Herbs for Respiratory Support: A Prepper’s Medicine Cabinet


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It is that time! Winter comes every year, and with it, the winter sniffles. Sometimes a simple cold, sometimes the flu, always just enough of an inconvenience to be noticeable and require a remedy. I’ve had this problem recently, in fact, and this article will discuss ways to deal with it. 

Firstly, however, the Disclaimer. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV. None of what I’m saying in this article should be construed as medical advice. Always check with your doctor before changing meds, and if you’re in major distress, go directly to the nearest ER.

Whew! With those things being said, we can continue our education.

Few indeed would bother with a clinic visit for simple respiratory ailments before Covid came along. Many respiratory illnesses are viral, and a standard MD would simply send you home with the advice to rest, drink plenty of fluids, maybe some Tamiflu, along with a big medical bill. I well remember a flu season around 2009 or so when Tamiflu couldn’t be found for any money, and this history has repeated itself. And that’s even after studies showed that Tamiflu wasn’t all that effective in shortening the duration of the flu!  Covid of course, is a whole different topic, as Daisy has described in her own experience here. My intention is to discuss the simpler cold and flu version, and how to support your respiratory system toward recovery. 

I’ve been dealing with the winter sniffles myself, which isn’t as bad as the flu but definitely needed to be dealt with. People giving me paranoid looks, wondering if they’re going to be infected by Covid isn’t a great feeling! I can well imagine how Typhoid Mary must have felt. But take heart! There are many herbal alternatives.

Elderberry syrup

In my case, I went to a local herbalist and bought an elderberry syrup kit. Her kit contains elderberry, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and star anise, along with some locally produced honey. The syrup was very easy to make and has been quite helpful. Here’s a recipe for making your own elderberry syrup.

Here’s some information on the effectiveness and nutritional benefits of elderberry, how it’s used, and an important caution. Specifically, we use just the fruits and berries because the rest of the plant is toxic.  

Also be aware that this is a large bush, so if you’re considering growing in a container, you’ll want a container that’s at least 24” across and 20” deep. You’ll likely need two compatible plants as this one requires cross-pollination, and it’s about as polite as blackberry when it comes to sharing space. As in: NOT. Elderberry will take over the universe if it can.

Stark Brothers has some good information for those interested in growing it.  A less than obvious option for acquiring the berries is to volunteer in a community garden that grows it. There’s one near my house that will give me all of the berries I want, a full plant even, for the cost of helping out in the garden. 


Another easy-to-grow herb is Echinacea, specifically Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea. According to the Cat Ellis’s book Prepper’s Natural Medicine, cold and flu aren’t the best use of this herb, but she does include it in her Elderberry and Echinacea Elixir as effective against rhinovirus. Mount Sinai discusses the controversy as to whether or not this herb actually works here.

Slippery Elm

How about slippery elm? According to Healthline, there are a number of uses for this herb! Yes to supporting respiratory health and helping to relieve associated ailments. It’s also demonstrated usefulness in GERD, UTI, and IBD! Check out the studies here.

Star Anise

How about the star anise from my elderberry syrup kit? According to Healthline, it does indeed aid in respiratory ailment support but comes with a caution: the one we want is the Chinese evergreen Illicium verum. Don’t take the Japanese version, which is toxic.


According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, ginger can be grown at home by placing a fresh rhizome about 2” long in sandy soil and water. Moisten occasionally and in about 5 weeks, you’ll have enough to break a piece off of as needed. If care is used, the plant will continue to grow.

Some specific remedies

Our friend Laurie Neverman of Common Sense Homesteading gives a number of natural remedies for the cough that always seem to be associated with both colds and flu. She discusses the benefits of several home remedies, from cold air to steam to elderberry syrup, honey, and lemon. She also gives recipes for making all of the above, along with homemade cough drops here. 

For chest colds, Cat gives a recipe for Respiratory Infection Tea that requires hyssop, mullein, slippery elm, marshmallow root, elecampagne, colt’s foot, spearmint, cloves, licorice, and thyme. Are these herbs effective? According to scientific studies, yes! Cleveland Clinic has written about the benefits of mullein. Healthline discusses the benefits of hyssop but be careful! A search of PubMed yields a few cautions related to it that are worth reading. 

Cinnamon and ginger are discussed in The Old Farmer’s Almanac as natural aids during cold and flu season, along with turmeric, thyme, and cayenne pepper. Thyme is a green herb easily grown in pots, but turmeric is a bit trickier. Sometimes a trip to the local herb shop is the best way to obtain ingredients. The blue turmeric sold by Baker’s Creek is expensive and way too much for my small yard! 

You can also check out Cat’s recipe for instant fire cider here and Daisy’s recipe for Honey-Thyme cough syrup here.

This is just the beginning.

Honestly, I’ve barely scratched the surface of herbs that can help support the respiratory system during the cold and flu season. Some sites list as many as 30!

And don’t forget the old standbys in the mint family. Some even suggest catnip, although more data is needed to validate that use. This brings me to a caveat that really applies to any herb: when doing research, be careful of whose claims you choose to believe. Anyone can write a blog and say whatever they wish.

I look for scientific validation via well-designed studies that adhere to the scientific method. I try to avoid Big Pharma-funded studies, preferring instead cross-validation from several sources on a given use of any herb. Catnip tea is touted as a cure for many ailments, but there isn’t much scientific evidence backing those claims. The same can be said for many, many herbs on the market. It is best to have many options, but I suggest sound research and due diligence before taking something that might be trendy but ineffective or, at worst, outright toxic. 

The more options we have, the better off we’ll be. Consider adding more herbs to your toolbox for respiratory wellness, obviously, with the approval of your physician. Don’t stop taking any medication without your doctor’s help, and always check for potential interactions before taking herbal remedies with pharmaceutical medications.

What about you?

That being said, do you use herbal remedies to help you through cold and flu season? Do you have any favorite remedies to share? Please tell us in the comments section! 

About Amy Allen

Amy Allen is a professional bookworm and student of Life, the Universe, and Everything. She’s also a Master Gardener with a BS in biology, and has been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010.

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