Responding to the new guidelines from Public Health England (PHE) and The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) that GPs should advise patients to take honey and other traditional remedies, The National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) draws attention to five herbs that are effective in countering colds and influenza.

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract and can affect the nose, throat, larynx and sinuses. There are over 200 different viruses; the most common culprits are the rhinovirus, coronavirus and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). Colds are generally self-limiting and will clear up within 2 weeks but people often want support in managing symptoms such as coughing, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, headache, or a fever. A number of herbs can be used to help manage these symptoms.

Echinacea (Echinacea spp) is one of the most commonly used herbs and with good reason: a meta-analysis of 14 studies, evaluating the effect of Echinacea on the frequency and duration of the common cold, found that Echinacea decreased the chances of developing a cold by 58% and reduced the duration of the cold by 1.4 days (1). Echinacea is well known now in Europe and is grown as an ornamental garden plant but its medicinal use started with Native Americans hundreds of years ago where it was used for pain relief, wound healing, and as an antidote against various poisons as well as managing cold symptoms.

Elderflower (Sambucus nigra) has wide culinary use in cordials, wines and desserts. Its medicinal use is for relieving cold symptoms including catarrh and fevers. It is also used for hay fever due to its anti-catarrhal action. Research on the berries found that their constituents can impede the replication of certain viruses in the body. The same study also showed that it can reduce the duration of influenza symptoms by up to 4 days (2). Elderberries also support the body’s innate defence mechanism by increasing the production of cytokines which encourage the movement of immune cells towards sites of infection and inflammation (3).

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has traditionally been used for respiratory system conditions including coughs. It has been approved by the German Commission E (a scientific advisory board) for use in bronchitis. Like other members of the mint family, it is rich in volatile oils. A randomised double-blind study of 60 patients found thyme syrup as effective as bromhexine in reducing the symptoms of a productive cough (4). Thyme is often combined with licorice in cough syrups, licorice is traditionally used for its anti-tussive and demulcent action which soothes mucous membranes and eases coughs.

Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) is widely used in China, India, Thailand, and Malaysia for treating sore throat, flu, and upper respiratory tract infections. It is also used in Scandinavian countries as a prophylactic and for symptomatic relief of upper respiratory infections. Studies show a significant reduction in symptoms such as sore throat, tiredness, muscular aches and malaise compared to a placebo. The duration and severity of the infection was also reduced (5).

Garlic (Allium sativum) contains a number of anti-viral compounds which are readily released from the lungs and respiratory tract, hence its particular affinity for coughs and colds. It has been used traditionally for respiratory complaints.

Not all herbs are suitable in pregnancy, lactation, serious conditions or with other drugs. Please seek the expert advice of a medical herbalist before use.

Medical herbalists tailor herbal prescriptions and diet and lifestyle advice to meet the needs of individuals. When using herbs, the NIMH recommends seeking the advice of a qualified medical herbalist. Your nearest NIMH herbalist can be found here:


More about the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH)

The National Institute of Medical Herbalists is the UK’s leading professional body representing herbal medicine practitioners.

First established as the National Association of Medical Herbalists in 1864, today the National Institute of Medical Herbalists has more than 700 members across the UK and beyond.

The Institute promotes the benefits of herbal medicine and oversees the provision of the best patient care through the work of its members.

NIMH members undergo a lengthy training programme before they can register as qualified medical herbalists. Recently qualified practitioners will have taken a BSc in Phytotherapy (herbal medicine). All NIMH-registered herbalists are fully insured, and follow a strict code of conduct and can be recognised by the letters MNIMH or FNIMH after their name.

NIMH-registered medical herbalists take a holistic approach to treating illness. Herbalists treat a wide range of acute and chronic conditions and frequently work in collaboration with GPs and consultants to achieve the best treatment for individual patients.

NIMH can be contacted at:
Clover House, James Court, South Street, Exeter EX1 1EE
Tel: +44 (0) 1392 426022
Fax: +44 (0) 1392 498963

1 Shah SA et al, 2007 Evaluation of Echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis’ The Lancet Volume 7, issue 7 473-480

2 Zakay-Rones et al 2004, Randomised Study of the Efficacy and Safety of Oral Elderberry Extract in the Treatment of Influenza A and B Virus Infections The Journal of International Medical Research 2004;32:132-140

3 Barak et al 2002, The Effect of Sambucol, a elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: 1 Inflammatory Cytokines European Cytokines Network Volume 12 Number 2 290-6

4 Knols, Stal & Van Ree 1994. Productive coughing complaints: Sirupus Thymi or Bromhexine? A double-blind randomized study. Huisarts en Wetenschap, 37

5 Melichor, Palm & Wikman, 1997 Controlled clinical study of standardized Andrographis paniculalta extract in common cold- a pilot trial Phytomedicine Volume 3 Issue 4 February 1997 Pages 315-318