The Taming of the Flu

Natural remedies and immune boosters can minimize your misery if cold or flu strikes—and perhaps help you sidestep the sniffles entirely.
The Taming of the Flu
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Is there a germ out there with your name on it? The average American suffers through two to four colds a year and has a 20 percent chance of getting the flu; the numbers are higher for women, especially those tending young children. Keeping your body strong and healthy boosts your chances of getting through the hack-and-sniffle season unscathed. But no one's immune, so it's best to be prepared with a plan to minimize the misery.

Which is Which?
Colds and flu can strike anytime, but they peak from mid-October through February. In the early stages, it can be tough to tell the two apart. "Influenza causes fever that's generally over 101 degrees, muscle aches, headache, and often a dry cough," says Jane Murray, M.D., a family physician at the Sastun Center of Integrative Health Care in Mission, Kan. "Colds typically don't cause that high of a fever."

Dwelling on the diagnosis can be a waste of time, says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. "Both are viral, and most of the time you don't know what you have until it's progressed," he points out. "I build up my immune system either way."

If you feel a virus coming on, treat yourself within a few hours of noticing the first symptoms to get the best results. But seek professional help if your fever is very high or lasting or if you have a cough with fever or chest pain. As always, talk to your doctor if you're using alternative treatments.

The Right Remedy
What's the first rule of battling a cold or flu? "Slow down," says Murray. "People need to go to bed early and cut their commitments. The body really needs rest to fight this off."

Before you tuck yourself in, dose yourself with your remedy of choice. Avoid antibiotics, which have no impact on colds and flu (and help create drug-resistant supergerms); other popular options, such as goldenseal, are more hype than help. But research is promising on the following:

For centuries, elderberry has been used in folk medicine as a remedy for colds and flu, and scientists are finally determining why. "Elderberry extract appears to have antiviral activity," says Murray. In an investigation published in The Israel Medical Association Journal, researchers found that black elderberry extract activated the immune system by boosting the production of cytokines, which are small protein molecules secreted by immune cells. In another study, published in The Journal of Internal Medicine Research, patients with the flu who took elderberry syrup (15 milliliters four times a day for five days) reported relief from symptoms four days earlier than those who took a placebo.

For colds, zinc lozenges get a cautious nod from Murray. "It may be that they slightly decrease the duration of the cold," she says. In a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 48 subjects with cold symptoms took a lozenge containing 12.8 milligrams of zinc or a placebo every two to three hours. The zinc group reported shorter duration of symptoms--4.5 days compared with 8.1--and had less coughing and nasal discharge.

Additional research, published in the American Journal of Therapeutics, found that zinc lozenges (marketed as Cold-Eeze) prevented or reduced the number of colds in school-age children.

"Zinc will help shorten the length of a cold if you start taking it at the outset," says Erica Oberg, N.D., a naturopathic physician at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle. Lozenges are better than tablets, she adds. "You could take two or three 15 milligram lozenges a day safely for seven to 10 days if you check with your health-care provider first."

This classic cold treatment gets mixed reviews. "Echinacea is still worth doing," insists Blumenthal, though he concedes that "the [medical] literature is all over the place." While a University of Wisconsin analysis concluded that echinacea reduced symptoms in upper-respiratory infections, a recent study on children, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that echinacea fared no better than a placebo. In some protocols, subjects may not have started their treatment soon enough, says Blumenthal, who suggests three or four droppers of tincture every three or four hours, starting at the very first sign of symptoms.