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Natural Decongestant Foods and Drinks

The series Natural Decongestants and Allergies will now explore how natural decongestant foods and drinks work, the types of ingredients they can contain and ways to prepare them, as well as why certain foods can worsen congestion.

How do Natural Decongestant Foods and Drinks Work?

Natural food and drink decongestants can work in a number of ways to tackle congestion and this depends on the nature of the ingredients they contain. Foods (predominantly represented by members of the plant kingdom) and drinks are said to act as natural decongestants by utilizing some of the following properties:

  • Antihistamine.
  • Anti-inflammatory.
  • Antioxidants.
  • Boost the immune system.
  • Constrict nasal blood vessels.
  • Hydrate the body (See: Natural Decongestion and Hydration)
  • Irritants. For example, spicy foods such as chili peppers contain capsaicin, and mustard and horseradish contain allyl isothiocyanate. When the body comes into contact with irritants such as these, it will react by trying to trap and then purge the problem. One method is to increase the production and secretion of mucus from goblet cells which accounts for a runny nose when eating spicy food.

Some ingredients are so effective that they have been adopted by the pharmaceutical industry and incorporated as an important ingredient in their decongestant products e.g. eucalyptus oil.

Natural Decongestant Foods and Drinks

However, one must always bear in mind that a particular natural ingredient may contain a variety of compounds which can elicit a range of effects beyond the trait required e.g. act as both a natural decongestant and a natural expectorant. As discussed in Risks of Using Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) and Risks of Using Natural Decongestants, such a situation can be confusing and have potential negative consequences.

Decongestant Foods and Drinks

Examples of ingredients said to exhibit decongestant qualities include:

Apple cider vinegar Natural antihistamine and reduces production of mucus
Asparagus Contains anti-inflammatory compounds such as flavonoids and saponins as well as the antioxidant vitamin C
Black pepper Contains the irritant piperine responsible for the spicy heat sensation and possibly related sneezing episodes
Black tea Tannin is a natural anti-inflammatory
Blueberries High in the natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory vitamin C. Also contains anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids
Cauliflower Includes anti-inflammatory substances such as glucosinolates, isothiocyanates, omega-3, vitamin K and various antioxidants including carotenoids, phytonutrients and vitamin C
Cayenne pepper Capsaicin reduces swelling and inflammation
Celery Contains anti-inflammatory polymer polyacetylene and flavonoids such as luteolinand. Additionally, it contains antioxidants such as vitamin C
Chili peppers Contain various irritant capsaicinoids including capsaicin, which acts by helping to clear the airways and sinuses
Cold-water fish e.g. herring, salmon Omega-3 acts as an anti-inflammatory
Clove buds The dried flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum can be used in various ways as a decongestant e.g. boiled, cooked or as clove bud essential oil used in a vaporizer or applied to a piece of cloth
Elderberry Anti-inflammatory and antiviral
Garlic Boosts immune system. Contains anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids
Ginger Anti-inflammatory
Grapefruits High in vitamin C (natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory). Contains various anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids
Horseradish Spicy root that clears airways and sinuses
Lemons High in the natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory vitamin C. Contains anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids
Licorice Natural anti-inflammatory and stimulates adrenal glands. More commonly noted as a natural expectorant
Mustard When used in food it helps to clear the airways and sinuses but can also be used as a topical decongestant when rubbed on the chest
Peppermint Contains decongestant menthol
Pineapple Bromelain acts as an anti-inflammatory and reduces mucus
Probiotics and fermented foods such as yoghurt with live culture or the spicy Korean ‘sauerkraut’ dish called Kimchi. Anti-inflammatory
Nut oil e.g. butternuts, walnuts Omega-3 acts as an anti-inflammatory
Oranges High in vitamin C (natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory). Contains various anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids
Onions Contains anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids and is also an expectorant
Osha root (Commercially wild harvested and similar in appearance to poison hemlock and water hemlock; therefore, only obtain from reputable ethical wildcrafting) Tincture prepared from dried root of this herb clears airways and sinuses
Seed oil e.g. flax, ligonberry Omega-3 acts as an anti-inflammatory
Spicy salsa Clears the airways and sinuses
Strawberries High in vitamin C which is a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory. Contains anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids
Tumeric Anti-inflammatory
Wasabi Spice that clears the airways and sinuses

How to Prepare Decongestant Foods and Drinks

There are various ways to prepare the ingredients for a natural decongestant, but generally foods and drinks that are served warm or hot will tend to help thin mucus and open the airways.


  • Depending on the ingredient in question, the simplest approach may simply be to chop it into small pieces (e.g. onions) or crush it (e.g. garlic) and inhale the vapors.
  • Alternatively, it may be possible to just chew and eat the item directly e.g. strawberries. This approach may not be suitable or palatable for all ingredients, however if the taste is objectionable, it can often be disguised e.g. mixing the ingredient with a spoonful of honey may help.
  • They can be added directly to your cooking to help clear the airways and relieve congestion (e.g. spicy foods like chili or curries) or used as a condiment (e.g. hot horseradish or mustard).
  • Hot chicken broth or soup has been a favorite dish since ancient times to treat congestion and its effectiveness can be enhanced by adding freshly ground black pepper. Similarly, a tomato soup with the addition of garlic, a splash of lemon juice and seasoned with freshly ground pepper and salt can help relieve congestion.


The ingredients may be added to boiling water and either the fumes may be inhaled e.g. apple cider vinegar, or they can be made into a brew/tea and drunk. Many possible decongestant concoctions have been suggested over the years and the following are but a small sample:

  • Aside from the classic brew made from black tea, a good decongestant tea can be made from ginger, mint or nettles.
  • A variation on plain ginger tea is to add lemon, honey and a splash of cayenne pepper or a pinch of cinnamon powder.
  • However, lovers of honey may prefer to sip a drink made just from a spoonful of honey dissolved in boiled water.
  • Another simple honey decongestant recipe is made by boiling up 6 clove buds in a cupful of water for several minutes. Remove the clove buds then add honey to taste.
  • An alternative clove bud and honey recipe involves boiling 3 cloves, 3 whole black peppercorns and a teaspoon of tea leaves for several minutes. Squeeze half a lemon to the brew then strain to leave only the liquid. This is then sweetened to taste with honey and sipped slowly.
  • The adult alcoholic hot toddy is appreciated by many as a natural decongestant and comes in various forms. A possible recipe includes a standard cup filled ¾ up with boiling water and to this is added a splash of whiskey or brandy or rum, a squeeze of lemon and/or a pinch of cinnamon, 2 cloves and a spoon full of honey. Sip slowly and enjoy.


Congestion Aggravating Foods and Drinks

Certain ingredients present in foods and drinks may exacerbate congestion in some people. For someone looking to treat congestion holistically via the natural route, avoiding these types of ingredients may prove as beneficial as consuming decongestant foods and drinks. Examples of ingredients with the potential to aggravate congestion include:

Dairy products such as butter, cheese, cream and ice-cream, milk, yoghurt* Casein has a sticky, histamine conducive nature
Gluten containing cereals such as barley, oats, rye, wheat and potentially beers made from them Irritant that increases mucus production
Refined sugar Increases risk of congestion by encouraging growth of bacteria
Salt in food and cured meats containing nitrates and nitrites Increases mucus production


* Note: Various studies have suggested probiotics, such as yoghurt that contains live cultures which increase lactic acid bacteria, can be beneficial to allergy sufferers e.g.  de Luis et al. 2005, Prakash et al. 2014.

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