Natural Approaches to Preventing and Treating Colds and Flu

How can you prevent and treat a cold or the flu with natural medicines? First of all, a little background.

The common cold is just that – common. On average, Americans get two to four colds per year.

  • Colds are caused by viruses that we either inhale or contract through physical touch. 
  • Colds often begin with a sore or scratchy throat, sneezing, nasal discharge and stuffiness. 
  • Ear and sinus infections can sometimes follow a cold. 
  • If the sinus infection is caused by a virus, then antibiotics are unhelpful.

Influenza viruses cause a contagious respiratory illness commonly called the flu. Flu complications include viral and secondary bacterial pneumonia. Consult your physician if your symptoms get worse rapidly, or if you have a high fever lasting a few days or more, lung congestion, high fatigue, body aches or swollen lymph nodes.

Flu symptoms are typically more intense than a cold and include (but aren’t limited to): 

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Headache
  • Fatigue/malaise
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Body aches
  • Diarrhea and vomiting

Natural approaches may help your body resist infection and recover faster if you do get sick. Let's look at some basic strategies:

Take care
*Start by taking good care of yourself: Support your immune system by reducing stress and getting plenty of rest, fresh water, healthy food and exercise.
*Avoid refined sugars and carbohydrates.
*Don't smoke.
*Implement a daily stress-reduction program that helps you breathe a bit and laugh a little.

As simple as all this sounds, it appears that healthier, happier people may have more resistance to viral infections.

Give it a shot
*Build up immunity with seasonal flu shots.
*Please consult with your physician about this, especially if you are in a high-risk group (such as the elderly, young children, and people with congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes).

Take a walk
*In a recent study, postmenopausal women who performed moderate exercise for one year had a reduced incidence of colds.

*Make exercise a part of your daily life and make it fun. Buy a pedometer and try to walk 10,000 steps every day.

Let the sunshine In 
*People with higher blood levels of vitamin D have better immune responses and seem to be less susceptible to colds and flu.
*In the summer, you can get all the vitamin D you need by exposing your arms and legs to sunlight for about 15 minutes without sunscreen three times per week. In the winter, a supplement of 1000 IU of vitamin D daily may help.

Keep it clean
*Washing your hands frequently with soap and water is one of the most important preventive measures.
*Remember that drying is as important as washing, because viruses are more likely to spread on wet surfaces.  

Keep your respiratory passages moist and clean by staying well hydrated
*Use a saline nasal cleaning system such as a Neti pot, Sinus Rinse or another nasal saline rinse available at pharmacies. Follow the directions in the package.
*Keep your throat moist and clean with salt-water gargles.
*Inhaling steam can be helpful, and it feels great.  
*Some people enjoy a sauna, but remember to stay well hydrated.
*Finally, consider the old-time folk remedy of a nice hot bath. Adding three to four cups of Epsom salts to your bath water can be relaxing and soothing.

These strategies may be used not only for prevention, but also for treatment of colds and flu.

Before you run to the medicine cabinet and start rifling through pills, consider what's in your kitchen cupboards that might ease your cold and flu symptoms. Here's a quick guide to treatments, ranging from scientifically researched therapies to traditional natural folk remedies.

Healthy gut bacteria, or probiotics, may help reduce the severity and duration of colds and flu. Supplements, yogurt and kefir are three ways to add probiotics to your diet.

Supplements: Take one or two capsules of probiotics a day, or one-quarter teaspoon of probiotic powder twice a day.

Yogurt: Eat one or two cups of yogurt a day. Recommended brands include: Nancy's, Brown Cow, Stoneyfield Farms, Dannon Activa and Organic Valley.

Kefir: This probiotic cultured milk drink is available at health food stores.

Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic medicine that has been shown to improve the recovery rate from influenza-like syndromes within 48 hours of administration.

To administer, put the contents of one tube of oscillococcinum in your mouth and let it dissolve. Take once every six hours, up to three times a day.  

Echinacea is an American plant that has been used for centuries to treat colds and flu. The scientific evidence so far is mixed, but anecdotal reports are enthusiastic and a new study is promising.

Echinacea may reduce the severity of symptoms in people with naturally acquired upper-respiratory-tract infections.

Take one teaspoon of Echinacea liquid herbal extract three times daily for one to two weeks.  

Elder flower
Elder flower (or elderberry) has demonstrated anti-viral properties and may reduce mucus production.

One study found that an elderberry extract (Sambucol) may improve flu-like symptoms in less than half the time that it normally takes to get over the flu.  

Try Sambucol Pro or other liquid elderberry herbal products. Adult dose: one teaspoon three times daily for one to two weeks.

Zinc may boost anti-viral activity and be effective in reducing the duration of colds and flu. Lozenges that contain zinc gluconate seem to be the best choice.

Look for Cold-Eze or other lozenges that contain 13 mg of zinc gluconate per dose. Take every two hours during the day for a maximum of one week.

Note: Zinc bothers some people's stomachs. If this happens to you, take zinc with a healthy snack (such as fresh fruit) or a meal.

Vitamin C
Most studies on vitamin C have shown no benefit in fighting colds and flu. However, anecdotal reports are enthusiastic.

Try 500 to 1000 mg three to four times daily for a week.

Vitamin C may work better when taken in combination with 200 IU/daily of vitamin E.  

Chocolate has antioxidant properties and may help lessen coughing.

Try ½ ounce of dark chocolate (70 percent or greater cocoa content) three times a day.

Herbal tea
For thousands of years, people have created teas to soothe cold symptoms.

Here's a recipe for Dr. Miles Hassell's Lemon and Honey Forte to ease coughs, especially at night:
1. Thinly slice a whole washed lemon with the peel and stuff it into a Thermos.
2. Pour in a big blob of honey (to taste), maybe a drop of Tabasco or two (to taste) and/or a slice of ginger.
3. Fill with boiling water, let it cool a bit, and then sip frequently.

Chicken soup
Yes, generations of grandmothers are right -- the research on chicken soup for cold and flu therapy backs them up.

One study includes a recipe that was shown to inhibit the migration of neutrophils -- white blood cells that fight bacterial infections.

The warm liquid is believed to stimulate nasal clearance.