Colds and Flu: Alternative Therapies

Colds are viral infections of the upper respiratory tract. The virus causes inflammation in the nose, throat, sinuses, and/or ears. Typical symptoms of the common cold usually appear about 2 days after exposure to the virus and may include sneezing, sore throat, congestion, fatigue, runny nose, watery eyes or ear pain. Symptoms usually last up to 10 days and can be very contagious. The contagious period is typically two to three days after symptoms begin. Colds are rarely serious except in individuals who are already immune compromised.

Influenza (flu) is also caused by a virus of the respiratory tract. Symptoms include fever, headache, chills, body aches, fatigue and loss of appetite. Like colds, the flu is highly contagious. The contagious period begins about 2 days before symptoms occur and last about five days into the illness. 

Alternative Remedies and Treatments for Colds and Flu

In both colds and flu, treatment is aimed at alleviating symptoms and pain. If after three to four days there is no change in symptoms, or a worsening of symptoms occurs, seek immediate medical attention.

Conventional treatment of the common cold provides symptomatic relief in the form of acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help reduce fever, aches, and pains. It is important never to give aspirin to a child or teenager with a suspected cold or flu. There is a risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, a serious liver disease, when aspirin combines with a virus. Over-the-counter decongestants, antihistamines are also commonly recommended, along with drinking plenty of fluids.

Food should be kept simple during times of cold and flu. When fever is present, it's easy to become dehydrated, so it is essential to drink plenty of fluids. This can be in the form of diluted fruit juices, herbal (non-caffeinated) teas, soups and broths. Dairy foods should be avoided since they tend to thicken and increase mucus. Sugary sweets should be avoided, as they further suppress the immune system and can cause a cold or flu to further linger.

In addition to the simple dietary recommendations, vitamin C, vitamin A, and zinc are among the top supplements for common colds. One to four grams of vitamin C can be taken throughout the day in smaller increments of 500 milligrams to 1,000 milligrams at a time. Research supports the use of zinc lozenges in the treatment and prevention of common cold and sore throat. Vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant, can be taken in doses of 15,000 to 25,000 IU per day, but if you are pregnant, you should be getting enough vitamin A in your prenatal vitamin. Too much vitamin A during pregnancy can be harmful to the fetus.

Herbs and homeopathy can also support the body's immune system in both preventing and treating colds and flu. Some herbs help promote sweating, which helps to cleanse the body. Cayenne, ginger, horseradish, and mustard fall into this category. They can be used in teas, foot baths or applied as a paste to the chest (not placed directly on the skin to prevent burns!).

Other herbs help to stimulate the immune response and fight off viruses include echinacea, oregon grape root, and andrographis. These can be used individually or in combination in tea, tincture or capsule form. Rosemary, lavender, and eucalyptus essential oils are wonderful when used as aromatherapy steam inhalations in warm bath water or facial steams, and they all have antimicrobial properties.

Other medicinal antimicrobial herbs include garlic, thyme, elderberry and oregano. Elderberry extract, also known under the name Sambucus or the product Sambucol, has been shown effective in treating both the common cold and flu. Echinacea and elderberry are often combined in herbal tinctures or glycerites for children and are both commonly used in Europe. Garlic's ability to ward off bacteria is due to allicin, a major constituent found in garlic cloves.

Some of the most common homeopathic remedies used to treat the common cold include aconitum, euphrasia, pulsatilla, allium cepa, and oscillococcinum. Each remedy has different indications, so it is wise to consult a naturopath or homeopath to help decide which remedy is right for you.

Stress can delay recovery from the common cold, so rest and rejuvenation are critical to rapid healing. A warm bath at night, evening meditation and/or yoga, can be great adjutants to your cold prevention and treatment strategy.

Consult your doctor before using any health treatment — including herbal supplements and natural remedies — and tell your doctor if you have a serious medical condition or are taking any medications. The information presented here is for educational purposes only and is in no way intended as substitute for medical counseling.


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