By: Erin Stair, MD, MPH (This is an updated version & scroll all the way down if you want to watch my video instead!)
Are there natural tips to fight the flu and cold? The answer is yes. Whether you get the flu vaccine or don’t get the flu vaccine, below is a list of things you can try to help boost immunity and lessen the severity of flu and cold symptoms. Also, it’s important to remember how the flu ( or any airborne virus) can be transmitted:
1) Through direct inhalation of droplets: These are larger viral particles that deposit in the upper respiratory tract, but are too large to navigate to your lungs.
2) Through the inhalation of aerosols: These are are tiny viral droplets that are small enough to be inhaled AND reach your lungs.
3) Contact transmission: Viral particles are transferred to your mucous membranes directly or indirectly through an object or other person. (Fomite is the name for an object that can transmit an infectious disease.)
The virus most often spreads through tiny droplets in the air when someone sneezes, spits or coughs. This means that in most cases, close contact with infected folks is the biggest risk factor for becoming infected with the flu.
NOW, this is a “special” flu season, because we will be fighting two epidemics at once, the other one being COVID-19. While I know many people do not get the flu vaccine, you may want to consider getting it this year, especially if you will be traveling, commuting, working with people, etc. I haven’t gotten the flu vaccine in the recent past, but having weighed the pros and cons, I will get it this year. Sure, if you’re altruistic, getting the flu vaccine may result in less flu infections and reduce the burden on the healthcare system, but what if you’re not altruistic? Well, getting infected with the flu and COVID-19 during the same season could potentially knock you off your feet for a while, and it’s also possible to get them both at the same time. (What that clinical manifestation looks like, remains to be seen.) The flu is already notorous for putting a person at risk of getting a bacterial “superinfection” at the same time. Also, there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that the influenza vaccine may help reduce the mortality and severity associated with COVID-19 infections. The study, which included 92,664 people, showed that the flu vaccine was associated with 18% lower odds of requiring invasive respiratory support; 8% lower odds of intensive care treatment and 17% lower odds of death.
Some people don’t get the flu vaccine, because they are worried about getting the flu from it. If you get the injection, that can’t happen, because the flu virus is inactivated, and therefore can’t reproduce inside you. Some people do experience passing side effects after the vaccine, depending on how their body reacts to the antigens. These include things like swelling at injection site; fever; chills, and aches. Some people are worried about getting Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) from the flu vaccine. GBS is a syndrome in which your immune system attacks your nerves, resulting in muscle weakness and, in those worst case scenarios, paralysis. GBS is very rare, but you should know that the potential for it to happen still exists. You should also know recent research shows that GBS is many times more common after being infected with the flu than receiving the vaccine.
BUT, the decision is yours.
All “that” said, here is my list of Natural Tips for Fighting the Flu and Cold:
1) Carry around hand sanitizer in your pocket or purse to naturally fight the flu and common cold. (Also a COVID-19 no-brainer)
When I did my internal medicine rotation at a hospital in Brooklyn, my Attending physician told me, “We get sick because we have holes, and things get in our holes that make us sick. And people use their hands and things get on their hands, and then they stick their hands with those things on them in their holes.”
It was both crude and brilliant, and most importantly, he’s right. The “holes” he was speaking about were your nostrils, mouth, ears and, of course, the ones down south. Since then, I’ve always carried a small, portable bottle of natural hand sanitizer, and I use it consistently. Every day I’m out and about with my pup Barnaby in New York City, a place with lots of people and lots of germs. Whether I’m at the dog park, mailing something at the post office, using an ATM machine, or paying for something at the store, I use my hand sanitizer. I’m also mindful to never touch my mouth, ears, nose or eyes until I thoroughly wash my hands or use the hand sanitizer. Of course, THIS is alll now on the forefront of everyone’s mind, since COVID-19.
How transmissible is the flu from objects? It depends on several factors, such as the type of object and how often the object is touched. Obviously an object that is touched a lot risks transmitting the flu versus an object that is not touched a lot. The flu can survive for a longer time on hard surfaces than porous surfaces. Bean et al. did a study that showed that both Influenza A and B can survive on stainless steel and plastic for up to 48 hours. However, Influenza A and B survived only 8-12 hours on more porous objects, such as paper, cloth and cotton. Once the virus was transferred from an object ( the environment) to one’s hands, the virus survived for approximately five minutes on the hands. It’s worth noting that if human secretions ( for example, nasal secretions from kids) are on the objects, the flu can survive a lot longer.
2) For close contact situations, wear a face mask
This is especially important this year!
Are face masks effective? The evidence suggests they are. In relation to face masks and COVID-19, I invite you guys to listen to my Causes or Cures podcast episode on face masks with a top epidemiologist based in Hong Kong who recently published a study on face masks. It’s a very popular podcast, because he is very, very informative. Also, a randomized controlled trial compared the efficacy of face masks in families with children who showed flu-like symptoms. ( Kids are often the index (first) case in family flu outbreaks but not in COVID-19 outbreaks.) Many folks were not compliant, but individuals who were compliant with wearing face masks had an 80% reduced risk of catching the flu. Also, the type of mask did not show a statistically significant difference, meaning individuals who wore surgical masks and individuals who wore P2 respirator masks both showed a reduced risk of contracting influenza. Also, the mask PLUS diligent hand-washing combination seems to be the most effective strategy. A randomized controlled trial showed that family members who wore surgical masks AND practiced diligent hand washing within 36 hours of a family member showing signs/symptoms of the flu, significantly reduced their risk of becoming infected by 67%.
3) Sure, Use Elderberry ( Sambucus nigra ), but pay attention to dose
Many wellness proponents use Elderberry to naturally fight the flu and other viruses (like the common cold). It’s a wellness guru’s favorite when it comes to natural tips to fight the flu. While most evidence is anecdotal, there are a few randomized controlled trials to support its use. One RCT involving 60 adults with flu-like symptoms showed that taking 15 ml of Elderberry syrup four times a day for 5 days showed a significant reduction of symptoms and significantly less use of rescue medication. Another double-blind RCT showed that air travelers who supplemented with Elderberry had a shorter duration of cold/flu symptoms ( 2 days less) than air travelers taking a placebo. They also had a significantly less symptom severity score ( 247) than the placebo group ( 583). The dose used in this study was 1 capsule of 300 mg Elderberry extract twice a day for 10 days prior to scheduled trip, followed by 1 capsule of 300 mg Elderberry extract three times a day for day of trip up until 4 days after trip. Essentially, you’re talking about 600-900 mg of Elderberry extract/day.
4) I wasn’t impressed with Echinacea as a natural tip to fight the flu
I know Echinacea is very popular during cold and flu season, but there are several published randomized controlled trials on its effectiveness, and after reading those, I’m not impressed. I’m not saying don’t use Echinacea. Perhaps the dosing was subpar in the studies or the study populations weren’t optimal. I’m only saying that I wasn’t impressed and wouldn’t rely on it doing much.
5) Raw Honey Garlic ( Allium sativum) Cloves
I’m obsessed with garlic and eat it every morning during flu/cold season. While I don’t like to label any food as “super,” if I had to choose one, it would be garlic. It is well studied for its anticancer, antihypertensive and immune system boosting effects. In relation to flu/cold symptoms, one randomized controlled trial showed that garlic significantly reduced common cold occurrences. In the trial involving 146 volunteers, one group took a daily supplement of 180 mg of garlic ( Allium sativum)/ day for 12 weeks and the other group took a placebo. The garlic group had significantly less colds ( 24) compared to the placebo group ( 65).
I mentioned that I eat garlic in the morning, and I realize that sounds unappealing to most. To make it go down easier, I coat raw garlic cloves with raw, unpasteurized honey. I’ve written a ton about honey and how I use it as a significant part of my skincare routine. Honey has a lot of antiviral and antimicrobial properties, but only when it’s unpasteurized. Pasteurized honey destroys the enzymes ( proteins) that are responsible for most of its antimicrobial effects.
6) Another natural tip to fight the flu and cold: Add these essential oils to steam or a shower
If you read my last post on the Neti pot, you’ll already know that I’m a fan of steam inhalation. Ever since I was diagnosed with asthma in my early twenties, I’ve done steam treatments, even though the evidence for steam treatments being significantly helpful is mixed. For me, it helps. And I’m not talking anything fancy. It’s a boiling pot of water, a towel over my head, and I inhale 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes before I go to bed at night. Respiratory symptoms often get worse when we sleep, so I highly recommend steam treatments before bedtime. I often add essential oils to the boiling water. Around flu/cold time I add thymus scented lemon ( Thymus sipyleus) and Wormwood ( Artemisia capillaris ). Thymus is shown to have antimicrobial activity against bacterial strains that cause sinus infections and symptoms. Wormwood is shown to have antimicrobial activity against strains that cause upper respiratory infections.
7) Take 46 mg of Zinc followed by 23 mg of Zinc/ 2 hours when cold symptoms start
Zinc supplementation is a solid natural tip to fight the flu, but evidence-based dosing matters! A double blind, randomized controlled trial showed that swallowing 46 mg of Zinc supplements ( lozenges) when cold symptoms initially start ( a loading dose) followed by 23 mg Zinc supplements every 2 hours for up to 7 days significantly reduces cold symptoms and duration by almost 50% when compared to placebo. Zinc is vital for a myriad of health conditions. If you don’t like supplements, meat and shell fish contain high levels of Zinc. If you are like me and don’t eat meat, eating nuts, hemp seeds and chickpeas will boost your Zinc level. I eat hemp seeds daily.
8) For the love of God, wash your hands, and don’t touch your nose, eyes or mouth until you do.
This is the easiest natural tip to fight the flu, cold and now, COVID-19. I think we’ve only improved in this area BECAUSE of COVID-19. And while you’re at it, cover your mouth when you cough, don’t smoke around people, and if someone IS smoking around you, avoid inhaling the smoke, which can still transmit COVID-10. I recently joked that we should bring back the Knockout Game for people who don’t cover their mouths when they cough. I might add people who smoke on the sidelines of busy sidewalks. ( Wait, was I joking?)
9) If feverish, maybe try Boneset ( Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Let me make it clear that if you get a fever, you should get tested for COVID-19 and the flu and follow your doctor’s advice. Let me also make it clear that there aren’t any decent studies on the effectiveness of Boneset for fever or as a natural tip to fight the flu. That said, it’s been used for years and years by Native Americans and was used by the early North American settlers to break fevers. I have used it as tea when I feel under the weather and like it. The reason Eupatorium perfoliatum is called Boneset is because it seemed to ease joint pain associated with fevers known as “break-bone-fevers.” ( I love how names are born. 🙂 ) Some speculate the sesquiterpen lactones ( ethanolic extracts) in Boneset are responsible for its anti-inflammatory effects ( reduced fever and reduced joint pain.) If you want to try it, drink as a hot tea when you start to feel sick or feverish.
10) Avoid all Caffeine and Sleep
This is the optimal way. I know we live in a crazy world where folks don’t sleep, even when sick, and use a ton of caffeine-infused-over-the-counter flu/cold medicine to stay awake, go to work and do whatever it is we have to do. The problem is that caffeine, in the cold/flu sense, is a false prophet. It’s a temporary fix, but it ultimately slows down recovery. Caffeine has a very long half life and can keep you awake well after ingesting it. Our immune system is most active when we sleep, so we are better off drinking a lot of caffeine-free hot liquids, turning off all phones and computers, calling in sick, and sleeping as much as possible. A study published in JAMA showed that individuals who slept less than 7 hours/night were 3 times as likely to develop a cold than those who slept at least 8 hours a night. How well one sleeps matters too. The same study showed that individuals with less than 92% sleep efficiency were 5.5 times more likely to develop a cold than those who had 98% sleep efficiency or more..
11) If you have a lot of mucus, stuffiness and/or sinus issues, cut out dairy and wheat & try this
Take it from a FroYo lover: In my experience, foods with dairy and/or wheat cause increased mucus production. If you’re battling a lot of mucus and/or that stuffiness feeling in your nose, ears or sinuses, I highly recommend cutting out all dairy and wheat for two days. Do a fruit, vegetable and broth fast instead. During the two day fast, drink a lot of hot lemon drinks. I also recommend this “snack”: tiny slices of horseradish root dipped in Apple Cider vinegar. ONLY eat a LITTLE as it’s a STRONG combo and can be overwhelming. If you suffer from chronic sinus issues (which can lead to lots of sinus infections), I recommend heftily reducing dairy and wheat in your diet.
12) Functional Food Recipes as Natural Tips to Fight the Flu
This is a drink that I make. It’s not backed by a robust body of evicence or anything like that, but thought I’d share it anyhow. If you have these ingredients in the kitchen, feel free to make & try to help with cold & flu symptoms:
1 stick of Cinnamon, 1 teaspoon Coriander Seeds; 2 teaspoons Fresh Ginger ; 4 Cloves; Fresh Lemon Juice; 1 teaspoon organic honey. Make as a tea and drink.
*I will update this blog as I learn and research other natural ways to fight the flu. Or the combination of flu and COVID-19. Remember, research is important. Having evidence to back up a particular health claim is key.
13) Try listening to ZENTones to help you reduce stress & sleep better
ZENTones are the therapeutic sound programs I create and sell here, on the website. Anyone who knows me well knows how much I use sound therapy in my everyday life. ZENTones are rooted in the science of binaural stimulation and sound sequencing. They are not “cures” for anything. What they may do, and have been shown to do in studies, is help reduce stress and anxiety and improve sleep. Doing both of those things can help boost your immune system. I am happy to answer any questions about ZENTones and if you vist my FAQ page, I explain the science behind binaural stimulation, why it’s safe, and I also link to studies.
PS : For my “video version” health tips, medical trivia and more, follow me on Instagram!
PPS: Also, I want to invite you guys to read my comedic parody on everything that’s WRONG with the business of Wellness: Yours in Wellness, Krystal Heeling
For the video version:
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Hey guys. This video is longer (sorry!) but I wanted to answer some questions that you sent to my BloomingWellness.com site about my plans for the #flushot and if I believe in any natural preventive tips for the flu & cold.This is MY personal wellness journey, and I pull a little from my study of #herbalism too. Everyone should weigh their pros and cons & do what's right for you. Btw, there is tons more info on my website. 💗 . . . #wellnessjourney #flutips #coldtips #sciencematters #asthmatips #fluseason #wellnesslifestyle #healthblog #naturalhealth #preventiontips
Wel, definitely find me on social media or check out our ZENBands, magnets, organic tote bags, mugs, in the wellness shop here. But also:
If you want a book to read while you’re lying in bed, though my book Manic Kingdom might keep you up! 😉