What Is Mullein?

Soothe the Respiratory Tract, Ease Ear Pain, and Fight Infection

Mullein tincture, capsules, and ear drops

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a common plant that has been used for centuries in herbal medicine. While it's considered a weed by most gardeners, its flowers and leaves are often used by herbalists to treat respiratory problems and skin conditions. Mullein is also sometimes used as a flavoring in alcoholic beverages.

This article explains traditional uses of mullein in herbal medicine, how it is commonly administered, and what you need to know about side effects when taking it.

What Is Mullein Used For?

Certain compounds in mullein's leaves and flowers are thought to act as a demulcent, which is a substance that relieves irritation in the body's mucus membranes such as the nose, mouth, and throat. A mullein treatment may also work as an expectorant, which is what a common cough medicine is. Expectorants thin out and loosen phlegm, breaking up congestion associated with a cold or other respiratory problem.

In some cases, mullein is applied directly to the skin to help treat burns or skin inflammation. Mullein oil is also used in ear drops for the treatment of ear infections.

In lab tests published in 2002, researchers found that mullein helped kill certain types of bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus (the most common cause of staph infections) and Escherichia coli (or E. coli).

Herbalists typically use mullein to address the following health problems:

Mullein's effectiveness at treating any condition is not well-supported by scientific data. However, preliminary research suggests that mullein shows promise for use in the treatment of the following conditions:

Flu

In test-tube research, mullein has been found to fight flu-causing viruses. However, since the flu can lead to serious illnesses such as pneumonia, it's critical to seek medical attention when experiencing flu symptoms (rather than attempting to self-treat the condition).

Ear infections

In a 2003 study of 171 children with otalgia (ear pain or an earache), those who used ear drops containing mullein (along with garlic, Calendula, St. John's wort, lavender, vitamin E, and olive oil) showed statistically significant improvement over the course of three days. In fact, those who were given ear drops alone had a better response than those who were given ear drops together with amoxicillin.

Recap

While there is little research on the effectiveness of mullein to treat health problems, it’s been used as an herbal remedy for hundreds of years. Traditionally, it’s been used to ease a cough and severe respiratory problems such as asthma or bronchitis. It’s also been used in herbal treatments for earaches and skin rashes.

Possible Side Effects

Although there are no known adverse effects associated with the use of mullein, it's important to educate yourself about supplement safety before using any herb.

Supplements haven't been tested for safety. Because dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the actual content of some products may not match their product labels. Also keep in mind that supplements may not be safe for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children. It's also not known how these treatments affect people with medical conditions or those taking certain types of medications. 

Mullein capsules
Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Dosage and Preparations

There is not enough scientific data to determine an appropriate dose of mullein. However, in studies, a specific product that contains mullein, garlic, calendula, and St. John’s wort has been used in the ear for up to three days. 

The correct dose for you may depend on factors including your age, gender, body weight, and medical condition. Speak with a doctor to get personalized advice.

Recap

Mullein isn’t known to cause side effects or complications, but since there is little research on it, doctors usually recommend using it with caution. Herbalists prepare treatments with mullein that may be taken orally, rubbed on the skin, or placed in the ear. These substances are not regulated, and studies don’t confirm what’s appropriate to take. So it’s best to practice caution.

What to Look For

Tinctures, capsules, lozenges, powders, and ear drops containing mullein are found in many health food stores.

Due to the limited research, it's too soon to recommend mullein as a treatment for any condition. If you're considering using it, talk to your healthcare provider to weigh the potential risks and benefits. Keep in mind that alternative medicine should not be used as a substitute for standard care. Self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

Summary

For some people, herbal treatments may relieve various symptoms. Mullein seems like a fairly harmless herbal treatment to try, and it may reduce pain or inflammation from the flu, earaches, and skin problems. However, it’s not proven to be effective, and it shouldn’t be used in place of prescription medication or treatments that your doctor recommends. If you try a mullein compound and your symptoms do not improve or get worse, see your doctor as soon as possible.

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