Medicinal use of Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) in naturopathic medicine

The historical use of thyme

Thymus vulgaris, commonly known as thyme, has a rich and varied history of use that dates back to ancient civilizations. The ancient Egyptians used thyme in their embalming practices, recognizing its strong preservative and antibacterial properties. In Ancient Greece, thyme was widely used for its aromatic qualities; it was burned as incense in sacred temples and was also a symbol of courage and admiration, with soldiers often given thyme before battles as a sign of bravery.

During the Roman era, thyme was valued for its culinary and medicinal qualities. The Romans used it in bathing and massaging. Pliny the Elder noted many medicinal qualities to thyme including use as an expectorant, for various “intestinal ailments,” for “pain in the thoracic organs,” for flatulence, sciatica, swellings, sprains, burns, and even epilepsy.1 In the Middle Ages, thyme continued to be a symbol of bravery and strength and was also believed to ward off nightmares. It was often placed beneath pillows to aid sleep and ward off evil. Moreover, thyme was used for its antiseptic properties; it was a common ingredient in poultices applied to wounds and injuries to prevent infection. Hildegard of Bingen, a well-known herbalist and nun in medieval Germany, often wrote about thyme in her texts, recommending it for its medicinal properties, particularly for respiratory ailments.2

The use of thyme in traditional medicine has continued in contemporary herbal medicine and even in recent scientific research. Research in the last two decades has given us more information about what constituents are responsible for Thyme’s medicinal qualities. It is always rewarding and exciting to see research prove what traditional herbalists have known for centuries. Here at Naturopathic Pediatrics this is one of the reasons we list the historical or traditional use of medicinal herbs. There are times that scientific research has yet to “catch up” to traditional use of herbal medicine.

Active Medicinal Chemical Constituents of Thyme

Thymus vulgaris (Thyme) contains a range of active constituents that contribute to its medicinal properties. Here are some of the primary active compounds:

  1. Thymol: Thymol is a primary volatile oil component of thyme, known for its antimicrobial and antifungal activities. It is also a potent antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties.5
  2. Carvacrol: Similar to thymol, carvacrol is another phenolic compound found in thyme. It has been studied for its antimicrobial properties and potential protective effects against toxins.6
  3. Flavonoids: Thyme contains various flavonoids, which are known for their antioxidant activities. These compounds help in neutralizing harmful free radicals in the body.8
  4. Rosmarinic Acid: This compound is a type of polyphenol and has strong antioxidant properties, contributing to thyme’s ability to combat inflammation.7
  5. Terpenoids: Including compounds like linalool and geraniol, these contribute to thyme’s aroma and also have antimicrobial properties.8
  6. Tannins: These are astringent compounds that can help with wound healing and reducing inflammation.8
  7. Saponins: Known for their ability to support the immune system and contribute to thyme’s antimicrobial activity.8
  8. Essential Oils: Apart from thymol and carvacrol, thyme’s essential oil contains a variety of other compounds that contribute to its aroma and medicinal properties.8

These constituents make thyme a versatile herb in traditional and modern medicine, particularly in treating respiratory conditions, digestive issues, and infections.

Is thyme safe for children? Is thyme safe in pregnancy and lactation?

Thyme is generally regarded as safe for most individuals, depending on the dose and form used. In general thyme essential oil should be used extremely cautiously in sensitive patients. In my opinion as a naturopathic physician, internal use of thyme essential oil (undiluted or in high doses) has potential risk for harm in children, pregnancy and lactation. Thyme essential oil topically or in mouthwash is unlikely to cause harm, except in very high doses. I feel much more comfortable with the internal use of thyme in tea form, and in moderation in tincture form. As with any herbal medicine, sensitivities and allergies are always a potential risk. Use extreme caution in patients with hypersensitivity to plants in the Lamacieae (mint) family.

Pregnancy: Category B2.4

Lactation: Likely compatible. 4

Infants and children: Likely safe in appropriate doses.

Thyme in clinical naturopathic medicine

Respiratory conditions

Thyme has a long history of use for various respiratory conditions, both in historical and contemporary herbal medicine. Thyme has antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and expectorant properties that make thyme a particularly good choice for acute respiratory infections. Thyme’s antispasmodic activity is primarily attributed to its content of certain volatile oils, including thymol and carvacrol. These constituents appear to relax the smooth muscles of the bronchioles, allowing for alleviation of spasmodic coughs. As for its expectorant action, thyme appears to stimulate the cilia (tiny hair-like structures in the airways) and increases mucus production in the respiratory tract, thereby helping to liquefy thick mucus. This action makes it easier to cough up and expel the mucus. Notable research in the treatment of respiratory conditions includes:

  1. Treatment of Acute Bronchitis:
    • A clinical study by Kemmerich, B. (2006) evaluated the efficacy of thyme extract in treating acute bronchitis. The study found that the syrup containing thyme extract significantly reduced coughing fits in patients with acute bronchitis compared to the placebo group.9 Another study by Gruenwald, J., et al. (2005) showed that a combination of thyme and primrose root effectively relieved coughing more efficiently than a placebo.10
  2. Cough and Upper Respiratory Tract Infections:
    • Thyme has been used traditionally as an expectorant, helping to relieve coughs associated with upper respiratory tract infections. A 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis found that a combination ivy/primrose/thyme preparation was significantly better than placebo at improving patient’s cough when sick with uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infections.20
  3. Antimicrobial Activity Against Respiratory Pathogens:
    • The essential oil of thyme, particularly thymol and carvacrol, has been studied for its antimicrobial activity. Sienkiewicz, M., et al. (2011) demonstrated that thyme essential oil had significant inhibitory effects against clinical strains of bacteria responsible for respiratory infections.11
  4. Asthma
    • One randomized, triple-blind clinical trial showed that Thymus vulgaris syrup, in addition to routine medical treatment, significantly reduced cough in children with mild to moderate asthma exacerbations.  Additionally the study showed improvements in forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) compared to the control group which received only routine treatment and placebo.12  

Gastrointestinal conditions

Thyme is also very useful for a number of gastrointestinal conditions. Thyme has carminative, antispasmodic, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. A carminative is a substance that helps in the prevention and release of gas from the intestines and stomach, thereby reducing bloating, abdominal discomfort, and flatulence. Thyme’s carminative properties are mostly due to its essential oil components, particularly thymol and carvacrol, along with other volatile oils and flavonoids.

As previously mentioned, thyme’s essential oils can have an antispasmodic effect on the smooth muscles, including those of the gastrointestinal tract. This relaxation can help alleviate spasms that might trap gas and cause discomfort. Thyme may also stimulate digestion, thereby reducing the formation of gas. Improved digestion means that food is broken down more effectively, minimizing fermentation and gas production.

The antimicrobial action of thymol and carvacrol in thyme may also contribute to its carminative effects. By inhibiting the growth of gas-producing bacteria in the gut, thyme can help reduce bloating and gas formation. Thyme is often included in herbal bitters formulations, which are traditionally used to stimulate digestion and improve appetite. The antioxidant components of thyme can help mitigate oxidative stress in the gastrointestinal tract, potentially supporting overall digestive health. Furthermore, the antimicrobial action of thyme may explain its usefulness in conditions like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.

Historical use and clinical evidence include the following:

  1. Treatment of Dyspepsia and Gastric Discomfort:
    • Thyme has been traditionally used to alleviate symptoms of dyspepsia, including bloating, gas, and abdominal discomfort. Its carminative properties help in the expulsion of gas from the stomach and intestines, thereby relieving discomfort.
    • Historical reference: In traditional European herbal medicine, thyme was a common remedy for gastrointestinal discomfort.13
  2. Antispasmodic Properties for Intestinal Cramps:
    • The antispasmodic effects of thyme, primarily due to its volatile oils, can relieve intestinal cramping and spasms. This makes it beneficial in conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) where spasmodic pain is a common symptom.
  3. Antimicrobial Effects on Gastrointestinal Pathogens:
    • Thyme’s antimicrobial properties, particularly attributed to thymol and carvacrol, are effective against a range of gastrointestinal pathogens, potentially helping in cases of gastrointestinal infections.
    • Research: A study by Nazzaro et al. (2013) demonstrated the antimicrobial activity of thyme essential oil against various microbial strains, including those that can affect the gastrointestinal system.14

Topical use

Thyme has been used historically and in modern herbal medicine for number of topical applications. Its antiseptic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and astringent properties make it a valuable herb for skin and wound care. As listed above, the primary active components contributing to these properties include thymol and carvacrol.

  1. Wound Healing:
    • Historically, thyme has been used for its antiseptic properties in wound care. Its ability to kill or inhibit bacteria makes it valuable for preventing and treating infections in cuts, wounds, and sores.
    • Reference: In traditional European medicine, thyme was commonly applied to wounds, often in the form of poultices or infused oils.13
  2. Treatment of Skin Infections:
    • The antimicrobial properties of thyme, particularly against fungi and bacteria, make it effective in treating skin infections like athlete’s foot, ringworm, and acne.
    • Research: A study by Nazzaro et al. (2013) demonstrated the broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity of thyme essential oil, supporting its use in treating various skin infections.14
  3. Relief of Inflammatory Skin Conditions:
    • Thyme’s anti-inflammatory properties can help soothe and treat inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
    • Historical use: Thyme-infused baths and compresses were traditionally used to alleviate skin inflammation and irritation.

Oral and Pharyngeal Health

As previously mentioned, the anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and particularly the astringent properties of thyme make this herb an excellent choice for a number of oral health conditions, particularly gingivitis. Thyme is frequently found as a natural ingredient in various mouthwashes, including some conventional mouthwash to promote oral health and combat bad breath.

  1. Treatment of Halitosis:
    • One study showed that the use of thyme in a mouthwash significantly improved halitosis for patients with gingivitis. The mouthwash was given immediately following periodontal treatments. The efficacy of thyme Thyme’s strong antimicrobial properties make it effective in combating oral pathogens that cause dental caries, gingivitis, and periodontal diseases.
    • Research: A study by Shapiro et al. (2014) demonstrated the efficacy of thyme oil in reducing the viability of oral pathogens, supporting its use in oral hygiene.21
  2. Treatment of Oral Thrush:
    • Thyme has been used to treat oral infections such as thrush due to its antifungal properties.Thyme has been shown to be particularly helpful as adjunctive therapy when antifungal resistance occurs, or when candida has formed a biofilm.16
  3. Adjunctive treatment for Group A Streptococci, streptococcal pharyngitis
    • Carvacrol has been shown to be effective against erythromycin-resistant Group A Streptococci. It is effective either alone or in combination with erythromycin for GAS pharyngitis.17

Summary of the use of thyme in naturopathic medicine

Thyme is one of my absolute favorite respiratory herbs for children. I typically use Thyme tincture in combination formulas mixed with other herbs and glycerites (for taste) for many respiratory conditions, including acute cough for URI, asthma, or even as adjunctive care for lower respiratory tract infections. It seems effective for spasmodic bronchitis, for wet coughs, and to alleviate wheezing for asthmatic patients. My patients using thyme regularly in their asthma herbal formula are able to significantly reduce their use of albuterol as a rescue inhaler.

I also use thyme clinically for a variety of digestive concerns, but mostly for patients with Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. I use combination herbal products with peppermint and thyme essential oils, usually in enteric-coated capsules. I would not recommend using these products for pregnant or nursing women, or for young children. As a note, use of carminatives like thyme can relax the lower esophageal sphincter and make reflux (GERD) worse. I also recommend avoiding using these products long-term, as some carminatives (especially peppermint) slow intestinal motility, which can make SIBO worse in the long-term. In my practice I tend to use these products for no more than a month (consistent use), and then as needed if a patient experiences a flare.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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Erika Krumbeck, ND, FABNP
Erika Krumbeck

Dr. Erika Krumbeck is the proud founder and editor of, the leading internet source for trustworthy natural health information for children and naturopathic pediatric providers. She is also the owner of Montana Whole Health, a primary care naturopathic practice in Missoula, MT. She is one of few doctors with the FABNP designation, meaning she is a board-certified pediatric naturopathic physician. Dr. Krumbeck has specialized training in treating chronic conditions in children using safe, gentle and effective natural remedies. She helps bridge the gap between conventional medicine and complementary/alternative medicine by using both new research and traditional naturopathic therapies to guide treatment.

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