Herbal Allies for Smoke and Pollution

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If you live in an area prone to smoke (*COUGH* CALIFORNIA *COUGH*) or live in a city prone to other types of air pollution, you are probably familiar with respiratory issues. Common respiratory issues from smoke or pollution inhalation include dry irritated cough, sinusitis, colds, etc. I live in Northern Utah where we get both. We get smoke from the Jetstream (fresh from the burning west coast) as well as our own fires… but we also get air pollution from heavy traffic, oil refineries, and wood smoke.  Every year, people are in need of the fresh air plants can provide.

Here are 6 Herbs for Smokey Polluted Air:

Elecampane (Inula helenium)–

“Traditionally, herbalists have used elecampane to treat coughs, particularly those associated with bronchitis, asthma, and whooping cough. The herb has also been used historically to treat poor digestion and general complaints of the intestinal tract.” (1. source) Elecampane is extremely high in inulin and mucilage. The mucilage is a great anti-inflammatory and when drunk as a tea helps coat and soothe the mouth and throat. The high levels of inulin help in a more round about way. Inulin is a pre-biotic that strengthens the gut flora or microbiome. Researchers are starting to find that there is communication between the gut microbiome and the lung microbiome. When the body has a diverse and strong microbiome, the lungs are stronger and less prone to damage and disease.  (source 2)


Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)–

“Licorice [root] is a sweet, neutral, and moist root that restores, relaxes, and softens” (The Herbarium). These properties make it perfect for addressing the hot, dry, and constrictive lung state that is caused by harsh, polluted air. The sweet taste is caused by large amounts of polysaccharides that are demulcent (a substance that relieves irritation of the mucous membranes in the mouth by forming a protective film) in quality and are also soothing and anti-inflammatory. Licorice has been traditionally used to treat bronchitis, dry coughs, and respiratory inflammation. The primary constituent, glycyrrhizin, is a potent respiratory antiviral and can inhibit the replication and growth of viruses including influenza, respiratory infections, pneumonia, and encephalitis. Since smoke and pollution can create environments that are prone to viral infections, licorice root can be extremely helpful.  Licorice root is most often used in tea blends but can also be used in tincture form.

It should be noted that because of the high levels of glycyrrhizin levels, licorice can have some negative side effects if taken in large amounts daily for long periods of time (more than 4-6 weeks) without a similarly long break in between. These negative side effects can include: lowered potassium levels and high blood pressure. As a result of these two side effects, heart, liver, and kidney problems can arise if licorice is continued after the advent of the original two side effects. A de-glycyrrhized extract of licorice is available but subsequently does not contain the antiviral effects.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)–

Marshmallow root is, in a lot of ways, similar to licorice root. It is widely considered cooling, sweet, demulcent, and anti-inflammatory. I should clarify, that when I (or any herbalist) mention marshmallow, we are not referring to the sweet, puffy, confectionary found in many grocery stores and in hot chocolates. We are referring to the root of the marshmallow plant. Also, while I do describe it as “sweet,” many people would disagree with me as it is not “sugary sweet” but rather “earthy sweet.” Marshmallow root is helpful for problems related to the respiratory tract, the GI (gastrointestinal) tract, and the urinary tract. Noted historic physician, Nicolas Culpeper, described Marshmallow root as “helpful with all hot and sharp diseases and opens the strait passages and making them slippery.” (Culpeper, 1653). The German Commission E (3, 4) has approved the root for oral and pharyngeal mucosal irritation and dry cough. Marshmallow root is also considered a pre-biotic and is extremely beneficial to gut flora and bacteria. As stated above, there is a correlation between the gut and lung microbiome and overall health. Therefore, a happy gut leads to a happy lung. In 2011, a report was published stating that “[marshmallow root] indicates significant pharmacological activity in the cough, irritation of the throat, gastric inflammation, anti-tumor, antiviral, and immunostimulant. Anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory activities, effects on mucocillary transport, adhesion of polysaccharide to buccal membranes and reduction of cough are reported.” A cold infusion of a tablespoon of dried root into 8 oz cold water is extremely helpful in soothing sore, dry throats by coating and cooling the tissues with it’s healing mucilage. I find that combining this cold infusion with an equal amount of cherry juice to be delicious and soothing to the inflammation and irritation of a taxed respiratory tract.

The only contraindication for marshmallow root that I’ve ever read has been that it can interfere with the absorption of medications due to its high mucilage content that coats the GI tract. So if you take a daily prescription medication, take those first and wait at least 30 minutes before drinking marshmallow root.

Linden (Tilia spp.)-

Linden is a pretty unassuming tree that is commonly found in the northern hemisphere. However, it can come in quite handy when it comes to respiratory issues, particularly bronchitis. It is sweet to taste and is considered cooling. Linden is commonly used for alleviating respiratory irritation from coughs. It is also used to help with anxiety, nervous tension, and hysteria that can all be amplified when respiratory issues are present. It is antispasmodic and antitussive but is also an expectorant meaning that it will help calm spasmodic coughs but will make the coughs more productive at expelling the irritant, while irritating the respiratory tissue less. Obviously this is a desirable herb to have around to help expel pollution from the lungs. It’s demulcent qualities also help sooth the mouth and throat from heat and irritation caused by the polluted air.

Linden is commonly taken as a warm infusion once or twice a day but can also be taken in tincture form.  Linden is generally considered safe for most individuals including children over 2 years of age (6).

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)–

Mullein is an easy to source and extremely helpful plant when it comes to the respiratory system. It is considered cooling, moistening, and mildly bitter. It is both antispasmodic and also expectorant as well as being mostly known as a “lung tonic.” Well-known herbalist, Matthew Wood, recommends mullein for dry and irritable coughing that “shakes the frame.” Mullein is highly mucilaginous and is anti-inflammatory, making it effective in soothing spasmodic and irritating coughs. It is also toning to the lungs which helps them be more efficient in function and in expectorating irritants and foreign matter. Perfect for helping the body rid itself of smoke and pollution. German Commission E has also indicated Mullein for “catarrhs of the respiratory tract.” It is generally used for bronchitis, asthma, colds, coughs, and other lung and respiratory system issues.

Mullein is generally taken as a tea (2 tsp in 8 oz hot water) up to three times per day or as a tincture up to three times per day. It is generally regarded as safe for most people with no known side effects.


Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)–

Slippery Elm is sweet and cooling. It is highly demulcent, nutritive, and a soothing expectorant. I make mention of slippery elm because of how amazingly effective it is for alleviating conditions such as sore throats, dry throats, coughs, laryngitis, and all issues of the lungs. It is considered unmatched in its soothing and moistening abilities.

Slippery Elm is most often taken in capsule or tea form and is generally regarded as safe for all ages over 2 years of age. However, like marshmallow root, it should not be taken just before or with prescription medications as it does coat the digestive lining and can inhibit absorption of those medications.

*It should be widely known, however, that slippery elm is becoming increasingly scarce and endangered due to habitat loss and Dutch Elm Disease. Therefore, it should be used sparingly and only purchased from reputable and ethical sources. If possible, use another herb first before resorting to slippery elm.

Here are 3 More additional Remedies:

Saline Rinses and Nasal Irrigation (Neti Pots) –

“Nasal irrigation helps thin out the mucus and improve the coordination of the cilia to help them more effectively remove bacteria and other irritants from the sinus passages.” (10) Regular use of nasal irrigation can soothe the nasal passages and sinuses when irritation, inflammation, and foreign substances are present. While I do find the actual process of nasal irrigation to be a bit on the gross side, it works wonders extremely quickly when smoke and allergy irritation is causing unending sneezes and runny noses.  Saline rinses have been used for centuries throughout the world and (after quick training and an “ok” from a pediatrician) can even be used on even the newest of babies. For infants, babies, and toddlers, I definitely suggest using the saline drops that can be found in any retail store with a baby section or online. For teens and adults I, personally, prefer the squeeze bottle over the “pour” method as it is easier to control flow and less annoying.

Saline rinses are generally regarded as safe.

Air purifiers

These can be purchased as machines or as plants. Air purifying machines can be purchased for varying cost both online as well as at your local home improvement store. They can be large and attached to your homes HVAC system or can be smaller and room-based. The square footage affected will determine the expense.

Air purifying plants have been used  since the creation of the plant kingdom on earth to filter out carbon dioxide and other pollutants out of the air. NASA even uses them on the ISS (International Space Station). Some of these plants include:

Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea seifritzii)

Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)

English Ivy (Hedera helix)

Ficus (Ficus benjamina)

Gerbera Daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)

Janet Craig (Dracaena deremensis “‘Janet Craig”)

Marginata (Dracaena marginata)

Mass cane / Corn cane (Dracaena massangeanaa)

Mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria laurentii)

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum “‘Mauna Loa'”)

Pot mum (Chrysanthemum morifolium)

Warneckei (Dracaena deremensis “‘Warneckei'”)

There are several more but depending on the pollutant are more or less effective at elimination. Do note that if you have house cats that like to eat house plants, be sure to look for air purifying plant that are non-toxic to cats.

Steam Therapy

Steam therapy is beneficial in helping the body warm mucous membranes, encourage deep breathing, increase circulation, open pores, and promote a healthy sweat. A make-shift steam room can be produced by sealing up your bathroom and running a hot shower to steam up the room. A bowl of hot, steaming water and a towel can be used for steam therapy as well, but should only be used for older children and adults. Eyes should always remain closed when using the bowl and towel form. Steam therapy has been used for millennia by indigenous peoples throughout the world to both maintain good health and to address health issues such as respiratory irritation and congestion in both the sinuses as well as the lungs. For children with bronchial conditions such as croup and irritating/spasmodic coughs, steam therapy is a commonly recommended practice by pediatricians and experienced parents alike. It’s warmth and humidity help break up catarrh and congestion making it easier for the afflicted to expel the irritants, toxins, and illness from the lungs and sinuses. It is particularly indicated for “cold” symptoms.  The warmth and humidity also help open the pores and promote sweating, which is another form of detoxification of foreign substances. If possible, a lukewarm shower proceeding the steam therapy can be beneficial by rinsing away the toxins and dirt pulled from the skin as well as helping the body return to its normal temperature.

Steam therapy, if done right can be used for everyone from the newest infant to the eldest grandparent. However, safety measures must be taken for all, especially the youngest and oldest. Limit your time in the steam to no more that 10-15 minutes at a time and make sure to put a towel down on any tile floor to keep from slipping on the condensed steam. Do not use the steam room if a fever is present as the steam will increase the body’s temperature and blood pressure. Prolonged use can cause lightheadedness, dehydration, and other cardiovascular issues. If you are pregnant, a steam room should not be used but a steam bowl may be OK. Be sure to check with your obstetrician prior to using steam therapy. (12)

Aromatherapy can also be easily employed here by the use of aromatic herbs in a sock and placed under the shower stream (most gentle approach) or through the use of 2 – 5 drops of 100% pure essential oils in two cups of hot water in a bowl. If essential oils are used, please do your research to be sure they are age appropriate and safe for steam therapy. Essential Oils used with steam inhalation can be applied to support respiratory function as well as expectoration and drainage. A Chinese study done in 2017 found that a combination of Peppermint, Eucalyptus, Spruce, and Frankincense markedly decreased lung inflammation caused by particulate found in smoke and other air pollutants.(13) Safety Note: Keep eyes closed to avoid irritation. Avoid mucus membrane irritating essential oils.


** This information is to be used for educational purposes only and is not meant to treat any medical conditions. The author is not a medical doctor and the information presented is based on traditional and folk tradition that may or may not be backed by modern science. Citations are included for the reader’s continued research into the subject.


Sources + Citations:

  1. Elecampane
  2. The Lung Microbiome, Immunity, and the Pathogenesis of Chronic Lung Disease
  3. German Commission E is The commission gives scientific expertise for the approval of substances and products previously used in traditional, folk and herbal medicine formed in 1978. It has evaluated the safety and efficacy of herbs for licensed medical prescribing in Germany. The American Botanical Council has translated and adopted these guidelines for the use of herbal practitioners in the United States.
  4. German Commision E monograph for Marshmallow plant
  5. Pharmacological activity of Althaea officinalis L.
  6. German Commission E : Linden Flower
  7. German Commission E: Mullein Flower
  8. United Plant Savers : Slippery Elm
  9. Slippery Elm, its Biochemistry, and use as a Complementary and Alternative Treatment for Laryngeal Irritation
  10. Neti Pot, Nasal Irrigation Pros and Cons
  11. Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement
  12. Steam Room Benefits for Your Health
  13. The acute airway inflammaiton induced by PM2.5 exposure and the treatment of essential oils in Balb/c mice

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