How the Immune System Gets Stronger

This time of year, little ones are more susceptible to colds and flu. It’s tough to see children sick.

“For me, as a mom, I just don’t like my little girl sick. The sight of her runny nose, and hearing congestion in her lungs makes me a little sad. But then I remember that it is OK for our babies/children to get sick. It actually makes them stronger, and builds better immune systems.”  – S.O., Mom of 6 year-old

Is that really true?  Yes. And the positive impact is much greater than you might think.

A 2016 study by UCLA and the University of Arizona showed that “the first influenza attack a child suffers can affect the way their lifelong immunity to the virus builds up.” Specifically, exposure to a wild influenza virus (meaning infection, not immunization by vaccine) provided “75% protection against severe infection and 80% protection against death for related flu viruses.”

How we treat our colds and flu viruses matters too. Instead of suppressing symptoms, support the body so that it can learn from the infection and get stronger.

Safe Baby Healthy Child ChildLife First Defense Immune Support

To find out the powerful, natural, health-enhancing ways to do this, we offer the wisdom of a studied herbalist, Maria Muscarella. This is one post you will definitely want to keep at the ready.

The Immune System of a Child

As parents, we all want our children to be healthy. We do all that we can to keep them well fed, warm and thriving. Yet, one of our children’s ‘duties’ during childhood is to get ‘ill’ enough to build a strong immune system. During childhood, the immune system begins to develop a system to recognize its ‘self’ versus ‘other’. Our immune system learns to protect and defend the body from disease producing organisms. The majority of these illnesses come during the fall and winter months, when children play inside most of the day. In addition, many cold viruses thrive in low humidity. Thus, the dry air during the fall and winter months makes the nasal passages drier and more vulnerable to infection.

Most Common Winter Ailments
The common cold is generally caused by a virus and lasts only a few days.  Gentle support and love may be all that is needed for our children. Sometimes, colds can be accompanied by a cough, sore throat, decreased appetite, irritability, stuffy or runny nose and can progress to an earache, sinusitis, bronchitis, laryngitis or pneumonia.

So, what happens?
We are exposed to an infectious agent through the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, eyes or skin. Generally it is a virus, transmitted through airborne droplets, carried on hands or on clothing. The virus enters the body and pierces the cells of the mucous membranes that line the eyes, nose, or throat. The virus uses the body’s cells to replicate. Blood brings White Blood Cells (WBC’s) to the infected area to get rid of the virus. This influx of blood and WBC’s causes swelling and increases fluid secretions (“runny nose”). This inflammation and increased mucous can lead to a cough, sore throat, nasal and chest congestion, fever and other symptoms in response to the ‘invader’.

Building a Strong, Active Immune System

So, what can we do to help our children build a strong, active immune system?

Healthy Diets! This is one of the hardest things to define, as there are so many beliefs as to what constitutes a healthy diet. However, whatever your food beliefs, it has been shown that sugar can decrease the effectiveness of the immune response by up to 50%! It also increases the risk for behavioral issues, diabetes, obesity and many more health issues. Let’s get the kids off of the sugar!! This is much easier said than done, I know. Kids can be such picky eaters. But, they will learn by experience if we set a good example for them.

  • Increase veggie and fruit intake as well as foods with Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) (nuts, seeds and fish), decrease dairy, refined and processed foods and increase local/organic foods.
  • As 70% of our immune system is in our digestive system, it’s extremely important that we keep our digestion healthy and feed ourselves good foods! Go for lots of colorful whole foods.
  • Vitamin D. In the winter, we don’t get outside as much so our bodies don’t make as much Vitamin D. Vitamin D is very important in the immune system, so get the kids out to play as much as possible.

Exercise! We all know that kids spend far too much time indoors these days! Let’s get them outside, running around. Again, we need to set the example. If we are spending all of our ‘down time’ in front of the TV or computer, so will our kids. Get outside in the fresh air and take a hike, go for a picnic, play ball.

Have you heard of the “Hygiene Hypothesis”? The basic gist of this is that some of us are living in a world that is too clean. Children who live in a super clean house, using anti-bacterial everything, with no animals and not playing outside are more likely to develop allergies, asthma and autoimmune disorders. Kids need to have the chance to get dirty in order to build a stronger immune system. The immune system needs to be stimulated in order to work properly. It is OK for our kids to get sick. It may be inconvenient for us and our schedules, but giving our children permission to be sick and allowing them the time to heal helps them build a strong/healthy/active immune system. Ditch the “antibacterial” products. All we are doing is over-exposing ourselves to antibiotics and building more resistant bugs that we can’t defend ourselves against because our immune systems aren’t up to par. Besides, most colds and flus are viral – not bacterial.

Herbal support. Through syrups, baths, salves, teas, steams, tinctures, glycerites, herbal popsicles, powders, etc. A general rule for dosing children’s herbal remedies: divide the child’s weight by 150 (the average adult weight) and get the fraction of the dose to be administered. Example: for a 30 pound child, 30/150 is 1/5th of the adult dose.

Maintaining healthy cell membranes. Essential Fatty Acids: Fat makes up the cell membrane, so feeding the body healthy fats keeps the cells working most efficiently. My daughter loves to take her oils in the morning and reminds me if we’ve forgotten.

A Note From Safe Baby Healthy Child

Nutrients like Vitamin C, Vitamin D and Zinc are all intimately involved and necessary on a daily basis to keep your child’s immune system working at full potential. The physical foundation and basis of every child’s health, growth and development is made by receiving the correct amount of all the established “essential nutrients” on a daily basis.  When we support the immune system correctly on an ongoing basis, it will work for us when we need it most.  Find out more about daily maintenance “Why Our Children Need Supplements and Immune Boosting Support.”  Or, boost your child’s immune system now with the highest quality children’s supplements: Vitamin C, Cod Liver Oil, Echinacea, Probiotics with Colostrum, First Defense and Aller-Care.

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Natural Remedies for the Common Cold

So, how do we support the immune system while decreasing the bothersome symptoms?

At the first sign of a cold:

  • Increase fluid intake. Decrease sugar, dairy, wheat and oranges: they produce mucous in the body.
  • Pumpkin seeds! Eat ’em up! They are high in zinc which can help decrease viral infection at the onset.
  • Berries and Sour Fruits! High in Vitamin C and bioflavonoids, these fruits can aid in the immune response.
  • Garlic is a great antiviral food. Add it to your meals raw or lightly cooked.
  • Thyme is another great antiviral spice that you can give as a tea or add to your food.

Garlic Lemonade
Finely mince three cloves of fresh garlic and place them into a one-quart mason jar.
Fill the jar with boiling water and cover for 30 minutes.
Strain garlic and add the juice of one whole lemon to the liquid.
Sweeten with honey or maple syrup and serve.
Ginger and Cinnamon would also be a nice warming and blood-moving addition to this drink if you so desire.

Onion Syrup
You will need 1 medium onion, sliced and 1-2 cups of raw sugar.
Layer onion slices and sugar in a glass jar until full. Let sit in a cool place for 1 to 2 days while the sugar dissolves. Strain out the onion, bottle the infused honey, and keep in the refrigerator. Use 1/2 to 1 tsp, 3 times a day for cough, congestions, and oncoming cold symptoms. (I know this has sugar in it, but it is a fantastic recipe and not something you would use all the time or long term.) 

Elderberry Syrup
3 cups fresh elderberries or 1 cup dried berries (Sambucus nigra)
3 cups filtered water
1 1/2 cups honey (or less)
1 ounce fresh ginger root, grated
Juice of 1 lime
1 ounce Echinacea tincture (optional) (Echinacea purpurea)

1. Combine berries, ginger and water in a stainless steel or glass pot. Heat on medium until simmering.
2. Continue to gently simmer uncovered until reduced in volume by half.
3. Remove from heat. Strain well through cheesecloth, squeezing the juice from the berries. Allow the liquid to cool slightly.
4. Measure liquid and combine with equal parts honey (or less; equal parts of honey may be too sweet for you).
5. Add all the lime juice.
6. When cooled completely, add Echinacea tincture.
7. Pour into glass jar, label with date and store in the refrigerator for up to a year.

Take one tablespoon twice daily (adult dose) during the cold and flu season. For children ages 2-5, one teaspoon twice a day. Dose for ages 6-12 is two teaspoons twice daily. Nursing mothers can take one tablespoon 5 minutes before nursing to pass the benefits along to the baby.

Other Herbs

Echinacea Tincture or Glycerite. One drop per 2 pounds of body weight every three hours during the first signs of a cold.

Licorice (Glyzyrrhiza glabra) Root Sticks. Have your child suck on the licorice stick, or make a tea with it. It is a wonderful antiviral as well as immune supporting and soothing to the inflamed tissues.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus). Add it to soups or teas. Another great immune system supporting herb. 

Natural Remedies for a Cough

A cough is an effort by the body to rid itself of mucous and/or pathogens. It is not always beneficial to suppress a cough because you want the mucous to move up and out. But, if it is causing decreased sleep or irritation, you may need to soothe the cough.

Kitchen Remedies

  • Sage Tea calms a cough
  • Thyme and Anise Seed make a great tea for a wet, productive cough to help move the mucous out. 1/2 tsp. each in 2 cups of boiling water. Steep 20 minutes. Kids can drink up to 1 cup, 3 times a day.
  • Onion Syrup (See Above Recipe)
  • Prop the head up on pillow if the cough is worse at night. This will help the mucous drain more effectively.

Other Herbs

  • Licorice Sticks (See Above Recipe), Plantain Leaf (Plantago major, P. minor), Mullein leaf and flower (Verbascum Thapsus) and Marshmallow Root (Althea officinalis) are wonderful for a dry cough.
  • Elecampane Root (Inula helenium), Wild Cherry Bark (Prunus serotina) and Hyssop leaf (Hyssopus oficinalis) are wonderful for a wet cough.

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Natural Remedies for a Sore Throat

Viruses cause 90% of sore throats.

Kitchen Remedies

  • Onion Syrup (See Above Recipe)
  • Carrots are cooling and soothing to a sore throat. They also help decrease inflammation in the throat and swollen glands. Grate 2 large carrots, spread them on a flannel cloth and wrap it around the neck. Fasten the cloth in the back so it remains on. Cover all with a warm or cold towel (which ever feels better at the time) and leave on for 30 minutes.
  • Thyme and Anise Seed Tea (See Above Recipe)
  • Cloves in Warm Apple Juice. A nice pain reliever: 8 cloves in 1 quart of juice, sip as needed.

Other Herbs

  • Licorice (See Above Recipe)
  • Usnea (Usnea spp.) Both a wonderful antiviral and antibacterial used specifically for respiratory infections.
  • Calendula (Calendula officinalis) Flower tea or tincture is soothing, antiviral, healing, and helps move the lymph.
  • Slippery Elm (Ulmus spp.) Bark as a powder or in lozenge form is very soothing to a sore throat and cough.
  • Plantain Leaf tea helps to soothe and coat the throat.

Natural Remedies for Congestion

Congestion can be in the upper (nose and throat) or lower (lungs) respiratory system, resulting from the increased mucous production and inflammation. Use similar remedies as for a wet cough to help break up the mucous and move it out of the body.

Kitchen Remedies

  • Onion Syrup (See Above Recipe)
  • Thyme/Anise Tea (See Above Recipe)
  • Horseradish or wasabi and ginger. If your little ones happen to like sushi like mine does, make some sushi with ginger and wasabi to help break up the respiratory congestion.
  • Fennel Tea. 1 teaspoon per cup of boiling water, steep 20 minutes and give 1/4 to 1/2 cup 3 times a day to help break up mucous.
  • Cut out dairy and citrus fruits. Both can be very mucous producing.

Other Herbs

  • Horehound herb (Marrubium vulgare), Hyssop leaf and Licorice Root are wonderful aids to clearing respiratory congestions.
  • Wild Cherry Bark.  Not necessarily a decongestant, but it helps to dilate the bronchioles to increase mucous movement and aid in breathing.

Congestion that gets stuck in the sinuses can lead to sinusitis. When the mucous can’t move, the air in the sinus cavity can get reabsorbed into the bloodstream creating a vacuum in the sinus cavity. This leads to sinus pain. This blocked sinus cavity becomes a perfect breeding ground for bacteria which leads to increased pain, pus and pressure. Some children may have chronic sinusitis resulting from allergies that cause constant nasal congestion.

Kitchen Remedies

  • Cut an onion in half and blanch it in boiling water for 30 seconds. Wrap the onion in a thin cloth and hold it up to the aching sinus (be sure it is not too hot on the skin) for ~15 minutes. The sulfur compounds in the onions help to break up the congestion and get the mucous moving out.

Other Herbs

  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis). 20 drops in 1/2 cup of warm water can be used to irrigate the nasal passages after breaking up the congestion with an onion.

Natural Remedies for Earaches and Ear Infections: Baby and Child

The #1 reason kids visit the doctor is earaches and ear infections. Sinus congestion can lead to blockage in the ear canals resulting in an earache and possibly infection. Ear canals in children aren’t fully formed until ~3-4 years old, so they do not drain as well. This causes stagnant mucus which breeds bacteria. The best remedy is Garlic Oil!! This is wonderful remedy by itself, but is even better with Mullein flowers and St. John’s Wort flowers.

Garlic Ear Oil
One whole bulb of garlic, chopped
1 oz Mullein flowers (Verbascum thapsus)
1 oz St. John’s Wort flowers (Hypericum perforatum, H. punctatum)
1 pint olive oil

Place all ingredients in a glass jar and infuse in a warm place for 7 days. Strain and bottle the oil. If you can’t wait for 7 days to make the oil, place all the ingredients in a pot over low flame and gently heat for 30 minutes. Then strain and bottle.

To use it: Warm the oil by placing the bottle in a warm water bath. Drop 5 warm oil drops in each ear placing a cotton ball in the ear after the oil. Use 4-6 times a day until symptoms resolve. If symptoms have not decreased or disappeared within 5 days of use, see your healthcare practitioner.

**Do not use the oil if there are signs of ear drum rupture (drainage, bleeding, decreased hearing or severe pain).

Blanched onion to the ear can also help break up and pull out the congestion.

Natural Remedies for Fever

Let’s not forget – fever is not the illness. It is a sign that the body is working to get rid of an illness. It is the body’s way of making itself an inhospitable host for the microbe.

How high you let a fever get is up to your comfort level. Most children run hot and tend to get high fever even though they may not show other symptoms. If you are comfortable nurturing your child through a fever, it is ok to let it run its course (usually 2-3 days) as long as the child stays hydrated and is not extremely uncomfortable.

If you need to bring a fever down …

Kitchen Remedies

  • Potatoes! Grated potatoes placed on the soles of the feet will pull the fever down. Grate a potato and place it on the feet, then wrap the feet in a cloth to help keep the gratings on the skin.
  • Egg Whites used as you would potatoes will also draw the fever down.

Other Herbs

  • Catnip herb (Nepeta cataria), Elder Flower (Sambucus nigra), Mint leaves (Mentha spp.), Lemon Balm leaves (Melissa officinalis), Chamomile flower (Matricaria recutita), Yarrow flower, (Achillea millefolium). All of these herbs are wonderful fever reducers in the form of a tea, tincture or glycerite.
    • Tea: 1 ounce mix of fever herbs in one cup of boiling water. Steep 20 minutes and give 1/4 cup as needed.
    • Tincture or glycerite: give as directed on the bottle.
    • Some kids may get nauseous or vomit with fevers. Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) and Ginger can help with these symptoms. It is best to give these as a tincture or glycerite as the tea may not stay down.

Natural Remedies for Diarrhea

  • Keep your child well hydrated! Use of electrolyte drinks, such as tea with maple syrup, is recommended as children may be losing electrolytes with diarrhea.
  • Blackberry leaf/root tea or tincture can be very effective in tightening the bowel mucosa and keeping in the fluids. One ounce of leaf or root in 1 cup of boiling water. Steep for 20 minutes and give 1/4 to 1/2 cup of tea 3-4 times a day.

Natural Remedies for Influenza

The influenza virus causes similar, but more severe symptoms than the common cold. Along with high fever, possible sore throat and coughing there may also be a headache, exhaustion and body aches.

Support the immune system! If you know that the flu is going around your school, play groups, or place of work, keep your immune system strong by using your Elderberry syrup and Garlic! Both are strong antivirals. Elderberry has an enzyme that ‘melts’ the hemagglutinin receptor binding site on viruses so that they can’t infect the host cell and replicate!

At the first sign of symptoms support the immune system and give Vitamin C, First Defense and Colostrum.  See “Best Ways to Outsmart Cold and Flu Bugs.”

With any illnesses, if you are uncomfortable with your child’s condition or feel that it has passed beyond your scope of knowledge, never hesitate to call your doctor or herbalist! The most important thing is keeping them strong and healthy and you are to be commended for taking your family’s health into your own hands!

Winter Tonic Soup

  • 2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
  • Handful of Sea Veggies
  • 2 Pieces of Astragalus Root (Astragalus membranaceus)
  • 1 Burdock Root (Arctium lappa)
  • Ginger: 1 inch piece, peeled and chopped
  • Garlic: 4 cloves, chopped
  • Onion: 1 chopped.

Combine all ingredients and at a low simmer for 1 hour. Remove from the stove and add 2-4 Tbsp. Miso (to taste). Freezes well!



When the adult dose is one teacupful:

< one year old ……………2 teaspoons 1 – 3 years………………… 3 teaspoons 3 – 6 years………………… 1 tablespoon 6 – 9 years………………… 2 tablespoons 9 – 12 years………………. 3 tablespoons 12 – 15 years…………….. 4 tablespoons 15 – 18 years…………….. 5 tablespoons > 18 years …………………adult dose

When the adult dose is one teaspoon or 60 drops:

< 3 months………………. 2 drops 3 – 6 months…………….. 3 drops 6 – 9 months…………….. 4 drops 9 – 12 months…………… 5 drops 12 – 18 months ………….7 drops 18 – 24 months ………….8 drops 2 – 3 years……………… 10 drops 3 – 4 years……………….12 drops 4 – 6 years……………….15 drops 6 – 9 years……………….24 drops 9 – 12 years……………..30 drops 12 – 15 years …………..38 drops 15 – 18 years………….. 45 drops > 18 years ……………adult dose

Herbs and Infants and Maximizing Their Effectiveness

As for herbs for infants, I believe that any age is appropriate, but the dosage would vary greatly. Also, if the mother is breastfeeding, she can take the herbs and they will pass to the baby through her milk. Simply take the herbs 15 minutes prior to feeding.

One of the biggest issues I see with parents using herbs for their kids is that they don’t dose correctly and often they don’t use enough. I also have noticed that parents choose the wrong herbs for the child’s condition. Then the herbs don’t help and the condition gets worse and they end up going to the doctor. I always recommend that parents work with an herbalist when using herbs with their kids. A good place to find an herbalist is on the American Herbalists Guild website.

About Maria Muscarella

Maria Muscarella has pursued her passion studying and teaching herbal medicine and medicine-making for over 10 years. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1997 with a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing and studied Midwifery in Ireland. Having studied with Aviva Romm, Peggy Ellis and numerous other herbalists, Maria combines her medical knowledge with her eclectic herbal studies to offer a holistic view of health and healing. She is an active member of the United Plant Savers, the North Carolina Chapter of The American Herbalists Guild, and is the founder of Full Circle Herbs Company. Maria offers clinical herbal consultations and co-manages the Apothecary at Viriditas. She also spends time teaching at Asheville Buncombe Technical College and is part of the core faculty at the Mountain Spirit School of Herbalism. A strong believer in sustainable living and community healing, Maria runs her homestead, with her husband and young daughter, on 25 wooded acres just outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted in January 2008 and has been reviewed and updated for accuracy and completeness by Dr. Murray Clarke, ND., D.Hom., L.Ac.

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