Herbal Medicine for Children

Herbalists use the leaves, flowers, stems, berries, and roots of plants to prevent, relieve, and treat illness. From a “scientific” perspective, many herbal treatments are considered experimental. The reality is, however, that herbal medicine has a long and respected history. Many familiar medications of the twentieth century were developed from ancient healing traditions that treated health problems with specific plants. Today, science has isolated the medicinal properties of a large number of botanicals, and their healing components have been extracted and analyzed. Many plant components are now synthesized in large laboratories for use in pharmaceutical preparations. For example, vincristine (an antitumor drug), digitalis (a heart regulator), and ephedrine (a bronchodilator used to decrease respiratory congestion) were all originally discovered through research on plants.

The History of Herbal Medicine

The history of herbology is inextricably intertwined with that of modern medicine. Many drugs listed as conventional medications were originally derived from plants. Salicylic acid, a precursor of aspirin, was originally derived from white willow bark and the meadowsweet plant. Cinchona bark is the source of malaria-fighting quinine. Vincristine, used to treat certain types of cancer, comes from periwinkle. The opium poppy yields morphine, codeine, and paregoric, a treatment for diarrhea Laudanum, a tincture of the opium poppy, was the favored tranquilizer in Victorian times. Even today, morphine-the most important alkaloid of the opium poppy-remains the standard against which new synthetic pain relieves are measured.

Prior to the discovery and subsequent synthesis of antibiotics, the herb echinacea (which comes from the plant commonly known as purple coneflower) was one of the most widely prescribed medicines in the United States. For centuries, herbalists prescribed echinacea to fight infection. Today, research confirms that the herb boosts the immune system by stimulating the production of disease-fighting white blood cells.

The use of plants as medicine is older than recorded history. As mute witness to this fact, marshmallow root, hyacinth, and yarrow have been found carefully tucked around the bones of a Stone Age man in Iraq. These three medicinal herbs continue to be used today. Marshmallow root is a demulcent herb, soothing to inflamed or irritated mucous membranes, such as a sore throat or irritated digestive tract. Hyacinth is a diuretic that encourages tissues to give up excess water. Yarrow is a time-honored cold and fever remedy that may once have been used much as aspirin is today.

In 2735 B.C., the Chinese emperor Shen Nung wrote an authoritative treatise on herbs that is still in use today. Shen Nung recommended the use of ma huang (known as ephedra in the Western world), for example, against respiratory distress. Ephedrine, extracted from ephedra, is widely used as a decongestant. You’ll find it in its synthetic form, pseudoephedrine, in many allergy, sinus, and cold-relief medications produced by large pharmaceutical companies.

The records of King Hammurabi of Babylon (c. 1800 B.C.) include instructions for using medicinal plants. Hammurabi prescribed the use of mint for digestive disorders. Modern research has confirmed that peppermint does indeed relieve nausea and vomiting by mildly anesthetizing the lining of the stomach.

The entire Middle East has a rich history of herbal healing. There are texts surviving from the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India that describe and illustrate the use of many medicinal plant products, including castor oil, linseed oil, and white poppies. In the scriptural book of Ezekiel, which dates from the sixth century B.C., we find this admonition regarding plant life: “. . . and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and leaf thereof for medicine.” Egyptian hieroglyphs show physicians of the first and second centuries A.D. treating constipation with senna pods, and using caraway and peppermint to relieve digestive upsets.

Throughout the Middle Ages, home-grown botanicals were the only medicines readily available, and for centuries, no self-respecting household would be without a carefully tended and extensively used herb garden. For the most part, herbal healing lore was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Mother taught daughter; the village herbalist taught a promising apprentice.

By the seventeenth century, the knowledge of herbal medicine was widely disseminated throughout Europe. In 1649, Nicholas Culpeper wrote A Physical Directory, and a few years later produced The English Physician. This respected herbal pharmacopeia was one of the first manuals that the layperson could use for health care, and it is still widely referred to and quoted today. Culpeper had studied at Cambridge University and was meant to become a great doctor, in the academic sense of the word. Instead, he chose to apprentice to an apothecary and eventually set up his own shop. He served the poor people of London and became known as their neighborhood doctor. The herbal he created was meant for the layperson.

The first U.S. Pharmacopeia was published in 1820. This volume included an authoritative listing of herbal drugs, with descriptions of their properties, uses, dosages, and tests of purity. It was periodically revised and became the legal standard for medical compounds in 1906. But as Western medicine evolved from an art to a science in the nineteenth century, information that had at one time been widely available became the domain of comparatively few. Once scientific methods were developed to extract and synthesize the active ingredients in plants, pharmaceutical laboratories took over from providers of medicinal herbs as the producers of drugs. The use of herbs, which for most of history had been mainstream medical practice, began to be considered unscientific, or at least unconventional, and to fall into relative obscurity.


Today, the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, with its reliance on herbal compounds, has been all but forgotten. Most modern physicians rely on the Physician’s Desk Reference, an extensive listing of chemically manufactured drugs. It is important to note that each entry in this enormous volume, in addition to specifying the chemical compound and actions of a particular drug, also includes an extensive list of contraindications and possible side effects.

Rather than using a whole plant, pharmacologists identify, isolate, extract, and synthesize individual components, thus capturing the active properties. This can create problems, however. In addition to active ingredients, plants contain minerals, vitamins, volatile oils, glycosides, alkaloids, bioflavanoids, and other substances that are important in supporting a particular herb’s medicinal properties. These elements also provide an important natural safeguard Isolated or synthesized active compounds can become toxic in relatively small doses; it usually takes a much greater amount of a whole herb, with all of its components, to reach a toxic level. Herbs are medicines, however, and they can have powerful effects. They should not tee taken lightly. The suggestions for herbal treatments in this book are not intended to substitute for consultation with a qualified health care practitioner, but rather to support and assist you in understanding and working with your physician’s advice.

There are over 750,000 plants on earth. Relatively speaking, only a very few of the healing herbs have been studied scientifically. And because modern pharmacology looks for one active ingredient and seeks to isolate it to the exclusion of all the others, most of the research that is done on plants continues to focus on identifying and isolating active ingredients, rather than studying the medicinal properties of whole plants. Herbalists, however, consider that the power of a plant lies in the interaction of all its ingredients. Plants used as medicines offer synergistic interactions between ingredients both known and unknown.

The efficacy of many medicinal plants has been validated by scientists abroad, from Europe to the Orient. Thanks to modern technology, science can now identify some of the specific properties and interactions of botanical constituents. With this scientific documentation, we now know why certain herbs are effective against certain conditions. However, almost all of the current research validating herbal medicine has been done in Germany, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Russia. And for the most part, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for licensing all new drugs (or any substances for which medicinal properties are claimed) for use in the United States, does not recognize or accept findings from across the sea. Doctors and government agencies want to see American scientific studies before recognizing the effectiveness of a plant as medicine. Yet even though substantial research is being done in other countries, drug companies and laboratories in the United States so far have not chosen to put much money or resources into botanical research. The result is that herbal medicine does not have the same place of importance or level of acceptance in this country as it does in other countries.


As of this writing, there is no national licensing or certification for herbalists in the United States. If you wish to locate a qualified herbalist, the best place to start is probably in your local herb shop or health food store. They may be able to refer you to a knowledgeable herbalist who can advise you. If you are unable to locate an herbalist this way, you may wish to contact the Herb Research Foundation, located at 1007 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado 80302 (www.herbs.org) for suggestions.

An herbalist may assess your child’s health needs in a variety of ways. Along with taking your child’s history, methods of observation used by herbalists include pulse and tongue diagnosis, abdominal diagnosis, and iridology, which involves the correlation of minute markings on the iris with specific parts of the body.

After making an evaluation of your child, an herbalist can be expected to suggest individual herbs or herbal combinations known to be beneficial for your child’s particular condition. An herbalist will often recommend herbs or herbal combinations to both strengthen the underlying system or organ and to relieve symptoms. Ask your herbalist when the preparation can be expected to effect an improvement in your child’s condition. When you administer an herbal prescription, observe how the preparation makes your child feel. Promptly report improvement, lack of improvement, or any side effects to your herbalist. If the specified amount of time passes without any change in your child’s symptoms, it is important to report this, too. A change in prescription may be indicated.


The power and potency of the healing herbs are very real. Every herbal treatment suggested in this book has specific healing properties, carefully balanced to create a particular action within your child’s body.

Natural medicines are not like manufactured drugs. Herbal preparations work gently, so they take time to act internally. When you give your child an herbal preparation, begin with a small amount. Watch closely for signs that symptoms are easing. Observe how the preparation makes your child feel. Using herbal treatment requires observation, coupled with good judgment.

Natural herbal preparations are generally well tolerated by children. Most herbs are nontoxic, with few, if any, harmful side effects. However, it is important to know the action and possible side effects of an herb before you give it. Although it is very unusual, some children may show signs of sensitivity to a particular herb. Reactions can include a headache, an upset stomach, or a rash. If your child has a reaction, discontinue use of the herb.

If your child is responding favorably to the herb, but the reaction is too intense, either decrease the dosage or discontinue use of the herb. For example, say your child is constipated and you administer a laxative herb. If your child begins having diarrhea, you have obviously achieved relief of constipation. It’s the right idea, but the reaction is too intense. Use your judgment and discontinue the herb. Likewise, if you are giving an herb with expectorant properties and your child begins coughing up large quantities of mucus, you should consider decreasing the dose so expectoration is manageable.

Herbal treatment is useful for both acute and chronic conditions. It is also valuable in maintaining health and preventing illness. Many of the herbal preparations recommended in this book will help boost the immune response and help arm your child against recurrent infections.

Common Herbs and Herbal Preparations

Herbs are available in a variety of forms, including fresh, dried, in tablets or capsules, or bottled in liquid form. You can buy them individually or in mixtures formulated for specific conditions. Whatever type of product you choose, the quality of an herbal preparation-be it in capsule, tablet, tea, tincture, bath, compress, poultice, or ointment form-is only as good as the quality of the raw herb from which it was made.

Generally, herbs fall into two categories: wild-grown and farm-grown. A wild-grown herb is one that grows naturally, without human intervention. As a result of natural selection, plants tend to be found in places with conditions that optimize their growth. For example, horsetail grows best in moist, swampy areas, while arnica thrives at high altitudes in alpine meadows. The process of gathering herbs from their natural habitats is called wildcrafting.

The disadvantage of wild-grown herbs is that there is no guarantee the plants haven’t been exposed to chemicals and pesticides. Herbs harvested from a meadow, for example, may have been exposed to chemical drift from a crop-dusted farm nearby. Exhaust fumes from passing traffic may have settled invisibly on plants growing near a country road. Water-loving plants, like horsetail, may be rooted in the bank of a polluted stream.

Because of the possibility of contamination, unless you are very sure of the source of wildcrafted herbs, organic herbs grown commercially may be a better choice. Organic farm-grown herbs are becoming increasingly available, as more and more herb farms are being established. With careful management, organic herb farms can provide a steady supply of quality herbs to the consumer.

To produce top-quality products, herb farmers require a great deal of specialized knowledge. For maximum potency, it is important that particular herbs be harvested at the optimum moment. For example, echinacea is gathered in the spring, winter, and fall, but not in summer, when the plant’s energies are concentrated on growth and flowering.

Responsible farmers use compost and organic matter to fertilize and replenish the health of the soil. For obvious reasons, we favor the use of certified organically grown herbs, produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides. As of this writing, not all states have agencies inspecting and certifying organic growers, so to be sure you are getting pure, pesticide-free herbs grown without chemical contamination, check the label for the words “certified organic” before you make a purchase. The name of the certifying agency should be specified on the label. Two reliable organizations that certify organic products are the Organic Growers and Buyers Association and California Certified Organic Farmers. Organic products grown in the states of Washington and Texas should be certified organic by the Department of Agriculture of the relevant state. As of this writing, federal legislation on requirements for labeling a product “organic” has been passed, but is not yet being fully implemented. Once it is, it should be easier to be sure that you are buying a genuine organic product. Hopefully this will take place in the next few years.

The herbal treatments recommended here include teas, baths, compresses, poultices, oils, and ointments. In some instances, you will be starting from scratch and preparing herbal treatments for your child (See Preparing Herbal Treatments). Some of the most commonly used herbal treatments and their applications are reviewed in the following table.

Administering Herbal Treatment

Herbs and prepared herbal compounds are available in different forms, each of which has its own particular characteristics. Your health food store will have individual herbs as well as complex herbal formulations, including raw herbs, tinctures, extracts, capsules, tablets, lozenges, and ointments. Here’s a look at what’s available.


If the label says tincture, the preparation contains alcohol. In a tincture, alcohol is employed to extract and concentrate the active properties of the herb. Alcohol is also a very effective natural preservative. Because a tincture is easily assimilated by the body, it is a very effective way to administer herbal compounds. Tinctures are concentrated and cost-effective. However, the full taste of the herb comes through very strongly in a tincture. Children-and adults, too-may find the taste of some herbs unpleasant. Goldenseal, for example, is bitter-tasting.

Another concern when using tinctures is the presence of the alcohol. If you wish to lessen the amount of alcohol in a tincture before giving it to your child, mix the appropriate dose with one-quarter cup of very hot water. After about five minutes, most of the taste of the alcohol will have evaporated away, and the mixture should be cool enough to drink.


Extracts can be made with alcohol, like tinctures, or the essence of the herb can be leached out with water. When purchasing a liquid extract of an herb, the only way to be certain of the extraction process (alcohol or water) is to read the label. Extracts offer essentially the same advantages and disadvantages that tinctures do. They are the most concentrated form of herbal treatment and therefore the most cost-effective. They are easy to administer, but have a strong herbal taste.

Capsules and Tablets

Capsules and tablets contain a ground or powdered form of raw herb. In general, there seems to be little difference between the two in terms of clinical results. Because finely milled herbs degrade quickly, it is important that herbs be freshly ground and then promptly encapsulated or tabeleted, within twenty-four hours of being powdered. When making your selection, read the label to make sure fresh herbs have been used in the product. With the exception of certain herbal concentrates in capsule form, both capsules and tablets tend to be much less strong and potent than tinctures and extracts.


There are many delicious blends of herbal teas on the shelves of your health food store; they need no introduction here. You’ll find loose herbs ready for steeping, herbal formulations aimed at specific conditions, and convenient pre-bagged teas. Some are just for sipping; some are medicinal. When your child is ill, a comforting cup of herbal tea (medicinal or not) is a wonderful way to give additional liquids.


Herbal-based, nutrient-rich, naturally sweetened lozenges are readily available in most health food shops. You’ll find cold-fighting formulas, natural cough suppressants, some with decongestant properties. Many are boosted with natural vitamin C. Choose lozenges made without refined sugar.

Ointments, Salves, and Rubs

From calendula ointment (for broken skin and wounds) to goldenseal (for infections, rashes, and skin irritations) to aloe vera gel (to cool and speed the healing of minor burns, including sunburn) to heat-producing herbs (for muscle aches and strains), there’s a wealth of topical herbal-based products on the market. Your selection will depend on the condition you are treating.

The Treatment and Care entries in Part Two of this book offer recommendations for herbal treatments for childhood conditions.

When administering herbal treatment, you can follow the same basic suggestions that you would for administering conventional medications. If the taste of an herb is too strong, dilute the appropriate dosage in a little juice or water. Tableted herbs or capsules can be mixed with a spoonful of cream-style cereal or applesauce, or dissolved in sweet fruit juice. For older children, herbal teas can tee sweetened with honey (a child under eighteen months old should never be allowed to take honey because there is a risk of infant botulism, which can be fatal). For an infant, the herbal tea can be mixed with mother’s milk or formula and put into a bottle, an eyedropper, or empty syringe (without the needle), and gently squirted inside the child’s mouth. A nursing mother can also take an adult dose of an herbal remedy, and the effect will be transmitted by her breast milk. For instructions on how to make and use different types of herbal preparations, see Preparing Herbal Treatments. Age-appropriate dosage guidelines for herbal treatments may be found in the beginning of Part Two.

When treating your child with herbal remedies, use your judgment and common sense. The herbal treatments recommended in this book are gentle and have been especially selected for use on children. It is still possible, however, for any herb to cause adverse reactions in some children. If your child develops a rash, a stomachache, a headache, or any other new symptom after treatment with an herbal remedy, discontinue using the herb and consult with your health care provider.

Adverse reactions are unusual if herbal remedies are used in recommended doses. Problems are more likely to occur if an herb is overused-if the dosage is too high or if the herb is given continuously for too long. Chamomile, for example, may cause a child to develop an allergy to ragweed if given on a daily basis for too long; the prolonged use of licorice can lead to high blood pressure. This is why, even if an herb is beneficial for a chronic condition, it is not usually recommended that an herbal remedy be given on an ongoing basis, but rather that it be used for set periods of time, or alternated with another remedy or remedies. When using herbal treatment-as with most other aspects of a healthy life-moderation is the key. If you have any question about the use of a particular herb, consult with a qualified herbalist or health care professional.

Herbal medicine has a long history, and a time-tested, valuable place in the treatment of many common health problems. Because they act gently, herbs are particularly suitable for treating children. When using herbs to treat an illness, often you not only help to alleviate symptoms, but also to address an underlying problem and strengthen the overall functioning of a particular organ or system. Herbs are readily available-they can even be grown in your own back yard. To be sure you are getting the best and purest product possible, however, we recommend that you use certified organically grown herbs. The more you use herbs, the more comfortable you will become with this gentle, effective form of health care.

Common Medicinal Herbs

Any medication, including herbs, can cause an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction can happen with the first exposure, or after your child has taken the medication several times. Symptoms of an allergic reaction can include rash, swelling, itching, and/or difficulty breathing. If you think your child is having an allergic reaction, call your physician. If your child experiences difficulty breathing, take him to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.

Always read package directions carefully to be sure you are giving the preparation properly and in the correct dose. When given in recommended doses, toxicity is unlikely.

Medicinal Use Part of Plant Used How Given Possible Side Effects Comments
Alfalfa Tonic; contains natural fluoride, helpful in preventing tooth decay. Leaf. Tincture; tea; capsule. None known.
Aloe Vera Topically: Pain reliever, excellent for burns, sore nipples, itching of chickenpox. Internally: Relieves stomach inflammation and constipation Pulp from inside leaf. Liquid applied topically to affected area or taken internally. None known. Excellent for increasing the production of breast milk.
American Ginseng Helps strengthen overall constitution; helpful in relieving fatigue or debilitation after an illness. Root. Tincture; tea. Nervousness, insomnia, diarrhea. Topically: Use pulp from inside plant leaf. Internally: Use prepared food-grade liquid.
Bupleurum Liver detoxifier; strengthens immune system; helpful in treating chronic conditions such as allergies, recurring earaches, or runny nose. Root. Tincture; capsule (taken in combination with other herbs). None known. Do not use if a fever is present.
Burdock Blood purifier and cleanser; helpful in treatment of acne. Root. Tincture; tea; capsule; fresh cooked root. Dilated pupils, dry mouth. Most commonly used in combination with other herbs, not by itself. Do not use if fever or other signs of acute infection are present.
Calendula Antiseptic; speeds tissue healing; useful on cuts, blisters, burns, abrasions. Flower. Lotion, cream, or tincture, applied topically to the affected area. None known. Do not use for more than 2 consecutive weeks. Alternate 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off.
Carob Helps to stop/slow diarrhea. Pod and seed. Mix powdered carob with water and drink. None known.
Chamomile Soothes upset stomach; relaxes, induces sleep; helpful for teething. Flower. Tincture; tea; capsule; bath. Allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.
Dill Helps to relieve colic, stomach gas. Leaf. Tea; in soup or vegetables. None known. Do not give to a child who is allergic to ragweed.
Echinacea Antibiotic; boosts immune system. Useful in treating many infections, insect bites, and stings. Root. Tincture; tea; capsule; salve. None known. Increases production of breast milk.
Fennel Helpful for colic, stomachache. Seed. Tea; capsule. In large doses, can cause skin irritation, nausea, vomiting. Long-term use not advised. Best used for 5 days to 1 week at a time. Alternate 1 week on, 1 week off.
Fenugreek Expectorant; helpful in treating sore throat and chest congestion. Seed. Tea; capsule. None known. Do not use during pregnancy.
Flax Soothing to digestive tract; relieves constipation. Seed. Tea; capsule; oil. Agitation, excitement, rapid breathing. May produce unusual body odor. This is only temporary, and not a cause for concern.
Garlic Antibiotic, antiseptic, antiworm. Clove. Fresh whole herb; capsule; liquid. Stomach upset, contact dermatitis, flatulence. Seeds are safe when cooked; leaves can be toxic and are not normally used. May be taken by a breast-feeding mother to relieve infant constipation.
Ginger Aids digestion; relieves congestion; promotes perspiration and relieves fever; soothes achy muscles. Root. Tincture; tea; bath or oil for achy muscles. Diarrhea, nausea. Fresh cloves may be used, but odorless capsule form is more palatable for most children.
Goldenseal Antibiotic; used to treat many infections. Root. Tincture; tea; capsule. Irritation of mouth and throat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea.
Licorice Tonic; soothing to respiratory tract; increases energy. Root. Tincture; tea; capsule. Can lead to high blood pressure with long-term use. Use cautiously in pregnancy. Do not take for more than 1 week to 10 days at a time.
Ma Huang (Ephedra) Decreases nasal and sinus swelling and congestion. Stems, twigs. Tea; capsule. Increased blood pressure and heart rate, anxiety, insomnia. Use cautiously in pregnancy or in the presence of high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid disease, or diabetes. Not advised for children under 12. Best given before 3:00 P.M. to prevent insomnia.
Marshmallow Demulcent, helpful for sore throat and lung congestion. Root. Tea; capsule. None known.
Papaya Aids digestion; relieves indigestion and gas. Fruit, leaf. Fruit eaten raw. Leaf in tea form. Heartburn. Seeds are used in Asia to eradicate parasites.
Parsley Increases urination; helpful in treating bladder infection. Leaf. Tea; capsule. Dizziness, headache, warmth, nausea, vomiting, itching. use with caution during pregnancy. Excessive amounts will stop milk production in nursing mothers.
Peppermint Aids Digestion; relieves nausea; reduces fever; relieves diarrhea, gas, heartburn. Leaf. Tincture; tea; capsule. In large doses, can cause stomach irritation and coldness of the body.
Red Clover Blood Purifier; helpful in treating acne, boils, skin infections; mild sedative. Flower. Tincture; tea; capsule None known.
Rosemary Antispasmodic, stimulating tonic; helpful in treating colds, sore throats, headaches; increases circulation. Leaf. Tea; in soup. Nausea, diarrhea. A strong tea can also be used topically to enhance scalp health and hair growth.
Sage Increases urination; aids digestion; antiseptic; helpful for nasal discharge, sore throat. Leaf. Tincture; tea; capsule; topically on cuts and abrasions. Dry mouth, local irritation. Can also be used as a gargle for sore throats. Do not use during pregnancy. May decrease milk production in nursing mothers.
Skullcap Sedative, nerve tonic. Leaf. Tincture; tea; capsule. Giddiness, irregular heartbeat. Best used in combination with other calmatives. Do not give to a child under 6 years of age.
Slippery Elm Helpful in treating constipation, diarrhea, irritated/inflamed stomach. Bark. Mix powdered bark with water and drink. None known.
Thyme Antiseptic; relieves lung congestion, diarrhea, lack of appetite, colic, flatulence. Leaf. Tea; in soup. In large doses, can cause diarrhea. May be used as a mouthwash.
Yarrow Useful for colds, flu, fever. Leaf. Tea; tincture; capsule. None known. Contains small amounts of bioavailable iron. Extended use may make the skin more sensitive to sunlight.
YellowDock Detoxifier; mild laxative; antiworm; relieves cough and lymphatic congestion. Root. Tincture; tea; capsule. In large doses, can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. Encourages perspiration.

From Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child by Janet Zand, N.D., L.Ac., Robert Rountree, MD, Rachel Walton, RN, ©1994. Published by Avery Publishing, New York. For personal use only; neither the digital nor printed copy may be copied or sold. Reproduced by permission.

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Written by Janet Zand LAc OMD

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