Natural Remedies for Combating the Flu

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Influenza is a viral illness that affects the respiratory tract including your nose, throat, lungs and bronchial tubes (the airways that lead to the lungs). Although mild cases of the flu can be confused with the common cold, the flu usually causes more serious illness.

Symptoms of the flu can include coughing, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue, and headache. Flu symptoms tend to start suddenly and be accompanied by a high fever. Complications can occur, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and ear and sinus infections. People at higher risk of flu complications include children, people over 50 and those with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, heart or lung disease or HIV infection.

Although it's tempting to rely solely on natural remedies, the flu can be potentially deadly, which is why you should talk with a qualified healthcare provider if you think you may have the flu. Further research is needed on the effectiveness and safety of herbs and supplements for the flu. The following are some remedies that are being studied.


Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a herb that has a long history of use as a folk remedy for colds, sinus infections, and the flu. In preliminary lab studies, elderberry extracts have been found to fight off viruses. Researchers believe that anthocyanins, compounds found naturally in elderberries, may be the active component that strengthens the immune system and blocks the flu virus from sticking to our cells.

There haven't been many studies yet on whether elderberry is effective in humans at preventing or treating the flu. One small study found that five days of elderberry syrup (15 ml four times a day) was more effective than a placebo at relieving flu-like symptoms. Those who took elderberry had nearly recovered by the third or fourth day of treatment, while people who took the placebo required seven to eight days.

Most studies on elderberry have been small, have tested only one commercially available product, and have received financial support from the manufacturer. Larger, independent studies are needed. Health food stores carry elderberry juice, syrup, and capsules. Side effects, although rare, may include mild indigestion or allergic reactions.

Only commercially prepared extracts of the berry should be used, because the fresh leaves, flowers, bark, young buds, unripe berries, and roots contain cyanide and could potentially result in cyanide poisoning.


Oscillococcinum, also known as Anas barbariae hepatitis and Cordis extractum 200 c, is a widely available homeopathic product that's manufactured in France. The rationale for its use comes from the homeopathic principle “like cures like." Oscillococcinum is made from the hearts and livers of ducks, which are believed to be particularly vulnerable to influenza viruses.

Being a homeopathic remedy, Oscillococcinum is prepared using a number of dilutions, in this case, 200. The first mixture contains one percent of the duck extract, the second mixture contains one percent of the first mixture, the third mixture contains one percent of the second mixture, and so on until it has been diluted 200 times.

After that many dilutions, it’s likely that there aren't any molecules of the duck extract in the final pill. According to homeopathic theory, molecules of the active ingredient don’t have to be present in the remedy to provide therapeutic value and, in fact, the more diluted remedies are considered more potent.

Critics of homeopathy say that if there are no molecules in the final remedy, it’s impossible to provide a chemical basis for its action. Still, Oscillococcinum is the most popular over-the-counter product for the flu in France and is one of the most popular homeopathic products on the market.

The Cochrane Collaboration has been doing ongoing reviews of the research into the use of Oscillococcinum for influenza. The trials using it for treatment have been of low quality with poor reporting, giving insufficient evidence to draw any conclusions. Prevention trials have shown it has no effect on preventing the flu.


Although recent findings question the use of echinacea for colds and flu, it’s still one of the most popular herbs used today. One study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that echinacea did little to prevent or shorten the common cold. There were many critics of the study, who say that the study shouldn't be used as evidence that echinacea doesn't work.

The Cochrane Collaboration conducted a review of 15 studies on echinacea and found that it wasn't more effective than a placebo at preventing colds.

There are several types of echinacea, including Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea Angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida, the above-ground parts (the leaves, flowers, and stems) of Echinacea purpurea have the best supporting evidence. One study tested two different doses of Echinacea purpurea (450 mg and 900 mg) and found that the higher dose was significantly better than a placebo at reducing the severity of flu symptoms on days three and four.

Herbalists often recommend taking echinacea every two to three hours with a total daily dose of three or more grams per day at the first sign of symptoms. After several days, the dose is usually reduced and continued for the following week. Echinacea is also an ingredient in Airborne, a supplement containing vitamins and herbs that are sold over the counter.


Although there are many types of ginseng, one cultivated in North America called Panax quinquefolius or “North American ginseng" has become popular as a remedy for colds and flu.

Compounds called polysaccharides and ginsenosides are thought to be the active constituents in ginseng. One of the more popular commercial ginseng products for colds and flu is a product called Cold-fX.

Two studies tested Cold-fX in 198 nursing home residents, who received either Cold-fX or a placebo. There was no statistically significant difference in the number of people who contracted the flu and no difference in the severity or duration of the flu.

The researchers analyzed the results of the two studies together and only then did the results show that Cold-fX reduced the incidence of the flu. Although it's popular and some people swear by it, large, well-designed, independent trials are needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of this product.

There is some concern that ginseng may reduce the effectiveness of "blood-thinning" (anticlotting or antiplatelet) drugs such as warfarin (Coumadin) or aspirin. It may interact with diabetes medications, antidepressants known as MAO inhibitors, antipsychotic drugs (e.g., chlorpromazine (Thorazine), fluphenazine (Prolixin), olanzapine (Zyprexa)), drugs that stimulate the central nervous system (used to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, narcolepsy, obesity, and heart conditions) and estrogen replacement therapy or oral contraceptives.

Ginseng root is thought to have estrogen-like properties and is usually not recommended for people with hormone-related conditions such as uterine fibroids, endometriosis, and cancers of the breast, ovaries, uterus or prostate. People with heart conditions, schizophrenia or diabetes also shouldn’t take ginseng root unless under a doctor’s supervision.

The manufacturer of Cold-fX indicates on their website that because their product isn't a whole plant extract but contains a certain compound found in ginseng, it doesn't have the side effects and safety concerns commonly associated with ginseng; although that's possible, there isn't published safety data confirming these claims.

Prevention Tips

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Avoid sweet drinks such as soda.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Be sure to wash thoroughly and rinse well. Use a hand sanitizer if you don't have access to a sink.
  • Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep may lower your immunity.
  • Be sure to get regular exercise. Regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, boosts your immune system.
  • Reduce your stress level. Stress has been shown to temporarily lower your immunity. If symptoms of pneumonia develop at any time, such as high fever, severe cough, phlegm or sharp pains when breathing, seek immediate medical attention.
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