Natural Remedies for Combating the Flu

Although relying on alternative treatments for what ails you may appeal to you for a number of reasons, using natural remedies for the flu is not advised. Antivirals (such as Tamiflu) are the only treatments known to be effective against the influenza virus.

Symptoms of the flu are similar to those of the common cold (coughing, sore throat, fatigue, etc.) But the flu usually causes more serious illness, potentially leading to complications, especially in high-risk groups. In some cases, the flu can be deadly.

If you think you could have the flu, do not self-treat. Get evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider. And if you want to consider the use of natural remedies for the flu alongside treatments recommended by your doctor, discuss them with your practitioner first. Some may be contraindicated for you based on medications you take, health concerns you have, or other reasons.

Further research is needed on the effectiveness and safety of herbs and supplements for influenza. Here are some of the natural remedies that are being studied for the flu.

Elderberry

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is an 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 cells.

A 2019 meta-analysis found black elderberry can substantially reduce upper-respiratory symptoms and may be a safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza. Other studies on elderberry have been small, have tested only one commercially available product, or have received financial support from the manufacturer.

Health food stores carry elderberry juice, syrup, gummies, 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.

Homemade black elderberry syrup in glass jar
TYNZA / Getty Images

Oscillococcinum

Oscillococcinum, also known as Anas barbariae hepatitis and Cordis extractum 200 c, is a brand-name homeopathic product that's manufactured in France. The rationale for its use comes from the homeopathic principle “like cures like."

Oscillococcinum is made from 200 dilutions of duck heart and liver extracts, which are believed to be particularly vulnerable to influenza viruses. Molecules of the extracts are non-existent after processing, which critics of homeopathic remedies in general say means there is no chemical basis for a product's purported action.

According to a 2015 review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Review, there is limited evidence to support the efficacy of Oscillococcinum for the treatment of flu. Researchers included six studies with a total of 1,523 children and adults and found no statistically significant difference between the effects of Oscillococcinum and placebo in the prevention or treatment of influenza-like illness.

But according to homeopathic theory, molecules of the active ingredient don’t have to be present in the remedy to provide therapeutic value. In fact, more diluted remedies are considered more potent.

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.

Echinacea

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, however, who say that it shouldn't be used as evidence that echinacea doesn't work.

A 2014 meta-analysis of 15 studies, published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, found no significant benefit to taking echinacea for the prevention of colds. It may, however, provide a slight benefit in treating symptoms.

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, an over-the-counter immune support supplement containing vitamins and herbs.

Ginseng

Although there are many types of ginseng, one cultivated in North America called Panax quinquefolius (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.

A systematic review of five trials involving 747 patients found insufficient evidence to support the use of ginseng to reduce the incidence or severity of a cold. However, researchers noted that one study found a 25% reduction in the number of colds when taking ginseng compared to a placebo, and two studies found ginseng reduced the duration of colds by 6.2 days compared to a placebo.

There are some concerns regarding the use of ginseng, including that it may reduce the effectiveness of certain medications and is thought to have estrogen-like properties (problematic for those with hormone-related conditions). People with heart conditions, schizophrenia, or diabetes shouldn’t take ginseng root unless under a doctor’s supervision.

Ginseng can be found in the over-the-counter cold medicine, Cold-fX. The manufacturer claims 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.

Natural Flu Prevention Tips

Of course, the best defense is a good offense. Do what you can to protect yourself from the flu, including getting your annual flu vaccine.

Natural prevention strategies can also go a long way in helping protect you from the influenza virus:

  • Drink plenty of fluids: Water is best.
  • 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 rest: Lack of sleep may lower your immunity.
  • Stay active: 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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