Disclaimer: The Nature Wheel blog is purely for educational purposes about historic uses for plants and should not be considered as medical advice. I am not a medical professional, and am not affiliated with any of the products or product links provided. Always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional regarding any medical or health related diagnosis or treatment options
Friends in the Northern California area are rightfully concerned about air quality while so much around them is burning. Lung irritation is a given with so much smoke and particulates surrounding their communities.
When I consider which plants have been used historically to support healthy airways, I first think about what would be most accessible to the most people. There are a multitude of plants that can support us in almost any given situation, but not everyone is a wildcrafter and not every area has the same offerings. If society is in tact enough to pick up goods locally, this post has some choices that are easy to find at most grocery stores, save one local (to me) business offering that I am going to highlight that would require an online order to purchase.
I listened to a fantastic climate change podcast recently by Commonwealth Herbs called The Holistic Herbalism Podcast. They did a great job breaking down how to think about supporting the body in times of smoke exposures with 1) Steam, 2) Demulcents, 3) Expectorants, 4) Relaxants, 5) Nervines, and 6) Adaptogens.
Out of these categories, the following list of products are what I personally would try to keep on hand for my family.
When we think about fires we have to consider that we are being exposed to something dry and hot, laced with industrial chemicals, that is going to irritate the respiratory tract. One way to support our bodies is to provide the opposite in the form of plants or other supports that are cooling and moisturizing.
Steam or a cool mist humidifer is a natural option to consider. Whether in the shower or in a stove pot with an herb offering additional benefits, steam is your friend. For the stovetop option, I suggest trying to use chamomile for its soothing, healing and relaxing properties, steeped with a lid over the pot. Careful not to burn yourself, lift the lid of the pot and drape a small towel over your head and breathe in this herb’s soothing goodness. Chamomile is a powerhouse in disguise and offers its medicine in such a gentle way. A steam inhalation like this can act as a relaxant, that moisturizes (with the steam) and soothes (with the chamomile) irritated lungs. Bonus is that chamomile also makes a lovely facial steam, so you’ll be throwing in a little skin care at the same time. After you feel like you’ve gotten the benefits of moisturizing from the steam, you can either add the strained tea to ice water to drink throughout the day or add it to bathwater for a relaxing soak. Lavender is another easily accessible and soothing herb that could be added to this steam.
Demulcent herbs are great at hydrating and restoring moisture to the mucous membranes, something necessary in times of smoke exposure. The ones that come to mind for me are marshmallow and aloe. A great store bought option is Throat Coat Tea by Traditional Medicinals, which includes demulcents like marshmallow root, slippery elm, licorice root, fennel, cinnamon, as well as expectorants like wild cherry bark. Also when thinking of demulcents, don’t forget honey and the option of eating foods like okra or oatmeal, which both offer soothing moisture. And finally, that life giving demulcent we call water – remember to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Wild cherry bark is mentioned above as an expectorant, but mullein leaf is also a fantastic option as an expectorant and relaxant. This is a plant that grows almost everywhere. Familiarize yourself with its characteristics, and confirm with someone trusted before wildcrafting anything.
Licorice, fennel, mullein and chamomile are all relaxing herbs to consider, and the first two can be found in Throat Coat Tea.
While not specific to the lungs, nervines can help with overall feelings of stress and anxiety from being on high alert in a dangerous situation, and easing that tension can effect the way we inhale and exhale. Chamomile is a great choice and can also offer comfort to our stressed out pets. Motherwort is also a favorite of mine when I am anxious or fearful, especially at night. Additionally passionflower is another option. If you have a favorite nervine that works for you, now is a great time to use it.
Consider Reishi when trying to improve oxygen intake. Reishi has been reported to improve blood flow and to be effective at oxygenating the blood. It’s even been shown useful in alleviating altitude sickness and improving mitochondrial function. Reishi’s antioxidants help reduce oxidative stress in the mitochondria by neutralizing the buildup of free radicals in the body. 
A blend that I really like is called Breathe Well by Texas Medicinals. It combines Reishi along with other supportive herbs in a tincture form that would be easy to bring along in a go bag.
Last but not least, it is always important to nourish organs of elimination in times of distress and in toxic environments. Supplements like milk thistle or dandelion tea can offer support to the liver and Nettle tea can support the kidneys (but note that Nettle can be drying if taken alone, and we are going for moisturizing in this circumstance. Consider mixing nettle with other demulcent herbs).
NAC can be found in many grocery stores, and is another supplement I would consider keeping on hand. “NAC can relieve symptoms of respiratory conditions by acting as an antioxidant and expectorant, loosening mucus in your air passageways. As an antioxidant, NAC helps replenish glutathione levels in your lungs and reduces inflammation in your bronchial tubes and lung tissue.” 
At the end of the day, probably the very best thing you can do is invest in a high quality air filter and keep one room of your house as your “clean air room” where you sleep or spend most of your time. Austin Air makes healthgrade purifiers that, while quite expensive, have filters that last five years under normal circumstances. There are also DIY options that combine HVAC filters with box fans if more expensive filters are not an option.
I am sending so much compassion to everyone effected by these fires. If you need individualized support, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about the personal consultations that I offer.
Consider taking a few minutes to gather supportive herbs before you need them (and hopefully you won’t ever need them). Remember, the goal is not to feel pressure to use ALL of these herbs when you’re in poor air quality. Just pick a few that meet your individual needs, including ones that offer you some form of a comforting ritual in this time of stress. Below is a visual shopping list for some of the items mentioned if you need it*. Take good care!
*I am not affiliated in any way with the products or brands mentioned. These are just ones that I personally enjoy.
**Nothing in this blog post should be construed as medical advice. Herbal traditions can empower individuals committed to fostering health and balance in their own lives and communities. Herbalists are not medical professionals. Always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional regarding any medical or health related diagnosis or treatment options. Herbalists cannot diagnose or evaluate diseases, illnesses, or medical conditions. The Nature Wheel blog and The Handmade Life’s services are purely for educational purposes only and should never be construed as medical diagnosis, treatment, or cure for any condition.
If you’d like support creating your own rituals, yardsteading and/or nature connection practices, check out The Handmade Life! There I offer coaching sessions, share herbal traditions, handcrafted goods, DIY workshops and herbal consultations.