Congestion is one of the biggest annoyances of being sick. It can make your sinuses feel stuffy and full of pressure or settle in your chest and make it challenging to breathe (or both).
Thankfully, there are numerous herbs containing powerful essential oils and plant compounds that help to open up your airways and decrease feelings of congestion. Many work on both your chest and sinuses and some can even ease a sore throat as well.
The best way to use most of these herbs is in a hot tea, an herbal decongesting steam, or an herbal chest rub (recipes at the end of this post). Some are also helpful as essential oils.
With that in mind, here's a look at the top herbs for congestion that will help you to breathe easier.
Top Herbs for Congestion
Thyme is a powerful, though often overlooked herb, that contains potent plant compounds like thymol and carvacrol. It has been used for centuries both to ward off infection (due to its antimicrobial properties) and as a respiratory aid. (1)
Using thyme as a hot tea or herbal steam can help both coughs and congestion. It also has expectorant properties and is throat-soothing as a tea or syrup.
Peppermint (or Spearmint)
Peppermint is a strong herb with high amounts of menthol, a volatile oil that has pain-relieving properties and gives you a cooling sensation when you consume it or apply it to your skin.
Peppermint is well-known as a digestive aid, but it can also help to open up your airways, especially when used as an essential oil. It has a cooling effect that is also helpful for relieving a headache.
For a similar but gentler herb, try spearmint, especially for children who may prefer its milder nature.
Eucalyptus is one of the most familiar decongesting herbs and is found in many over the counter (OTC) products for congestion. It helps to loosen and expel mucus, making it especially helpful for chest congestion.
Eucalyptus is most often used as an essential oil, but you can also use the leaves to make a tea or herbal steam. As a bonus, it can help with coughing and possesses antimicrobial properties, too. (2)
Oregano is also a powerful antimicrobial herb and has immune-boosting power that may help your body as it fights off infection. You can use oregano as a tea or in an herbal steam, and you can also take oil of oregano capsules for support while you're sick.
Basil is a bit milder than oregano and thyme, but it can still provide some much needed relief, especially for sinus congestion. It's more potent when used fresh but can still be helpful dried if you get it from an herbal store that has dried and stored the leaves properly.
For the most effect, use basil alongside other herbs like thyme, oregano, and eucalyptus in an herbal steam.
Rosemary is high in rosmarinic acid, a compound that has anti-inflammatory properties and may particularly help with sinus congestion and inflammation. It's has also been found effective for certain types of asthma and can help to open your lungs. (4)
Rosemary works well with oregano, thyme, eucalyptus, and many other herbs for congestion. Use in an herbal steam or as an essential oil for the most effect.
Pine and Other Evergreens
You may not think of pine needles as an herb, but they actually have quite a few beneficial properties, including acting as a decongestant! They ease stuffiness and a congested chest, and you can forage them from your own backyard if you have pine trees nearby.
Cypress and fir are two other evergreen needles that can also be used for congestion. They both have expectorant properties and help with coughing, too. Use any variety to make a hot tea or add to an herbal steam. You can also try them in an essential oil blend.
Ginger is a warm, spicy herb that has several benefits when you're sick. It helps to boost circulation, which can be great if you feel cold, has immune-boosting properties, and also acts as a decongesting herb.
For a great cold remedy, make some ginger tea by simmering the fresh root in water. Then, add lemon juice and raw honey for a throat-soothing, spicy tea that fights congestion.
Cinnamon is another warming herb that has a long history of use for coughs, colds, congestion, and sore throats. It naturally improves circulation and also has antiviral and antibacterial properties. (5)
Try combining cinnamon and ginger to make a congestion-relieving tea, or add in cardamom, cloves, and other spices to make a warming herbal chai tea.
Sage has many properties that make it one of the top herbs for congestion. Like rosemary, it contains rosmarinic acid that has an anti-inflammatory effect on inflamed tissues and can soothe a sore throat as a bonus. It also has antimicrobial properties and is often used as a cold and flu fighter. (6)
Sage is known to have a drying effect on the body, which means it can help "dry out" excess mucus. If you are already experiencing dryness, use sage with demulcent herbs like marshmallow root or licorice root.
Mullein is a renowned herb for all kinds of respiratory issues. It's a demulcent herb, which means it soothes and moistens dry or inflamed tissues, and also has expectorant properties (it helps expel mucus).
In addition, mullein is antispasmodic, which means it can calm spasms in the respiratory system, and has long been used for chest congestion, spastic coughing, and many other types of respiratory distress. It can be very effective when used as a tea, but be sure to strain your tea through muslin or a coffee filter to get out the little hairs that can tickle your throat.
Lavender isn't a strong decongestant on its own, but it makes a very good addition to an herbal steam for congestion. It has natural antimicrobial properties that support your body during infection and antispasmodic properties that can help to ease a cough.
Lavender is also very soothing and can simply help you to feel better when you breathe it in. Use it as an herb or essential oil in an herbal steam.
There's no doubt that horseradish has a powerful ability to open up your sinuses. If you've ever taken a large spoonful of this pungent herb, you know this for yourself. It can also help to relieve congestion in your chest and encourages a productive cough while also thinning mucus.
You can simply take a small amount as needed or use horseradish as part of a fire cider recipe.
Licorice root is an excellent complement to other decongesting herbs, especially when used in tea form. It has its own ability to ease congestion and also has demulcent properties that soothe a sore throat and inflamed tissues in your respiratory tract.
In Chinese medicine, licorice is used most frequently in formulas and blends because of its power to enhance the effects of other herbs, although you can use it on its own as well.
How to Make an Herbal Steam
An herbal steam is one of the best remedies for congestion because it allows you to breathe warm steam and the powerful essential oils from herbs into your lungs.
You can make it with dried herbs and/or essential oils, but be aware that essential oils will be much stronger than herbs and may not be suitable for children.
Here's a basic recipe that can be modified to fit whatever herbs/oils you have on hand.
- 1/2 cup dried herbs (oregano, eucalyptus, lavender, etc.)
- 4-6 cups of water
- 4-6 drops of essential oil (optional; lavender, eucalyptus, etc.)
- Large bowl
- Place the herbs in a large bowl. Bring the water to a boil and pour over the herbs. Cover the bowl and let steep 10-15 minutes.
- Place a towel over your head and position your face 5-10 inches over the bowl. Close your eyes, remove the cover from the bowl, and allow the steam to hit your face.
- Breathe in deeply and use the towel to make a "tent" to keep the steam in. Make sure you aren't too close to the bowel (it shouldn't be burning your face) and that you don't open your eyes, especially if you're using essential oils.
- Continue breathing deeply for up to 10 minutes.
DIY Herbal Chest Rub
This is a quick chest rub that you can throw together and apply for some congestion relief. Just be aware that eucalyptus oil isn't considered safe for very young children.
- 1/2 cup coconut oil
- 15 drops eucalyptus essential oil
- 10 drops peppermint essential oil
- 5 drops lavender essential oil
- 5 drops rosemary or basil essential oil
- Mix all the ingredients together and store in a glass jar. Use as needed.
Breathe Easier with Decongesting Herbs
The next time congestion hits, grab whatever herbs from this list you can find and make yourself a decongesting herbal steam, chest rub, or a hot cup of tea.
You can also try taking a warm to hot bath using herbal bath teas to put yourself in one giant "herbal steam" to help relieve congestion, sore muscles, and any other illness-related discomforts.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and should not be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider, herbalist, midwife, or naturopathic physician before taking herbs, supplements, etc. Here's the link to our full disclaimer.