The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

February 8, 2011

My Favorite Plastic-free Cold Remedies

Hacking cough, running nose, body aches and chills… these are just a few of the souvenirs I brought home from my trip to Florida last week. Fun times. So, anyway, I thought I would recap some of my favorite plastic-free cold remedies.

Vegetarian hot & sour soup in stainless steel tiffin

hot and sour soup in To-Go Ware tiffin

When I have a cold, my favorite treat is Chinese hot and sour soup. Living plastic-free, though, means that I can’t just pick up the phone and order it to be delivered. Lucky for me, Michael is usually on hand and willing to run down the street with our stainless steel tiffin and fill it up for me. We’ve never had any hassle from either Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood — Great Wall or Becky’s Chinese — when we bring our own container, although the staff at Becky’s once tried to put the tiffin in a plastic bag. It’s got a handle. It doesn’t need any bag!

Spicy virgin bloody mary

spicy virgin bloody mary

The alcohol is unnecessary. I just get tomato or vegetable juice in a glass bottle and add a healthy dose of Tabasco or other pepper sauce, also in a glass bottle.

Okay… I just know that someone is going to tell me I can juice my own veggies or tomatoes. So I’ll just say it for you. I could juice my own veggies… if I had a juicer and if I didn’t feel like crap. The thing is… I don’t really drink juice very often… not enough to buy a juicer. I’d rather have whole fruits and vegetables that include all the fiber. So for the few times a year I drink juice, I’m happy buying it in a glass bottle.

Homemade Cough Syrup

homemade cough syrup

Ingredients: cayenne pepper, ground ginger, honey, apple cider vinegar, water. I wrote up the full homemade cough syrup recipe last year. The comments on that post are invaluable and include many other home remedies for coughs and colds, so be sure and click on the link. This particular concoction is very soothing (and surprisingly delicious in a weird way) but it doesn’t really suppress a cough. Still, it feels good going down.

Many people have mentioned slippery elm bark. Well, I went out last year and bought some, but it seems that I may have bought the wrong thing. Mine looks like shredded bark, but all the recipes I find online call for the powder. Is there anything I can do with the kind I purchased?

And one of you (I can’t remember who!) mentioned a recipe for homemade cough lozenges on my Facebook page last year. I’m going to try making them soon and will post the results here. I’m thinking of using honey, lemon juice, and ginger. What do you think? In the meantime, I’ll take my syrup and also drink a lot of…

Tea with honey and lemon

tea with honey and lemon

The tea comes from the Whole Foods bulk bin or from Lhasa Karnak herb shop in Berkeley, where I bring my own containers. I use a metal tea ball to steep it. The honey and lemon juice come in glass jars (or sometimes we get bulk honey in our own jar.) Tracey TieF turned me on to Lakewood organic lemon juice. Of course, I’d prefer fresh lemons, but when you’re sick and desperate and just home from a trip, you use what’s in the house. And I like having the bottled lemon juice on hand.

I do have fresh satsuma tangerines, though.  Yummy and good.

Ceramic neti pot

ceramic neti pot

This thing is wondrous. I rhapsodized about my little blue neti pot in a post last year. Click over to that link to see a photo of me pouring water through my nose and also a video with complete neti pot instructions.

Lots of cloth handkerchiefs

cloth handkerchiefs

Okay, this one is purely hypothetical. I don’t actually have lots of cloth handkerchiefs. I have enough for everyday sniffles but not enough to sop up what’s coming out of my nose at the moment. But they’re on my to-do list. Last year, many of you chided me for breaking down and buying a box of soft tree-killing Kleenex (the first box I’d bought in several years!) and recommended homemade hankies made from old t-shirts. It sounds like a great idea and much softer than the rough recycled toilet paper I’ve been using on my nose this time around. But right now, I don’t have any t-shirts I can cut up. I’ll put a WANTED ad on Freecycle and see if I can get a bunch. OR I could pay one of you crafty people to make some for me. What do you say??? Any Etsy sellers out there?

Natural memory foam pillow

Essencia pillow

The best thing for a cold? BED! And while my mattress is not plastic-free — I purchased it years and years ago — my pillow is. I’ll write more about natural pillows and mattresses in a future post. My pillow is from Essentia and was sent to me to review. And it’s my favorite place to put my head when I don’t feel well.

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9 years ago

We have a coffee grinder that we use for a lot of things, including grinding herbs and spices. So I don’t know about slippery elm bark specifically, but usually you can do it yourself in a grinder…or mortar and pestle if you have one and you’re patient. Personally I love the idea but get frustrated after a couple minutes. I know that’s how everything used to be done (even the carrots/celery/onions etc in Turkish lentil soup, apparently)….

Good Girl Gone Green
11 years ago

Thanks Beth! All great ideas! :)

Melissa Brown
12 years ago

Just got black elderberry syrup by Gaia Herbs and it seems to be helping. And…glass bottle & metal lid!
Also, badger balm has a winter balm that I haven’t tried yet, but all metal.

Kathryn Muffley
12 years ago

I’ve been gargling with 1 part apple cider vinegar, 2 parts water for DECADES at the first sign of a scratchy, sore throat. Read about it in a book in the 70’s. I do it at least 4 times/day, more often sometimes.
Vinegar reduces pH, so the virus can’t reproduce to reach a number big enough to go systemic. The virus starts by taking over a cell, making lots of new viruses, then breaking out (destroying the cell) so more cells can be taken over by all those new viruses. At this stage if I notice a drippy nose, I NEVER blow! That just spreads the virus thru the nasal passage, where those cells will be invaded. Instead sniff it up. Later, if the virus succeeds and I get the cold, I blow.
By noticing early and gargling immediately and frequently, I avoid about 75% of colds. The few that progress to a cold are usually due to: 1) immune system down for various reasons. 2) not starting early enough or being regular in gargling. 3) getting a virus that is from another part of the world so my immune system doesn’t recognize it.
Sometimes I’ll eventually get the cold, but by holding it off for a couple of days it’s much milder and shorter. But more often, I find that vinegar gargling keeps the virus from going systemic and all I’ve had was a sore throat for a few days. It’s totally worth the 30-60 seconds of intensity a few times per day for a few days.

Crafty Green Poet
12 years ago

I’ve got a cold at the moment too. My cure is: the juice of half a squeezed lemon, a good spoonful of honey, some grated ginger root and (optional) whisky. Add boiling water. The left over lemon can then be smoothed over your hands as a nice skin moisturiser or used (when you feel better) to clean surfaces.

I like the idea of handkerchieves made from od t-shirts, excellent!

12 years ago

Best herbal remedy is Gui Zhi Tang in your case. Ask for it in China town and I am sure your herbalist will put it in a glass jar or paper bag for you. I am a herbalist who specialises in Chinese medicine and have moved away from plastic containers to glass jars for my patients herbs. We now have a reward system where patients get $1 off their herbs if they return the jar. Receipes for colds also include rice conjee (porridge) with ginger, eshallots (srping onions) and cinammon with soy to taste. Nice simple and easy to digest. Get well soon. Love your blog.

Sharon Rowe
12 years ago

I happened to inherit several dozen cloth handkerchiefs. I use a few dozen over and over again and still have a large untouched supply.

12 years ago

I’m sorry to hear you’re sick! What’s the recipe for homemade throat lozenges? We go through a lot of those here, my daughter has winter asthma and when she’s coughing at night she often wants a throat lozenge. It seems to calm her down. I’d love to know how to make those myself! They’re ridiculously expensive.

plastic-free citizen
12 years ago

i know you all love DIY around here but i just learned about hanky books and thought i might mention it. they use organic flannel cotton and sew them into ‘books.’ its a great gift idea or for yourself if you’ve felt self-conscious about a crumpled up hanky.

12 years ago

ugh! hope you get well very soon!! thx for this post!

Fonda LaShay
12 years ago


firstly, love the site!

Not sure if you have access to any British TV in Okland.. i know when I lived in OKC i didnt :) but I now live in Norway and we get some good shows from the Brits.

Particularity one called “Grow your own Drugs”. I saw one show and had to download it all to see it all asap! There is also a book he has. But basically, he is a ethnobotnist and makes all his own ‘drug store needs’ like lotions and cough drops. Here is a small review of him, I have his book on order and cant wait to dive into it and start making everything!

12 years ago

I’m so sorry that you’re sick, that totally sucks! I have become a total honey convert in terms of night time cough suppression. I found that the trick was you have to take a full spoonful of honey, and then don’t eat or drink anything afterwards… like it’s the honey coating your throat that makes it work. I hate to think what it did to my teeth, but it sure stopped the cough so I could sleep! I think they’ve actually done studies showing that honey worked better than commercial cougy syrups in children:

I also read somewhere that dark chocolate is supposed to be a natural cough suppressant. I didn’t actually find this one to work, but it sure was a good excuse to pig out on chocolate!

12 years ago

Slippery elm bark makes a fine tea. In the future, you can look for the little paper yellow boxes of Thayer’s slippery elm lozenges (a mainstay for opera singers). I think they also make liquid drops in a glass bottle, but the little box is nice and portable, and has a wax paper liner.

As a singer, what worked best for me was prevention – at the first sign of itchy ears and throat, gargling and neti-pot action with salt water, loads of vitamin C, loads of water, and extra sleep. Caught soon enough, with a pre-sick day off of work, you can avoid the whole mucus-producing cycle of a cold, cough, subsequent bronchitis, etc.

12 years ago

Sleep, tea, honey and lemon (and a good book) are my favorite cold remedies. And that blue netti pot is so cute I would not be so reluctant to use it as I am my ugly white one (it’s just so much work!). I recently made some ginger syrup, and it has been working great as a cough suppressant for my son who’s waking up in the middle of the night coughing (

12 years ago

Re: juicing your own – I know this post is not about juicing but I couldn’t resist to add that there is a better (but more expensive for sure) thing than a juicer, which is a fancy blender like a Vitamix (or other people like one called Blendtec). You can ‘juice’ the whole fruit, and there is no leftover pulp, it is soo good at just pulverising everything and you get all the fiber. And it is great for making homemade almond milk, smoothies, ice cream, hot soups, etc. It is made of plastic, but I reasoned that it would save us from lots of single use plastic non-dairy milk tetrapaks, plastic ice cream containers, plastic smoothie/juice containers, etc, so it was a better alternative in the long run.

Mike Lieberman
12 years ago

Have the cough syrup bookmarked. Never heard of that one before.

Tiffany Norton
12 years ago

You know I also respond to The Word. And I’m healthy! Unbleached organic cotton flannel? Or unbleached organic birdseye? Or rayon made of organic unbleached bamboo (softest!). Your choice. (-:

12 years ago

You’ve got some of my favorites in there too – spicy foods & hot tea.

My best remedy is also plastic-free: denial! Never admit you’ve got a cold, that’s how the cold wins :)


12 years ago

the very best thing for a sore throat is canadian rye whiskey..just saying

12 years ago

I bought 16 handkerchiefs from wallypop

three years ago and although I line dry, they are still extremely soft. I’d never go back to tissues. Thankfully I have enough to tide me over when I’m sick!

Kathy G
12 years ago

The BEST thing to blow your nose on when you have a cold? Old diapers. I kept a dozen when I gave the rest away years ago (all my kids are in their 20s), and they’ve gotten softer with each use. The second best is napkins, but they have to be all-cotton (half of mine are and the rest are a blend.) Much easier to find at the thrift stores than handkerchiefs.

Hope you’re feeling better soon. I’m not even sick,but now you’ve got me craving a Virgin Mary :-)

Melissa @ HerGreenLife
12 years ago

You could probably steep the slippery elm bark that you have and make a tea. Maybe just toss some in with the loose tea you’re already using?

I think my cold is finally on the way out. I used lots of the things you’re using: a vegetarian soup (Asian vegetable dumpling soup), the neti pot, tea with honey.

Funny story on the handkerchiefs/Kleenex subject. My husband got me hooked on handkerchiefs a few years ago (he has a great collection made by his grandmother), but before that, I was always too cheap to buy Kleenex (or a similar product), so I always just used toilet paper.

Somewhere along the way, I did pick up an actual box of Kleenex that I decided to save for sometime when I really had a bad cold and needed something soft and comforting for my nose. That box of Kleenex is still unopened, and I’ve carted it around through 3 or 4 different moves. Maybe it’s time to donate it somewhere!

Beth Terry
12 years ago

Sui, I think I saw your post and your replay to my comment made me try the cough syrup again, but not thinking of it as cough syrup but throat soother. Then I don’t have such high expectations.

And yeah, hot chilis are awesome for a cold. Notice my top 3 are all hot and spicy!

Lisa, THE WORD! But not until you get well yourself. Let’s discuss.

12 years ago

Honey should work on your throat if it is sore because it is naturally antibacterial. Also, gargeling warm salt water will help ease throat symptoms. It causes the water in the bacteria cells to go wonky and they die.

12 years ago

Love all of the home remedies! I know this isn’t politically correct . . . but I bought a stack of hankies at Walmart for less than $1.00 each . . . everyone in the family has their own hankies. I keep one in the car, in my backpack, my camera pack, my purse, my office desk, my bedside, and one in our bathroom. I use old, worn out t-shirts and my water in a glass pump mixed with tea tree oil to disinfect my hands without questionable chemicals. It’s rare that I get a cold . . . I chalk my peak health up to the fact that I eat a vegan diet and walk the beach several times a week. Even though we live less than two blocks from the ocean, I run a humidifier if the humidity gets under 50% and of course, I use my Neti pot if I feel stuffy. ****** I do like the idea of flannel handkerchiefs! Maybe I’ll rob some old flannel pillow cases and get to work . . . And I will be checking out Essentia as our pillows are tired old things that really need replacing. . . . take good care Beth . . .

12 years ago

Great post! Hey… speaking of which. Reminds me of my recent post:

Cayenne syrup is magical. Yay for plastic-free remedies!

Laurie Meyerpeter
12 years ago

Did you know that 10 oz of Owari Satsuma Mandarin juice has as much natural synephrine as an over-the-counter decongestant? That’s according to a recent study by the USDA.

Hope you get better soon. It’s a bad cold/flu that’s going around. It’s seems pretty widespread.

Condo Blues
12 years ago

I got a nasty flu/plague/whatever after a recent trip. I bounced between the courtesy box of tissues and hankies. I have some soft vintage hankies, cute Lundapad hankies but my favorites are flannel. Flannel handkerchiefs are THE BEST on a raw stuffy nose.

I got my second hand serger repaired and can make you a bunch. Just say the word!

12 years ago

Yes, planes and children are petri dishes of germs. So are huggy relatives and doctor’s offices. But if you can’t avoid these things, it’s better to boost YOUR immunity than to rely on the world keeping it’s germs off you. Next time, before traveling, make some elderberry syrup. A teaspoon a day (you can put it in your tea if you don’t like it straight) is a great immune booster. I’ve been taking care of sick kids for three weeks now (they’re too sissified to even TRY the syrup) and have nary a sniffle. I credit my daily dose of sunshine, cod liver oil and elderberry syrup.

12 years ago

Sorry! I accidentally hit the tab and return, and so it submitted my comment before I was done. And then I tried to stop it, couldn’t, and so hit refresh, and made a double-comment.

So sorry!

To finish, not everyone can do everything for themselves, and that’s part of why we humans live in community. And if people chide you for buying bottled juice rather than juicing, they’d probably start scolding you for not growing all your own vegetables once you got a juicer. I mean, really, we can’t all grow the vegetables, and save our seeds from year to year, and make our own sauces, juices, etc., and grow and grind our own wheat to make flour, then make our own pastas, etc. You get the idea. Some division of labor is a really good thing.

12 years ago

Really? People would chide you for buying juice rather than buying a juicer and veggies?

First off, last I checked, almost every kitchen appliance has some plastic parts, and/or comes wrapped in some plastic packaging.

Secondly, I really hope not. That sort of holier-than-thou attitude is a really sick thing among environmentalists. For the most part, we’re all doing the best we can with what we have from where we are.

(warning: all caps ahead, but it’s for emphasis, because it’s my most important point, I think)


12 years ago

Really? People would chide you for buying juice rather than buying a juicer and veggies?

First off, last I checked, almost every kitchen appliance has some plastic parts, and/or comes wrapped in some plastic packaging.

Secondly, I really hope not. That sort of holier-than-thou attitude is a really sick thing among environmentalists. For the most part, we’re all doing the best we can with what we have from where we are.

(warning: all caps ahead, but it’s for emphasis, because it’s my most important point, I think)


12 years ago

I confess that when I’m REALLY not feeling well and have massive runny nose, I use whatever clothes I wore the day before as tissues. They go into the wash anyway! Yes, I realize that probably grossed out a bunch of people, but it worked just fine.

12 years ago

I’m so sorry you’re sick. I seemed to get sick every time I traveled (including my honeymoon, yay!) until my sister started me using Airborne. Does anybody know of a plastic-free alternative?

Head colds are the one time I resort to Kleenex. I just don’t have that volume of handkerchiefs! And who wants extra laundry when you’re sick?

Take it easy. I really do think rest and fluids are the best medicine. And I am jealous that you have veg hot and sour soup in walking distance. I don’t even know if it exists in my city!

12 years ago

sorry about your cold, planes are like giant petri dishes (so are children). the last time I went on a plane, I got sick too.

I have dedicated cloth napkins I use for kandkerchiefs. they’re not as soft as I’d like, but they’re thick which is a nice quality for a handkerchief. they’re also very large and could technically be cut into 4, but I just use them as is.

for your tree bark, you could try a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder (try a coffee grinder if you don’t have one). I’ve been trying to figure out how to grind my own spices well and haven’t actually tried any of these options yet, but it’s what everyone suggested when I looked it up. I used a grater for cloves in a pinch, but it was not fun (nor very effective)!

the juicers are fun and you could probably get one pretty cheap at a yard sale or thrift store, but they are just another gadget that you have to store that will hardly ever get used. when you’re feeling better, if you ever want to make veggie juice, you could try a food processor and a fine strainer, it’s not as instant or mess-free but I think it could work. I wonder if the juicers would work for things like almond milk? or the opposite, would the soy milk makers work for veggie juice?

hope you feel better soon.

12 years ago

I have an old pair of flannel pajama pants that ripped so bad that patches don’t work anymore. I will make those into hankies. T-shirts are also great. My mom sews so she always has scraps of flannel around to make me hankies out of. I feel like there’s no such thing as having too many, especially because I don’t have a washer and don’t do laundry often.

Christy Buboltz
12 years ago

While I do my best to reduce waste, reuse and repurpose whatever I can. I have to admit that when I have a bad cold, sometimes I do just want to use Kleenex. Its soft, and I am happy to just toss the germs away. I like the old t-shit hankies idea…very nice. I don’t even think you would need to sew them. You cut the shirts up and there you go!