When we’re suffering from a bad cold, nothing makes us feel like we’re taking care of ourselves more than a steaming cup of herbal tea, particularly if it contains medicinal herbs. Sipping on medicinal herbal tea is one of the best steps you can take to shorten the duration of illness when the symptoms of a cold, sore throat, or other upper respiratory infection begin.
Fortunately, medicinal tea for colds is widely available these days. We don’t even need to live near a health food store—many supermarkets and drugstores now sell herbal blends formulated to treat a variety of conditions, including tea for colds, sore throats, coughs, and general immune support. However, while these pre-blended teas, generally sold in tea bags, often contain at least a couple of herbs with known medicinal properties, the medicinal herbs are not always in high enough quantities to have much impact. Furthermore, when medicinal tea ingredients are blended together in tea bags, they can’t be properly infused or decocted to optimally extract the active constituents.
A much better option is to make your own tea for colds by using one of the following herbal tea recipes and using the correct infusion and decoction techniques for the specific herbs in your tea.
What Are Medicinal Infusions and Decoctions?
Tea is the most common type of herbal extract—it is essentially a water-based herbal extract. Making tea is one of simplest ways to separate the active, healing herb constituents from the inactive, fibrous matter. There are two basic ways to prepare medicinal tea: infusion and decoction. Broadly speaking, an infusion is made by combining hot water with medicinal herbs and steeping to extract their active ingredients. A decoction, meanwhile, is made by adding the ingredients to boiling water and simmering them.
Which method to use depends mostly on the herb itself (for example, chamomile or licorice) and the part of it being used (for example, flower or root, respectively). Although there are exceptions, the basic rule of thumb is that infusions are used for delicate and less dense parts of plants such as flowers, leaves, and green stems. Decoctions are used to prepare tea from hard and woody plant material such as roots, barks, and some seeds and hard fruits.
The actual methods for properly infusing and decocting herbs vary and depend on the ingredients themselves, whether they are fresh or dry, how they are cut or crushed, the quantity and strength of the tea to be made, and the goals for treatment. However, there are some basic guidelines that can generally be followed if specific dosages are not given.
• To make an infusion, use one teaspoon of dried herb per one cup of water. Warm a glass, porcelain, or stainless steel vessel and put the dry herb into it. Pour boiling water over the herbs. Cover the vessel with a tight-fitting lid to ensure that only a minimum of the aromatic volatile oils are lost through evaporation. Steep for 15 minutes (recommended time may vary). Strain the infusion to drink.
• To make a decoction, put one teaspoon of dried plant parts (powdered or broken into small pieces to break the cell walls and facilitate extraction) for each cup water into a non-aluminum pot or saucepan. Add the appropriate amount of water to the herbs, bring the water to boiling, turn down the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, strain and drink.
Important Exceptions To the Infusion/Decoction Rule
One important exception to this basic rule is for woody herbs, roots, and seeds that are rich in significant volatile oils such as valerian root and fennel seeds. In this case, boiling will cause evaporation of important volatile constituents. For herbs like this, it is best to crush or even powder them finely and make an infusion. Another exception is for herbs that don’t tolerate heat at all. For those herbs, such as elecampane root, a great remedy for colds with coughs, cold infusions are best. For cold infusions, you steep in cold water for extended periods of time to extract the constituents without damaging them.
Oftentimes, a medicinal tea formula will contain a combination of herbs, some of which should be decocted and some infused. Another basic rule of botanical medicine is that when preparing a medicinal tea containing both soft and woody herbs, it is best to prepare an infusion (for the soft herbs) and a decoction separately. This ensures that the active constituents of the more delicate herbs are not destroyed and that the soluble constituents from the tougher, woodier herbs are appropriately extracted.
Herbal Tea Recipes
Infusion for acute cold care
David Hoffmann, author of Medical Herbalism, a foundational textbook on the scientific principles of botanical medicine used in Bastyr University’s herbal sciences classes, has a favorite herbal remedy for acute colds. This tea for colds is ideal when there is much inflammation and mucus production in the upper respiratory tract.
1 part black elder (Sambucus nigra dried flower)
1 part yarrow (Achillea millefolium dried flowers, leaves, stems)
1 part peppermint (mentha piperita dried leaves)
Combine equal parts of each herb (for instance, one ounce of each). Infuse two teaspoons mixed herbs per one cup water (for instance, four teaspoons in two cups water), covered, for 15 minutes. Strain and drink hot, often, until symptoms pass.
Additional Herbs for Infusion
When I was a naturopathic medical student, some of my botanical medicine instructors recommended additional herbs that could be added to the herbs above to enhance the infusion:
• Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis dried budding aerial parts) This plant from the mint family has a slightly bitter, sharp, spicy flavor and is traditionally used for colds and flu. (Use 2 parts.)
• Yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum dried leaves). This sweet, aromatic herb is used for colds or any condition in which there is cough with poor expectoration.
• Thyme (Thymus vulgaris dried flower and leaf). You know this aromatic herb well for its culinary importance, but thyme is also a powerful antimicrobial that also acts as an expectorant and anti-spasmotic, making it great for coughs associated with colds and bronchitis.
• Linden (Tilia spp.dried flower and leaf). This slightly sweet, aromatic herb is a sedative and anti-inflammatory. It can be added in equal parts to the infusion recipe above when your cold symptoms are making you too irritable to sleep.
Immune Supportive Decoction/Long infusion
This tea recipe comes from herbalist, author, and naturopathic doctor Sharol Tilgner. Although this recipe is a general immune supportive, Dr. Tilgner explains that it is specifically helpful for viral respiratory infections and can be used for the prevention and/acute treatment of colds and flu. The herbs have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, lymph stimulating, adrenal supportive, mucous-thinning properties.
2 parts echinacea (Echinacea purpurea dried root)
1 part licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra driedroot)
1 part osha (Ligusticum porteri dried root)
This formula combines the techniques of decoction and long infusion. The echinacea and licorice roots should be decocted, while the osha root should be infused for 25 minutes to preserve the volatile oils.
Combine two parts of echinacea root for every one part licorice root. Keep the osha root separate. For acute treatment of colds, decoct two teaspoons echinacea/licorice combination per one cup water in a pot with a tight fitting lid. Bring to a boil and then turn down heat to low and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, infuse one teaspoon osha root per one cup boiling water, covered, for 25 minutes. Strain both the infusion and decoction, combine, and drink a cup of hot tea four to five times a day until symptoms pass. For preventative, long term treatment, decrease echinacea/licorice dose to one teaspoon per one cup water and decrease osha dose to one-half teaspoon per one cup water and drink three cups per day.
Caution: Chronic, large doses of licorice can raise blood pressure by increasing sodium resorption and potassium excretion by the kidney. Avoid licorice if you have pre-existing hypertension.
Combining Herbal Tea Recipes for Colds
Any of the herbs mentioned above can be combined to create your own tea for colds. I hope I’ve given you some useful herbal tea recipes for colds and shown you why making your own tea for colds using proper infusion and decoction techniques is far superior.