Also called "grandmother's flannel" for its thick, soft leaves, mullein is a common wildflower that can grow almost anywhere. It reaches several feet tall and puts up a spike of densely packed tiny yellow flowers. Mullein has served many purposes over the centuries, from making candlewicks to casting out evil spirits, but as medicine it was primarily used to treat diarrhea, respiratory diseases, and hemorrhoids.
Mullein contains a high proportion of mucilage (large sugar molecules); mucilage is generally thought to have a soothing effect. Mullein also contains saponins that may help loosen mucus.1 On this basis, mullein has been suggested as a treatment for asthma, colds, coughs, and sore throats. However, as yet there is no meaningful evidence that it is useful for any of these conditions.
Mullein is traditionally combined with other herbs in oil preparations to soothe the pain of ear infections (otitis media, or middle ear infection, but not “swimmer’s ear,” an external ear infection), and one study provides preliminary support for this use (see next section).
As with many herbs, test tube studies have found that mullein can kill viruses on contact.3 In addition, an interesting but highly preliminary study suggests that mullein might help certain medications used for influenza work better.4 These findings, however, are far too scant to show that internal use of mullein will fight viral infections.
Oral mullein is said to be most effective when combined with other herbs of similar qualities, such as yerba santa, marshmallow, cherry bark, and elecampane, but there is no evidence to support this belief.
Two double-blind trials enrolling a total of more than 250 children with eardrum pain caused by middle ear infection compared the effectiveness of an herbal preparation containing garlic, St. John’s wort, and calendula against a standard anesthetic ear drop product (ametocaine and phenazone).3,5 The results indicated that the two treatments reduced pain to an equivalent extent. However, due to the strong placebo response in pain conditions, this study would have needed a placebo group to provide truly dependable evidence that the herb is effective.
Note: While herbal ear products may reduce pain, it is somewhat unlikely that they have any actual effect on the infection due to the barrier formed by the eardrum.
To make mullein tea, add 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried leaves and flowers to 1 cup of boiling water and steep for 10 minutes. Make sure to strain the tea before drinking it because fuzzy bits of the herb can stick in your throat and cause an irritating tickle. You can also breathe the steam from a boiling pot of mullein tea.
NOTE: Mullein seeds contain the potentially toxic substance rotenone (see Safety Issues). For this reason, it is advisable to make sure there are no seeds in the mullein flowers that you use; or, alternatively, you can use only mullein leaf.
For ear infection pain, mullein oil products are brought to room temperature and dripped into the ear canal. However, it is advisable to make sure the eardrum isn’t punctured before using instilling mullein oil into the ear.
Mullein leaves and flowers are on the FDA’s GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list, and there have been no credible reports of serious adverse effects. However, mullein seeds contain the insecticide and fish poison rotenone. While rotenone is relatively safe in humans, it does present some toxic risks. If mullein leaf products are contaminated with mullein seeds, long-term use might be harmful.
For this reason, as well as a complete lack of formal safety investigation of mullein, young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with severe liver or kidney disease should not use mullein for a prolonged period of time.
1. Tyler V. The Honest Herbal. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Pharmaceutical Products Press; 1993: 219–220.
2. Sarrell EM, Mandelberg A, Cohen HA. Efficacy of naturopathic extracts in the management of ear pain associated with acute otitis media. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2001;155:796-799.
3. McCutcheon AR, Roberts TE, Gibbons E, et al. Antiviral screening of British Columbian medicinal plants. J Ethnopharmacol. 1995;49:101-110.
4. Serkedjieva J. Combined antiinfluenza virus activity of Flos verbasci infusion and amantadine derivatives. Phytother Res. 2000;14:571-574.
5. Sarrell EM, Cohen HA, Kahan E. Naturopathic treatment for ear pain in children. Pediatrics. 2003;111:E574-9
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015