February 2013 Issue

Herbal Remedies for Kids — Evidence Shows Nature’s Medicines Can Relieve Common Childhood Illnesses
By Carol Patton
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 15 No. 2 P. 13

If your clients have children, they know all too well that colds, stomachaches, sore throats, and other mild illnesses are common.

Instead of using prescription or over-the-counter medications to treat these ailments, many parents prefer to use herbal remedies. Supermarket and health food store shelves are stocked with nature’s medicines, but more often than not parents don’t know which ones to buy, and dietitians unfamiliar with healing herbs are unsure what to recommend. The good news is that many herbs have been used for centuries, clinically studied, and proven effective and safe for restoring a child’s health.

In this article, RDs and other experts suggest the best herbal remedies clients can use for the most common childhood illnesses.

Sore Throat
One of the best herbs to use to soothe a sore throat is slippery elm (Ulmus rubra or Ulmus fulva). Traditionally used as a Native American remedy, it comes from the inner bark of a tree, says Marisa Moore, MBA, RD, LD, an Atlanta-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Its active ingredient, called mucilage, is a gummy substance that when mixed with water creates a slippery gel. The gel forms a protective layer along the throat and digestive tract, coating and soothing inflamed mucous membranes and suppressing cough receptors in the throat and larynx.1

Slippery elm is available in throat lozenges, which can be administered to older children. It’s also sold in powder form that can be mixed with orange juice to mask the flavor. Parents can pour 2 cups of boiling water over roughly 2 T of powdered bark and steep for three to five minutes.2 

Upset Stomach
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a spicy herb believed to stimulate the flow of saliva, bile, and gastric secretions; suppress gastric contractions; and improve intestinal muscle tone and peristalsis.3 Clinical trials indicate that ginger can safely relieve pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting.4

“Ginger is pretty amazing,” Moore says, adding that since it can be frozen, patients can always keep it on hand. “The active ingredient has been shown to decrease nausea and discomfort.”

Moore says children can safely drink ginger tea or eat a ginger chew to calm nausea or vomiting. Ginger root also can be boiled in water or added to apple juice so it’s more palatable for children.

Likewise, chamomile (Matricaria recutita) tea has been shown to be safe and effective for an upset stomach, even for babies suffering from colic. Moore says it may contain some anti-inflammatory properties and act as a sedative to help slow down the movement in the small intestine that sometimes causes stomachaches or cramping.

In a January 2005 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers wrote that drinking the tea “was associated with a significant increase in urinary levels of hippurate, a breakdown product of certain plant-based compounds known as phenolics, some of which have been associated with increased antibacterial activity … (and) an increase in urinary levels of glycine, an amino acid that has been shown to relieve muscle spasms.”

Peppermint tea or capsules also can help reduce stomachaches. In a May 2010 study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, patients who received one capsule of delayed-release peppermint oil (Mentha x piperita) “had significant reduction in abdominal pain and improved quality of life compared to those who took a placebo.”

Diarrhea and Constipation
Since diarrhea tends to flush out healthful bacteria, probiotics have been shown to replenish the good bacteria and restore a healthy environment in the intestines, slowing down the diarrhea. Probiotics can be found in various foods. When ingested they can help the body build immunity to a variety of illnesses and diseases. Yogurt and yogurt drinks are effective at decreasing the duration of diarrhea in children, Moore says.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “Results from several studies suggest peppermint oil may improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, characterized by cramping, constipation, and diarrhea.”

For constipation, clients should use a natural source of fiber, such as raisins, prunes, or other dried fruit. Parents can mix them into cereal or homemade trail mix. It’s important to remind clients to increase their child’s fluid intake so they can better absorb the fiber. Encouraging children to engage in physical activity is another good suggestion since exercise helps stimulate bowel movements.

Instead of using antibiotics to treat bacterial ear infections, parents can use mullein blossom oil drops in their child’s ears, says Chris Kilham, founder of Medicine Hunter, Inc, writer of a weekly FOX News health column, an alternative medicine researcher, and a course instructor of The Shaman’s Pharmacy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Kilham says mullein oil, which comes from the mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus), has been found to relieve ear pain, earaches, and reduce inflammation and irritation in the ear.

The plant’s bacterial healing properties are found in its roots, leaves, and flowers and can be effective in treating infections. In a September 2010 article published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the authors reported that “modern day European complimentary [sic] medicine frequently hails mullein flower oil as a remedy for earache … Extracts of the mullein leaf have also been shown in laboratory studies to possess antitumour, antiviral, antifungal, and … antibacterial properties.”

To reduce a child’s low-grade fever, Kilham says fresh ginger root tea, which is “significantly antimicrobial, is a great choice. When a fever accompanies a cold or bronchitis, he says ginger helps kill the rhinovirus often responsible for colds.

Mild Burns
While many people know about the virtues of aloe vera, which soothes and cools the skin, “The absolute best thing for burns with no exception is tamanu oil (Callophylum inophyllum),” Kilham says. According to a December 2002 article in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, tamanu was shown to form scar tissue to promote healing.

For mild sunburns, parents can try the extract of the bark of the witch hazel tree. It’s available in liquid form, ointments, and medicated pads at drugstores. Studies have found witch hazel has a protective effect against damage caused by burns.

For inflammation and bruising, consider recommending arnica cream or gel, which comes from the arnica (montana) flower. “It reduces bruising and swelling, so it’s a good thing to have in your medicine cabinet,” Kilham says.

Experimental studies have shown the herb has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects.5 Clinical trials suggest it may relieve osteoarthritis and reduce postoperative swelling and pain.6 Another study found that topical arnica ointment significantly reduced bruising compared with a placebo or low concentration vitamin K ointments.7

Attention-Deficit Disorder
Although attention-deficit disorder (ADD) isn’t a minor ailment, Kilham recommends using Rhodiola rosea to lessen symptoms. He says parents are concerned about the potentially dangerous long-term side effects of strong drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall. Rhodiola rosea, commonly referred to as golden root or rose root, is an herb that’s sold in capsules, tablets, or liquid for younger children.

“It has the mental-sharpening properties that people want without the gravely toxic and potentially disabling effects of the drugs children are given for ADD,” he says. “It enjoys about 3,000 years of safe traditional use, and there are about 400 human clinical studies on the herb, many of which have to do with its positive effects on mental function. It seems to be one of the single most beneficial things for body and mind.”

While most studies have focused on Rhodiola extract, supplements containing Rhodiola have been shown to improve depression, fatigue, and mental and physical performance.8

Children who are allergic to environmental pollens, such as local grasses, may benefit from eating unprocessed honey made by local bees, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, an anesthesiologist in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

However, parents should never offer honey to babies under the age of 1. According to the Mayo Clinic, wild honey is a potential source of Clostridium botulinum spores, which can cause infant botulism, a rare but serious gastrointestinal condition. Bacteria from the spores can grow and multiply in a baby’s intestines, producing a dangerous toxin.

Another helpful remedy is saline nose spray, which reduces inflammation and irritation caused by the allergic response. Gerbstadt says parents can make the solution themselves by boiling water, letting it cool, and adding 1 tsp of table salt for every quart. Pour it into a small spray bottle, and children can squirt the solution into each nostril.

To fight the common cold, Gerbstadt believes nothing beats good old-fashioned chicken soup, whether homemade or from a can. Research conducted at Nebraska Medical Center suggests that chicken soup contains several substances with medicinal activity, producing a mild anti-inflammatory effect.9

Advise parents not to purchase low sodium chicken broths or soups. Gerbstadt says it’s the salt that helps break up phlegm and reduces inflammation and swelling.

Rashes and Hives
Rashes often are an allergic response or caused by nervousness. For example, a child may be nervous about starting his first day of kindergarten and breaks out in hives.

Gerbstadt suggests placing small children in a bathtub of warm water with 1 cup of Epsom salt; for older children, add 2 cups of Epsom salt. Hot water may release more histamines and exacerbate the rash, making the skin itchier, she says. Cold water, on the other hand, closes the skin’s pores, minimizing the skin’s ability to fully absorb the salt.

Parents also can make a paste to apply to the affected area by mixing 2 T of baking soda and between 1/2 and 1 T of water. Once the child’s skin is no longer itchy, Gerbstadt suggests rubbing unscented lotion or plain petroleum jelly on the skin to keep it moist so it doesn’t crack or break open.

“RDs can encourage proven home remedies that have science behind them,” Gerbstadt explains, adding that many home remedies are the basis for prescription drugs. “Parents want simple cures and treatments for common ailments. They’d like to try something alternative, a home remedy they believe is more safe, less invasive, and less likely to cause problems.”

— Carol Patton is a national award-winning healthcare journalist in Las Vegas. Her articles appear online and in consumer and trade publications.


1. Slippery elm. WholeHealthMD.com website. http://wholehealthmd.com/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=17E09E7CFFF640448FFB0B4FC1B7FEF0&nm=Reference+Library&type=AWHN_Supplements&mod=Supplements&mid=&id=BB3DE1722204446DA2C4BF8E60F60787&tier=2. Last reviewed May 31, 2009. Accessed December 19, 2012.

2. Slippery elm. University of Maryland Medical Center website. http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/slippery-elm-000274.htm. May 2, 2011. Accessed December 19, 2012.

3. Ginger. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center website. http://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/herb/ginger. Last updated October 8, 2012. Accessed December 19, 2012.

4. Herbs at a glance: ginger. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/ginger. Updated April 2012. Accessed December 19, 2012.

5. Koo H, Gomes BP, Rosalen PL, Ambrosano GM, Park YK, Cury JA. In vitro antimicrobial activity of propolis and Arnica montana against oral pathogens. Arch Oral Biol. 2000;45(2):141-148.

6. Knuesel O, Weber M, Suter A. Arnica montana gel in osteoarthritis of the knee: an open, multicenter clinical trial. Adv Ther. 2002;19(5):209-218.

7. Leu S, Havey J, White LE, et al. Accelerated resolution of laser-induced bruising with topical 20% arnica: a rater-blinded randomized controlled trial. Br J Dermatol. 2010;163(3):557-563.

8. Darbinyan V, Aslanyan G, Amroyan E, Gabrielyan E, Malmström C, Panossian A. Clinical trial of Rhodiola rosea L. extract SHR-5 in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. Nord J Psychiatry. 2007;61(5):343-348.

9. Rennard BO, Ertl RF, Gossman GL, Robbins RA, Rennard Sl. Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro. Chest. 2000;118(4):1150-1157.