Natural Remedies for Childhood Illnesses

Kids spread germs before you can even say “bless you”, resulting in sickness on repeat and bugs that take out the whole family, not to mention your childcare centre. 

The basics of wellness
The foundations of good immunity are similar to the basic necessities for general wellbeing: Good nutrition, happiness (or freedom from too much stress), enough sleep and a healthy environment that’s warm, dry and safe. 

An easy way to improve children’s immunity with diet is to focus on foods that are nutrient-dense. Simply put, more fruit and vegetables, especially dark coloured and bright coloured foods (blueberries, seaweeds, leafy dark greens, pumpkin, parsley) and more protein (eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, meat, fish). Less “empty” sugary foods or foods made from refined flours, such as biscuits, crackers and pasta.

The other fundamental thing for good immunity is our digestive tract: A healthy immune system starts with a healthy gut. Research shows that giving preschoolers at daycare a probiotic supplement significantly reduced the incidence of all kinds of infection (respiratory, gastric etc) and fewer days off due to illness.

As we all know, prevention is better than cure. If your child seems more prone to infection than most, he might need extra immune support, especially in winter. One of us had a mother who sent all her children to school with a clove of raw garlic strung around their necks! While it did seem to work quite well prevention needn’t be quite so socially awkward or smelly! 

Hearing your small child with a hacking cough can be heart-breaking! These are our tried and true treatments to reduce coughing, heal lung tissue, calm the spasm and reduce the mucus:

  • Chest-rubs are a time-honoured treatment for children. Many wonderful natural chest-rubs are available or make your own using a very weak dilution of the essential oils eucalyptus, manuka or peppermint in a base of olive oil, sweet almond oil or coconut oil.
  • Herbal teas really work wonders for coughs and colds. These can be sweetened with a good anti-bacterial manuka honey. Herbs such as thyme, mullein and hyssop can be given, as can liquorice.
  • Herbal syrups offer wonderful support for coughs. Marshmallow has been shown to be as helpful at reducing the spasm of a cough as codeine (but is much safer and more appropriate!). Thyme, hyssop, elecampane, white horehound and mullein are also useful for coughs. 

Scientific research confirms that the colostrum in breast milk is effective against some of the bugs that cause conjunctivitis, hence the popular advice to squirt breast milk in your baby’s eyes!

Conjunctivitis is really common in small children — about one in eight kids get it — and the distinctive symptom is an eye full of gunk with the lids stuck together. The eye may also be red and inflamed-looking, but is not always painful. Children usually feel quite well other than this, although it can develop on the back of a cold or other infection.

It can be caused by bacteria or viruses, and is differentiated from allergic conjunctivitis because this is more commonly itchy and has a more watery discharge. Conjunctivitis is infectious so hand-washing is key to reducing spread.

Supporting your child’s immune system internally is important but the most crucial treatment is a topical solution to help deal with infection and speed up healing.

We use herbal tinctures or infusions of plants such as golden seal, manuka, calendula and eyebright. These herbs have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties and also help to tone, soothe and heal the membranes. These must be made up into a sterile solution to be used as an eyewash or eye lotion. Colloidal silver applied topically can also be useful. If symptoms get worse or there’s a lack of improvement, always see your GP. 

Tummy bugs
Gastroenteritis, an infection of the gut, is commonly referred to as a “tummy bug” and can also be called “stomach flu”. The bug in question is usually viral (eg, rotovirus, norovirus) but can be bacterial (eg, campylobacter) or parasitic (eg, giardia). The symptoms are commonly painful cramping and griping of the stomach, loss of appetite, diarrhoea and sometimes vomiting. There may also occasionally be fever and chills. The culprit is usually contaminated food or water, or utensils shared with someone who is infected. Children are especially vulnerable to tummy bugs. Gastroenteritis is highly infectious and basic hygiene measures such as scrupulous hand-washing is of utmost importance.

Diarrhoea that lasts more than a week is potentially dangerous, especially for a small toddler, and the most important thing here is the replacement of fluids and electrolytes. In a baby under six months old any diarrhoea should be checked by a doctor. If nappies are not getting wet as often as usual it is important to seek help as little ones can get dehydrated really fast. When in doubt always call Healthline (0800 611 116) for advice or see your GP.

Naturopathically, we find that specific strains of probiotics can help reduce the duration of symptoms, flushing the bug out of the gut faster. We also recommend specific herbal teas that reduce stomach cramping and help move the wind and gas through while also calming your patient down. Given frequently, chamomile and kawakawa are two excellent herbal choices. Koromiko, used herbally or homeopathically, is excellent for reducing diarrhoea and also has anti-microbial properties.

Coconut water is a good electrolyte replacement option. In the recovery phase, probiotics and slippery elm powder are used to get the gut back into good shape. 

The all-too-common cold
There is a myriad of effective home treatments you can administer to help a cold, and it pays to keep kids away from daycare for as long as possible while the cold persists as they are contagious for as long as they have symptoms.

As naturopaths, we know herbal remedies can be very effective in treating a cold — speeding recovery and reducing symptoms. Getting good-quality herbs and giving the correct dose is of utmost importance, so always get good advice before buying. Herbs that directly support immunity include pelargonium, echinacea and andrographis.

Our favourite ways to clear a runny nose and ease breathing are:

  • Inhalations using fresh herbs (thyme or rosemary) or essential oils (eucalyptus, manuka, peppermint) in a bowl of hot water. Your child sits over this with a towel over his head.
  • Vaporiser or oil burner or essential oils in a bowl of warm water in the room. Also, the same oils applied to a hanky and left by a pillow at night.
  • Herbal formulas or teas containing herbs such as ribwort, elderflower or peppermint. 

Allergies and intolerances
One common problem we see in our clinics every day is children with undiagnosed food intolerances that are undermining their immunity. Parents of children who get recurrent illnesses, frequent infections and chronic catarrh often find that no matter how good their diet, and how many supplements they give, their children never really get well until they eliminate the foods that are causing the chaos in the first place. While conventional allergy testing with skin pricks or blood samples will pick up true allergies, sensitivities and intolerances (more insidious but less obvious), will be missed. We strongly recommend Allergenics testing, a process best done with a naturopath, to identify trigger foods. 

The most common worm affecting humans in New Zealand is pinworm, sometimes referred to as threadworm. Pinworm is transmitted only from person to person, contrary to the popular myth that we get it from animals. Worms are very common in children. One report suggested every child will get infected at least once before reaching high school.

Sometimes children have no symptoms but the most common symptom by far is an itchy bottom. The anus and peri-anal area gets itchy from the worms themselves that live in the bowel and come to the surface at night to lay eggs.

Other symptoms are restless sleep, loss of appetite and occasionally teeth-grinding or tummy discomfort.

Kids transfer eggs easily from scratching their bottoms and getting eggs under their fingernails. Good hand-washing is key, as is washing bedding and clothing. Worms can be treated very effectively with specific herbal preparations that include wormwood, black walnut and tannin-rich herbs. Pharmaceutical tablets are also well tolerated and easy to take. We always recommend treating everyone in the family, and following up treatment with a course of probiotics and slippery elm to help heal the gut and replenish good gut bacteria. 

Even reading about nits will probably make your scalp tingle but unfortunately head lice are more than just the power of suggestion and are a very real problem for children, as most will get them at least once. Nits are the eggs laid by the lice and the itchiness is caused not by the critters crawling around but by a reaction to their secretions.

There are many natural oils and shampoos that are extremely effective when combined with a diligent combing regime and a sharp eye! Once the infestation has set in, be sure to check all members of the family daily, and remember that the most common areas are behind the ears, in the fringe and at the nape of the neck.

We cannot emphasise enough how important thorough daily nit-combing is once you know you have nits around. This is more easily done with hair laden with conditioner. Alternatively, essential oils such as rosemary, tea tree, neem, manuka or lemon can be diluted in a base oil (olive oil, sweet almond oil or similar) and left on the hair overnight, then combed and rinsed out in the morning. Once the nits and lice have gone, adding drops of some of these essential oils to shampoo and conditioner can help prevent another bout. 

Chicken pox
Chicken pox is very contagious and shows up with a low-grade fever for two to three days, accompanying lethargy and sometimes a headache or loss of appetite. Alongside these more generalised symptoms is the distinctive pox — the rash that becomes little red spots and then vesicles or blisters that eventually go crusty. As anyone who has had chicken pox will know, these are insanely itchy!

The infection usually lasts about three weeks and a child is potentially infectious for about five days before the spots appear and until all the blisters have scabbed up. Because of this you usually won’t know your child has been in contact with another child who is contagious until he has already been exposed. The infection usually shows itself 10 to 21 days after exposure. If your child starts getting spotty, call anyone who may have been in contact with him in the preceding days and keep your child home until all the blisters are scabbed over. Each spot takes about three days to do this.

You can choose to immunise your children against chicken pox, though it is not yet on the vaccination schedule. Chicken pox is normally very mild, self-limiting and runs its course without any serious consequence (save for perhaps a wee pock mark somewhere on the body). When things do get serious, this is usually due to a secondary infection or inflammatory response. If your child seems especially sick, has a prolonged high fever or severe vomiting, see a doctor. Also see a doctor if any spots appear to be infected.

The most important ways to help your child are to support the fever and to reduce the itch (scratching leads to scarring and also opens up the wounds to possible infection). Supporting the fever includes using herbal teas which encourage sweating, such as yarrow, elderflower, lime flowers, peppermint, ginger and chamomile. These support the immune system while also calming your patient so he feels less scratchy.

The best way to reduce the itch in our experience is to put your child in a bath and use a decent handful of fine rolled oats tied up in a tea towel as a body wash. The oats make a lovely soothing milk which reduces and calms the itch considerably. Baking soda baths can also be very effective. Calamine lotion will reduce inflammation and speed healing, as will chamomile or calendula ointment, chickweed or liquorice creams, lavender oil, hypercal lotion (a mixture of hypericum and calendula) or hypericum oil. Rhubarb root used topically has also been shown to work against the virus.

It’s a good idea to support not just the patient but also the rest of the family’s immune systems when one of you has chicken pox. Vitamin A has specific anti-viral properties and is found naturally in cod liver oil. This is one of our favourite immune support supplements for the winter months as it also contains vitamin D. A good-quality echinacea that makes your tongue tingle is also an excellent ally for our immune systems. Hypericum (St John’s Wort) has specific action against enveloped virus, of which the chicken pox virus is one. 

In conclusion
While prevention is always desirable, the reality is that kids do get sick and, as parents, we are their first and most important healthcare providers. Recognising red flags or danger signs and seeking medical care is our job as parents, and this comes as much from reading up and talking to professionals as it does from knowing our children well.

But understanding how effective home remedies and herbal support can be is good for everyone, garlic or no garlic! The real beauty of naturopathic medicine is that it works with the human body, improving immunity and building robust healthy children.


Asti Renaut and Natasha Berman are naturopaths based respectively in Christchurch and Auckland. They both enjoy working with children of all ages and helping parents find natural solutions to their children’s health needs. More of their advice (and Qbaby products) can be found at and

This blog post first appeared as an article in OH! Baby.  Check it out here.