Strange brew: herbal steam for a chest cold and sinus pain

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I’ve had a bad cold for almost a week now. It’s gone through all the classic steps: the sore throat, then the snot factory, then the ghastly “productive cough” that keeps you awake at night, and on top of it all, the lost voice. Oh, the fun! I thought I was almost out of the woods, but then I seem to have hit a cul-de-sac involving the sinuses. Sinus trouble is a new malady for me–I’m just not prone to it–so it’s been a learning experience. My new best friend in this experience is my steaming pot-o-herbs.

Most folks know that you can inhale steam to ease congestion, whether that be in a hot shower, a steam room or by tenting a towel over a bowl of boiling water. What I’m going to talk about here is the bowl technique, tricked up by spiking the water with powerful healing herbs.

My inspiration came from the book by well-known herb expert, Stephen Harrod Buhner called Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria. It’s a slender, informative book profiling the actions of a short list of top antibacterial botanicals, some of which, like ginger and garlic, are quite commonplace. Highly recommended reading.

This is Buehner’s steam for upper-respiratory infections:

Get yourself a big cook pot–stainless, glass or enamel are recommended for working with herbs.

Fill it with a gallon of water

Into the cold water put:

2 oz. dried eucalyptus leaf
1 oz. dried sage
1 oz. dried juniper or crushed juniper berry

Bring to a rolling boil, then take off heat (I kept the pot covered to keep the good stuff in).

No need to transfer the liquid out of the pot into a bowl. Just put a trivet or folded towel on the table and put the pot on it. Lean over the steam with a towel over your head. Breath deep until the steam dies, or you can’t stand it any longer.

Don’t throw out the pot contents. Just put the lid back on when you’re done and heat it up when you need it again. If it seems to be losing potency, throw in another handful of herbs.

I used my pot for a night and a day before it began to look a little tired. It was also completely full of solid matter! At that point I dumped it out in the yard and started a fresh pot.

Alternative herbs:

You may not have all these ingredients, and that’s okay. You could get by with just one–e,g. only juniper. If you have access to fresh material instead of dried, that’s good, if not better. Don’t worry too much about quantity, just toss handfuls in the pot.

You can also use essential oils of the same herbs in the water if you have those on hand. Buhner says 30 drops of each–I think that’s overkill. I’d start with 2 drops of each and see how that works for you.

My first steam contained dried sage and juniper, and a few juniper berries. I had no dried eucalyptus. Eucalyptus has that nice, lung-opening menthol action which is hard to replace. Fortunately, I had some eucalyptus essential oil and would add one drop of it to the water each time I went into the tent. From now on I’m going to be sure to have eucalyptus essential oil on hand at all times.

On steam round two, I wanted to freshen the mix and had no more dried sage or juniper, so I added a big spray of fresh pine (baby cone and all) from the neighbor’s yard. Pine is considered a good substitute for juniper, followed by fir, cedar and spruce–in that order. You might not have a well stocked herb cupboard, but most neighborhoods and parks have evergreen trees. Just make sure you don’t pick the branches of the yew tree (the conifer with thimble-like red berries), because yews are toxic to consume. I don’t know if the steam would harm you, but I wouldn’t fool with it. I don’t know of any other toxic evergreen.

Remember, these particular herbs were chosen because of their strong antibacterial properties. You can also take steams with other healing herbs that may not have quite the power of these, but which have their own benefits. I’d recommend trying lavender, rosemary and mint as more gentle, but pleasing alternatives.

And failing all that, a plain water steam is better than nothing.

The results:

The idea here is that aromatics opened up my poor nose, sinuses and bronchial passages, loosening all that gunk so my body could  send it on its way. Beyond that, I believe the antibacterial steam killed, or at least inhibited, the nasty bacteria it found on the way. I steamed intensively for 24 hours (every 2 to 4 hours, I think–whenever my head hurt I went back to the tent). Today I feel a lot better, so only did a steam in the morning.

When my sinus pain was at its worst, I’d take a washcloth in the tent with me, wet it in the herb water and use it as a compress over my sore face while I was breathing the steam.

The foremost effect of steaming for me was keeping sinus pain at bay–which it did very well. Ibuprofen did nothing. (And I don’t like OTC decongestants, in case you’re wondering) Steam took care of it just fine. The secondary effect is that my nose and chest have cleared up. The third effect is that my facial pores are now remarkably refined. 😉

Tonight I am pain free, snot free, feeling chipper and happily noshing on a cupcake Erik baked I post this.

Leave a comment


  1. I have a neti pot that I use when I’m feeling congested or like I’m starting to have sinus issues. Since I developed high blood pressure, I cannot take OTC decongestants either, and I’m not really sure they helped very much in retrospect. Next time, I might try a drop of eucalyptus oil in my neti pot water. I’ve found the neti pot a great way to prevent the snot from getting too entrenched up in the sinuses and I think that helps prevent infection. It doesn’t sit around and fester into a snotty soup of bacteria. Lovely picture, yes? Glad you’re feeling better.

  2. @Leigh: I don’t have a neti pot, but I do sometimes snuffle salt water up my nose. It’s a mess, but yep, it does work. I might make irrigation the topic of a second post.

    I don’t know if I’d put euc. oil in the neti pot, though. It’s so darn strong, it might burn. I’d maybe do a little time over a steam boil with the euc. oil then proceed to the neti pot.

  3. What is the incantation that goes with this cauldron of your brew? I love the natural approach. But, after hearing for a long time about a bizarre cough remedy, I became desperate for sleep and tried it–rub Vick’s Salve on the soles of the feet and wear socks to bed. When you have not slept for three nights, you will make a deal with the devil and rub poison into your body. Well, I will. Mrs. Homegrown: Since I am allergic to pine/conifers, I am assuming this might cause problems for me. What do you think?

  4. So you’re the one who gave me this cold! I couldn’t figure out where I’d picked it up; never mind you’re in southern California and I’m in northern Oregon!

    The steam treatment sounds like a good one; the only thing I have is the juniper berries. The only thing is that I think clearing the way with the irrigation first and then inhaling the steam might be more effective than the other way around.

    Here is a cough remedy that sounds worse than it is, and works incredibly well- I don’t remember when or where I picked it up, but I’ve used it for years: Boil a chopped whole onion in 1 cup of water until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain out the onion solids, and mix the remaining half cup of liquid with a half cup of honey. Sip it all while its hot. This part is harder to do than it sounds because its very sweet, but it works.

    I have some double bergamot Earl Grey tea- Bergamot is supposed to be antibacterial- I’ll try that with the juniper berries in a steam bowl. The question will be: will it make me want another cup of tea or a martini?

    Feel better soon!

  5. I’ve never tried it with herbs, but I have gotten a lot of relief from just sitting over a steaming pot of water with a towel tented over me. Maybe I’ll try the herbs next time, too!

  6. I was going to mention salt water, but looks like someone else did. It worked great when I had a persistent sinus infection, but didn’t want to chance antibiotics while I was pregnant. I haven’t had a similar infecion since (going on nine years), but I’m sure one has nothing to do with the other :).

    Anyway, I’m all about herbal remedies. Thanks for the book recommendation. I think I’ll try to find a copy.

  7. ” I steamed intensively for 24 hours (every 2 to 4 hours, I think–whenever my head hurt I went back to the tent).”

    Curious: did you boil a fresh gallon every time, or reuse the same batch?

  8. My husband uses usnea in the netti pot when he is having sinus troubles, it is also great for infections in the lungs/chest/respiritory area. If you don’t have all those herbs on hand, or in addition, you can also use a couple drops of tea tree oil in the steaming pot.

  9. I’ve never tried it with herbs, but I have gotten a lot of relief from just sitting over a steaming pot of water with a towel tented over me. Maybe I’ll try the herbs next time, too!

  10. It’s good to know that eucalyptus leaf and other herbal ingredients are available. The steam from a hot water will surely give relief to people who have cough or colds. I love the smell of eucalyptus. It’s so refreshing. Eucalyptus and honey are among the best flu remedies.

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