalist terms that are really worth learning. The first is "expectorant." An herb or a chemical compound that is an expectorant has the property of helping to loosen mucous and make it easier to cough out. You may feel like your cough is suppressed after taking an expectorant herb because you will not have to cough so many times in order to release the mucus, but in reality this type of herb does nothing to suppress a cough. It does, however, make it easier to breathe, prevent further infection, hasten the end of the cough and often reduce the frequency of coughing.

Herbs for a phlegmy, mucousy cough: 

  • Mullein leaf (good as tincture, syrup and tea and it's soothing as well)
  • Thyme (my all-time favorite--makes a delicious tea and a good tincture as well)
  • Ginger (a tasty and helpful addition to any cough tea)
  • Eucalyptus (use one drop of essential oil in a steam bath to clear up congestion)
  • Hyssop (a pleasant tea)
  • Horehound (extremely bitter as a tea but can be made into taste cough drops)
  • Garlic (fresh garlic is good sprinkled on soups and salads whenever you're sick)
  • Horseradish root (It's possible that just smelling the fresh root will cure what ails you! Caution!)
  • Elecampane flowers (good for cough syrups)
  • Anise Seed
  • Black Cohosh root
  • Colt's Foot

For a dry, irritating cough

The other important term is "demulcent." An herb or compound that is demulcent will sooth mucous membranes and help get rid of irritations that cause dry, hacking coughs. This second type of cough--the dry cough--is the kind you do want to suppress. The cough itself doesn't do much to rid your body of mucous or infection. It simply serves to further irritate already inflamed places in your throat and airways. That's why this type of cough can go on for months and become chronic. It is often self-perpetuating and it disrupts sleep, further harming the body's ability to heal. 

My husband has battled dry, chronic coughs in the winter for years and the remedie that has finally brought some relief is a combination of thyme, mullein and ground ivy tinctures along with syrup made from mullein leaves, plantain leaves, elecampane flowers and marshmallow flowers. You may have to experiment to find the right combination for a chronic cough but the most common demulcent herbs are:  

  • Mullein (For chronic coughs I find regular tincture to work best but if you can ensure that you drink the tea every day, that could work as well)
  • Marshmallow flowers (not made into candy but rather into syrup)
  • Plantain (helps to sooth whatever it can physically touch, so it is good for irritations close to the throat)
  • Coltsfoot (another good tea)
  • Lungwort (the flowers particularly make a nice tea)
  • Liquorice
  • Slippery Elm
  • Wild cherry bark (It's said to be a strong cough suppressant but I don't have personal experience with it.)
  • Lemon, and honey (Drink a warm lemonade made with honey. It may only provide temporary relief but sometimes temporarily relief is all your body needs to recover.)
  • Onion (you can make a syrup from cooked onion that is used widely for coughs in some parts of Eastern Europe.)
  • Sage, peppermint and rose hips are good additions to many of these teas and syrups for the nutrients they provide when you are dealing with a chronic cough.

Whooping cough

Another kind of cough is whooping cough and this is quite different from a the two other kinds of coughs. True whooping cough (pertussis) is a dangerous bacterial infection that can sometimes be fatal in infants. The signature sound of whooping cough is a cough followed by a whooping noise. The noise comes from the sick person (usually a small child) trying desperately to pull air in through swollen tissue. You can see the hollow at the base of the throat depress as the child strives to take a breath and this is a critical sign of danger.

My son had a cough like this when he was two and again last winter, although he wasn't treated with antibiotics at the time. Sometimes a whooping-type cough comes even when a child has been vaccinated against pertussis and it is frightening and possibly very dangerous. One of the ways that whooping cough is treated in an emergency room is to put the child into a cool steam tent. The reason is that the cool steam soothes the swollen tissue that makes it so difficult to breathe. This is also why many people start out to bring a child with a terrible whooping cough to an emergency room, only to have it disappear by the time they arrive, because of the exposure to the cool, damp air (given that most attacks of whooping cough occur at around 10:00 pm to midnight). 

I learned this the first time my son had such a coughing attack and couldn't breathe. After trying several things that work with other types of cough (to no good effect), I took him out at night and the cough subsided within a half an hour. I didn't get much sleep the rest of the night but he did. The second time it happened, I didn't wait but immediately bundled him up and went outside, where I held him until the attack stopped. Interestingly enough, as a child of barely four, he cried and insisted that he didn't like the cold air. The cough was so powerful, he though he would vomit but couldn't and within ten minutes it passed. 

Please be aware that I'm not a doctor and this isn't medical advice for any specific ailment. My experience shows that the only thing you can do at home for something resembling whooping cough is cool steam or night air. Otherwise, I would seek out professional medical attention.

Other times to seek out professional help with a cough

Coughs can be a symptom of a number of bacterial infections or other breathing problems. Beyond whooping cough, there are times to leave the home herb cupboard and find professional medical help, particularly if...

  • There is a fever for more than several days,
  • A fever, wheezing or headaches are severe or get worse rapidly,
  • you develop fast breathing or chest pain,
  • it is difficult to get a breath,
  • you cough up blood or rusty-colored phlegm,
  • you become sleepy or confused,
  • a cough lasts for longer than four weeks or keeps coming back.

Please feel free to add your comments and experiences with herbal cough remedies in the comments. 


The raw power of sage: Home Medicine Cycle 12

Sage is ancient and helps ground me in those things I love best. Sage reminds me of the land where I was born in dry Eastern Oregon. And now it recalls years of cooking for my family. When in doubt, toss in a handful of sage! Beyond that it has antioxidant properties and can help build strength and energy.

In 2007, a medical study found that smudging with sage for an hour can clear 94 percent of bacteria from the air in a closed room. Not only is this useful in preventing the spread of disease when someone in your household is sick, it also helps to fight lower levels of bacteria that build up in the air. They might not make you overtly sick, but you may be more tired than you need to be because your immune system is battling a blend of cooped up bacteria.

As it turns out, indigenous cultures that smudge with sage to purify a sacred space were on to something. That's the way it often is. Empirical studies end up confirming what ancient herbalist practices hammered out over the centuries.

Sage flowers - image by Kurt Stuber with GNU Free Documentation License

Sage flowers - image by Kurt Stuber with GNU Free Documentation License

The common garden sage that we use most for medicine and cooking is actually native to the Mediterranean area of Europe and the Middle East. In mid-June it is finally starting to really get going in our climate a bit further north. It is a low plant with soft, gray-green leaves and woody stems. It's smell is distinct and, to me, instantly comforting. I believe that ancient people must have known instinctively that sage would be a beneficial herb because the smell is so enticing. 

The most common way that I use sage is simply in cooking. It is pungent enough that you don't want to put it in everything, lest all of your dishes taste the same but when I use sage I use at least three times the amount called for in cook books. It is one of those things like garlic. Some people consider it a spice to be used sparingly. I consider it to be a vegetable, if a strongly flavored one. Bland chicken noodle soup for sick days will become instantly fantastic with a handful (or two) of sage. Essentially any gravy or broth can be vastly improved with generous amounts of sage.

One of my favorite busy-mama recipes for weekday nights when we've run out of leftovers is to make a thick gravy out of some chicken stock from the freezer (easiest way is to heat the broth, mix 3-4 tablespoons of flour in a cup of sour cream and add the sour cream to the boiling broth while stirring briskly). Also add generous amounts of fresh or dried sage to your gravy. Cut long strips of red bell pepper and let them soften a bit in the gravy. Then pour the finished sauce over whole-grain noodles. Kids love it and it' s very fast. Like mac and cheese, but a bit more healthy.

Sage leaves - image by  Jonathunder  of Wikipedia with GNU Free Documentation License 

Sage leaves - image by Jonathunder of Wikipedia with GNU Free Documentation License 

For a bigger dinner I will often rub a chicken or half a turkey with butter, garlic, salt, pepper and copious amounts of sage, thyme and rosemary. There are people who will eagerly come a hundred miles or more for one of my turkey dinners based on this recipe. (For best results, melt butter and combine with crushed garlic, salt and pepper to taste depending on size of the turkey and a couple of handfuls of crushed sage and then lift the skin of the turnkey and rub this mixture in everywhere you can reach before baking.)

All this delicious cooking has more medicinal benefit than you might think. Sage contains exceptionally high levels of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. Cooking with sage can help protect the cells of your body from damage caused by free radicals, those nice-sounding but ultimately unfriendly atoms that cause cell death, poor immune system response and chronic disease. Tossing sage in your soup is more than just yummy. It's like taking an expensive antioxidant, immune-support supplement from a high-end health food store (except, of course, that many of those supplement are over-processed and don't actually work very well).

Sage can also be used as a tincture and is useful in that form for three primary purposes:

- to mitigate or prevent Alzheimer's (There has been a clinical trial showing its effectiveness.)

- to lower harmful cholesterol levels and support "good" cholesterol

- to regulate glucose in people with diabetes or to prevent diabetes

- to raise dangerously low blood pressure (I have tried this personally to good effect.)

This painting of the sage plant and its parts (from  Koehler's Medicinal Plants - 1887) is particularly helpful in correctly identifying sage. (Public domain image)

This painting of the sage plant and its parts (from Koehler's Medicinal Plants - 1887) is particularly helpful in correctly identifying sage. (Public domain image)

Dosage with sage tincture should be small (half a teaspoon daily) and closely monitored. Any of the conditions listed here should be discussed with a doctor as well. To make an effective tincture for these problems, see my post on making vodka tinctures

As is made clear by the study on cleansing harmful bacteria out of the air using sage smoke, this herb also has antimicrobial and antiviral properties that make it useful in treating sore throats as well as cuts and scrapes. In Europe, sage is used in many pharmaceuticals for the treatment of sore throats. You can make your own at home which will be far more effective, if you make honey syrup or candies including a lot of strong sage tea. In a pinch, just brewing a strong sage tea and adding honey will also help. 

Stubborn sores or cuts on hands or feet can be helped by soaking in a strong sage infusion (tea). And finally, I always make a disinfectant salve during my annual salve making bonanza, which includes a large portion of sage infused oil.

Sage salve is particularly helpful with raw scrapes that are likely to be a bit dirty (such as if you fall off your bike on gravel). Disinfectants such as iodine often won't go deep enough into the skin if small particles of dirt have been embedded in the skin. Wash the cut or scrape out as best you can and use a liquid disinfectant (iodine is good but so are a lot of tinctures I describe in these posts - sage, St. John's Wart or Yarrow tinctures are all good choices for emergency disinfectants) . Then dry the area and rub in sage salve to reach a deeper layer of skin.

See my infused oil and salve making recipe to learn how to make your own homemade healing salve that is less-processed and thus far more effective than those you can buy commercially.

I hope these herbal recipes and tips are helpful. My goal is to take back my health and live on the earth in a sustainable way. I am happy to share what I'm learning on the journey with others because the more of us who do it, the better our future will be. Feel free to add your own experiences using the comment icon on the lower left and share this article with your friends using the icon on the lower right.

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Please note: This doesn't constitute medical advice for a specific ailment in a specific individual. It is always a good idea to discuss your health problems with a doctor because we're all different.