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Herbal Remedies for Wildfire Smoke Inhalation

Herbal Remedies for Wildfire Smoke Inhalation

Satellite map of the spread of wildfire smoke on Aug 14, 2018 via https://ozoneaq.gsfc.nasa.gov/omps/blog/2018

Satellite map of the spread of wildfire smoke on Aug 14, 2018 via https://ozoneaq.gsfc.nasa.gov/omps/blog/2018

Smoke across North America (and beyond!)

In the Bay Area we've had smoky skies on and off for over a month; more that 1.5 million acres are currently burning in 15 US states, and the smoke from these wildfires is blanketing most of North America, even reaching as far as Ireland, Scotland, and southern Norway

This means dry, spasmodic coughs, burning lungs, runny noses, and even headaches for anyone downwind from the fires. With the smoke spreading so far, and wildfire "season" lasting nearly the whole year now, it makes sense to keep some herbal remedies on hand for relief from the smoke. I've got a range of suggestions below, from kitchen medicines you likely already have on hand, to more powerful herbal remedies for persistent coughs from more extreme smoke exposure.

Reduce your Smoke Exposure

Start by reducing the amount of smoke you're exposed to:

  • Close your windows.
  • Run a hepa air filter.
  • Recycle air in your car.
  • Wear a mask that filters out smoke. This needs to be a tight-fitting N95 or P100 respirator, with 2 elastic straps that go around your head. (These sell out quickly when smoke exposure gets bad — consider buying some ahead of time for an emergency kit for yourself, friends, family, and especially anyone who's at particular risk from smoke inhalation.)
  • Run a humidifier at night. This helps soothe inflamed lungs and sinuses. Running a diffuser with eucalyptus essential oil can be especially soothing and decongestant.
  • Rinse nasal passages with a neti pot or with a saline nasal spray. This can be especially relieving if you have a runny nose and sinus pressure.

Kitchen Medicine

Some excellent cough medicines are likely hiding in plain sight in your kitchen. Try these if you don't have other remedies on hand:

***All suggested dosages are for adults unless otherwise noted.***

  • Honey is an excellent cough suppressant, and has been found to be as effective as dextromethorphan, a common ingredient in over-the-counter cough suppressants. Try 2 teaspoons before bed, or mix it into a tea made with one or more of the herbs below. (Because of the risk of botulism, don't give honey to infants under 1 year old.)
  • Ginger is a delicious warming expectorant, useful for soothing cold, damp coughs (with clear or white mucus). Boil some fresh or dry ginger to make a tea, add honey, thyme and/or fennel.
  • Thyme is an expectorant and mild bronchodilator. It is antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal, and has been shown in clinical studies to be effective in treating bronchitis and pneumonia. To make a tea, gently boil 1 tsp of thyme in 8 oz water for 5 min. Turn off the heat and steep covered for 10-20 more minutes. Add honey, fennel and/or ginger, if you like. Drink 2-3 cups a day.
  • Fennel is good for mild coughs and upper respiratory congestion. Add 1 tsp dried fennel seed to 8 oz hot water and steep covered for 30 min. Add honey, ginger, and/or thyme. Drink 3 cups a day.
  • Garlic is an incredible kitchen medicine. Garlic is good for lung infections, and garlic honey can be used as an effective expectorant and cough syrup. To make garlic honey: finely chop enough fresh raw garlic to halfway fill a small jar. Let the garlic sit for 10 min (this allows the natural enzymatic reaction to produce allyl sulfur compounds that possess anti-cancer properties). Put the freshly chopped garlic in a small jar. Fill the jar with honey. Stir. Take 1 tsp - 1 Tbsp up to 4 times daily. Garlic honey will keep nearly indefinitely and is an amazing medicine for all kinds of colds, flu, lung infections, and some intestinal infections.
close-up of the underside of a mullein leaf

close-up of the underside of a mullein leaf

 Gentle Herbal Remedies

Below are some gentle herbal remedies that are great to have on hand in your herbal medicine cabinet. You can find them online or in your local herb store, if you have one. Also, many of these are used in Traditional Medicinals' Throat Coat Tea, which is widely available in natural groceries.

***All suggested dosages are for adults unless otherwise noted.***

  • Marshmallow root is a demulcent (meaning it's slimy!) that's good for soothing dry coughs and dry lung conditions. Steep 1 tsp dried marshmallow root in 8 oz warm water for 1 hour, then squeeze the root into the tea to get all the slimy goodness into the tea. Drink up to 4 cups a day. (I'll confess to not being able to personally tolerate the mucilaginous-ness of this herb, but it is an excellent remedy, if you can tolerate it!)
  • Mullein leaf (pictured above) is an expectorant useful for soothing irritated coughs and congestion. Steep 2 tsp dried leaves in 8 oz hot water for 30 min. ***STRAIN WELL*** or the fuzzy leaf hairs will irritate your throat, which is the opposite of what you want! Drink up to 3 cups a day.
  • Orange peel is an expectorant for cold, wet coughs and colds. It's often used in small amounts to flavor teas with a mix of other herbs. Try adding it in with mullein leaf and/or red clover, or with honey, ginger, thyme, and/or fennel. Steep 1/4 - 1/2 tsp freshly ground, dried peel in 8 oz hot water for 15 minutes. Drink 2 oz up to 3 times per day.
  • Red Clover blossoms can be used to soothe tickly, dry coughs. Steep 1-2 tsp dried flowers in 8 oz hot water for 40 minutes. Drink up to 4 cups a day.
  • Slippery Elm is a wonderful medicine for dry, tickly coughs, sore throats, and laryngitis. However, it is being over harvested in the wild and is on the United Plant Savers at-risk list. It's important to be mindful with the amount of slippery elm you use, and where it comes from (preferably cultivated, or ethically wildcrafted). That said, it's a wonderful remedy, especially for young children with tickly coughs or sore throats. A small amount, 1/4 - 1/2 tsp, can be mixed into a bit of applesauce or oatmeal and fed to young kids. You can also find commercially made slippery elm lozenges for adults.

More Powerful Herbal Remedies

While the kitchen medicine and gentle herbal remedies above are actually quite potent, sometimes when a cough or congestion is deeply stuck, you might need a more powerful remedy. The herbs listed below are quite safe when used as described, but they tend to have more contraindications than the more gentle remedies above. 

***All suggested dosages are for adults unless otherwise noted.***

  • Valerian is probably best known as a sleep remedy, although it isn't actually a particularly effective sleep aid! Valerian IS antispasmodic, anxiolytic, and a mild sedative, and that combination makes it VERY good at soothing tickly, persistent coughs, especially at bed time. It's easiest to use as a tincture, and you can use 1-3 dropperfuls up to 3 times a day, as needed. Note that the maximum dose here will really wipe you out, so start with the lowest dose and increase as necessary. I use a very small dose with children to help stop nighttime coughing, from 5-10 drops for children over 2 years old. WHAT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER ABOUT VALERIAN, and the reason it's in this "more powerful" list, is that, for ~10% of people, it has the opposite effect and is stimulating rather than sedating. So, try a small amount (a few drops for a child, around 10 drops for an adult), and wait a while to feel its effects on you (or your child) before taking more.
  • Licorice root is very useful for dry, spasmodic coughs and it soothes lung tissue. It's a major ingredient in the Throat Coat Tea that you can find in natural groceries. Licorice is strong medicine, and the list of contraindications for licorice is long: it shouldn't be used by pregnant women, or people with hypertension, congestive heart failure, kidney disease, hypokalemia or edema. To make a tea, gently boil 1/2 tsp dried root in 8 oz water for 10-15 minutes; turn off the heat and steep covered for 10-15 minutes. Drink 4 oz up to twice a day.
  • Wild Cherry bark is a cough suppressant for spasmodic coughs. The fresh bark contains cyanide, so the bark needs to be dried before use. It should be made as a cold infusion, by steeping 1 tsp dried bark in cold water for 4-6 hours. Drink 4 oz up to 4 times a day. For short-term use only. Avoid use during pregnancy.
  • Lobelia is a heavy-hitter for spasmodic coughs. It is taken as a tincture, and ONLY IN DROP DOSES because it causes severe nausea. It shouldn't be used by pregnant or lactating women, young children, or people with nausea. Take 7-8 DROPS up to 3 times a day. The dose can be increased by 1 drop each time you take it, until you feel nauseous, then drop down to the number of drops that didn't cause nausea. Don't take more than 20 drops at one time.

I hope this gives you some useful ideas and resources for treating wildfire smoke inhalation at home. Interested in learning more about how plants can help you feel better? Learn more about working with me, or book an appointment today!


Goldman RD. Honey for treatment of cough in children. Canadian Family Physician. 2014;60(12):1107.

Oduwole O, et al. Honey for acute cough in children. Cochrane Database System Review. 2014;12:CD007094.

Penn State. "Chopping And Cooking Affect Garlic's Anti-Cancer Activity." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 November 1998. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/11/981117075803.htm>.

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