There's nothing more annoying than that feeling that you're about to get sick... and yet no matter how well-protected we think we are, it happens to every single one of us. Luckily, there are a few ways you can stave off the flu and seasonal colds. With these tried and true natural home remedies for cold and flu season, you'll be armed to fight off these nasty bugs once and for all.
Cold vs. Flu? What's the Difference?
Before you start trying to solve a problem, it's important to understand it, and that's all the more important with colds and the flu.
Because even though they're often lumped together, the flu and a cold are not at all the same thing.
Colds Are Shorter in Duration and Minor in Symptoms
A cold, the sniffles, a chill... these words are used interchangeably for a variety of illnesses. Yes, that's right: even though many illnesses are lumped into this category, they're not all the same thing.
While most colds are caused by the common rhinovirus, about half are caused by up to 100 other viruses, according to New York naturopath Dr. Serena Goldstein, ND.
So what really defines a cold? According to Christina Major, a MS Holistic Nutritionist and Herbalist and the Health Recovery Expert of Crystal Holistic Health, two things: “Generally, the common cold is a catch-all for any illness we get that is short and duration and has minor symptoms."
According to Khara Lucius, ND, FABNO, Naturopathic Oncology Provider at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center, these symptoms tend to last a week or two and can include a sore throat, sneezing, nasal congestion, mucus production, and coughing.
The Flu Causes More Severe Symptoms
The flu, however, stems from a completely different virus known as the influenza virus, of which there are several kinds, A, B, and C. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), types A and B can cause seasonal epidemics almost every winter in the United States, while a new type, C, is mild, and not thought to cause epidemics,” explains Goldstein.
Major says that today there are over 300 strains of flu falling into these three or as many as four categories, and as many as 15 new strains appear every year. “It’s why none of the flu vaccines to date have over a 40 percent success rate, and last year’s success was only 9% (and 20% had severe adverse side effects),” she explains.
Flu symptoms, as well, are quite different from cold symptoms, as Lucius explains. “Flu symptoms may include body aches, fatigue, headache, respiratory symptoms and fever,” she says.
Both of these illnesses can range from annoying to debilitating, which means you definitely want to avoid getting sick. But instead of reaching for the medicine cabinet, consider this: our experts agree that the best possible way to keep from suffering from colds and the flu is by taking care of yourself and allowing your own immune system to fight off the virus.
And that’s where our natural tips come in.
1. Do Protect Yourself from Catching the Viruses
Of course, when you can, you'll want to avoid catching the flu or a cold in the first place, and that involves quite a bit of work on its own. Our experts offer the following tips to help stave off catching the flu or a cold in the first place:
- Avoid direct contact with infected individuals
- Don't touch contaminated objects
- Wash your hands frequently
- Get regular exercise to stimulate the immune system
- Stay well-hydrated
And of course... eat right. But what does that mean, exactly?
“Seventy percent of our immune system is in our gut,” says Major. By choosing the right foods, you're building up the perfect defense against attackers like viruses.
Here are a few foods our experts suggest including in your daily diet, both before and during your cold and flu symptoms:
- Start off your morning with citrus fruits, which will give your immune system a vitamin C boost.
- Cook with naturally antibacterial garlic and onions. “They contain allicin, a compound shown to enhance the body’s ability to fight off infections and viruses,” says Carina Parikh, MScN, MSiMR, a holistic nutritionist at Kate Naumes ND Holistic Wellness.
- Go ahead and make up a pot of chicken soup -- it's not just an old wives' tale. “Homemade bone broth is one of the best things you can consume during the winter to fight off sickness and infection,” says Parikh. “This is because bone broth is chock full of vital nutrients, and also contains collagen, which breaks down into essential and nonessential amino acids.”
- Be sure to throw some carrots into that soup. Parikh explains that beta carotene “may increase T-cell function, causing your body to have a greater immune response to help fight off infection.”
- Grate some ginger into your morning juice or stir it into an evening infusion; it contains sesquiterpenes, which are chemicals that fight congestion and coughing and support digestion.
- Stock up on grass-fed beef and lamb, nuts, chickpeas, and lentils, all of which are excellent sources of zinc, which will help you fight off infection.
- Take echinacea. "Studies show it can support your immune function by helping to stimulate white blood cells," says Janet Little, Nutritionist for Sprouts Farmers' Market. "Echinacea helps the body produce more germ-eating cells called macrophages, which protect your body's immune system by searching out and destroying common cold and flu viruses and bacteria."
When your body is prepared for battle, the onset of a cold or flu doesn't come as quite such a shock to the system.
2. Do Take Care of Yourself -- Emotionally
While it might seem that the only things you can do to avoid a cold and the flu are physical, taking care of your emotional well-being is just as important, according to our experts.
Get At Least Seven Hours of Sleep a Night
Lucius cites a recent study that showed that those getting less than six hours of sleep a night were about four times more likely to develop a cold than those who got seven or more.
“Go to bed between 10pm-11pm every night,” recommends Goldstein. You'll be more refreshed and your body will be better able to combat viruses.
Lucius also recommends keeping stress at bay. "Increased stress is associated with an increased risk of acute respiratory infection,” she says.
Easier said than done, right? Nevertheless, according to Goldstein, it's super important.“Increased stress creates more cortisol, which can hinder optimal immune function.”
Luckily, she also has a few key tips on how to destress starting today.
- "Figure out the root cause of your stress and develop strategies to help clear your mind, such as completing the task," she suggests.
- Meditate for 10 minutes a day.
- “Laugh every day!” Laughter, she says, “can increase the number and activity of natural killer cells, T lymphocytes, and other immunoglobulins important to fighting off infections.”
Keeping yourself emotionally fit means you're ready for battle when illness hits.
3. Do Manage Your Symptoms Naturally
Once you actually come down with symptoms, it can be tempting to reach for over-the-counter painkillers, decongestants, and fever relief. But did you know that natural remedies aren't just safer and better for you, but they may even get you better more quickly?
Managing Cold Symptoms
Cold symptoms can vary from congestion to runny noses to scratchy noses and coughs. Our experts advise that you treat each symptom separately; luckily, some solutions will help fix more than one problem.
Solutions for Congestion
- Include poached wild-caught fish or scrambled egg for a punch of omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation, thereby reducing congestion. “If your sinuses are congested and swollen, getting those fatty acids may help ameliorate those symptoms,” explains Parikh.
- Try using steam inhalations to relieve congestion. Lucius suggests infusing the steam with rosemary or thyme.
- Avoid congestion-inducing foods, like dairy, refined sugar, and alcohol. Why? Refined sugar and alcohol will dehydrate you, something you don't want when fighting off a bug.
- And while we're on the subject -- stay well hydrated. “Being properly hydrated allows your nose to flush mucus easily,” says Major. “Being stuffed up is a sign you need more water.”
- Open a window. This might seem counterintuitive as you probably think that the cold air only increases your symptoms, but fresh air can actually help quite a bit.
Solutions for a Runny Nose
- Use herbal remedies. Little suggests black cherry bark, osha, and lobelia.
Solutions for a Scratchy Throat and Cough
- More herbal remedies! In this case, Little suggests marshmallow root, slippery elm, and mullein.
- Goldstein suggests gargling warm with a pinch of salt.
Managing Flu Symptoms
Flu symptoms are a bit different from cold symptoms, so it’s only natural that you’d want to fight them a bit differently.
Rely on Elderberry
When it comes to fighting the flu, elderberry is a super berry as far as our experts are concerned.
Lucius cites a study that found that people recovered from the flu far more quickly when they took elderberry. Little agrees. "Elderberry is high in antioxidants and can help dissipate icky symptoms, which is the first step to regaining health and feeling better," she says. She also cites studies that have attributed elderberry to fighting off flu symptoms like fever, headache, fatigue, sore throat and body aches.
She also notes that elderberries contain two powerful antioxidants -- quercetin and anthocyanins -- that can help enhance immune response and get you better more quickly.
Add elderberry to your daily routine, either as a tea or a syrup, and your flu symptoms should dissipate fairly quickly.
Rely on Diet
Parikh suggests modifying your diet to include blander foods and certain herbs and spices including ginger and cinnamon when suffering from the flu. Stick to vegetables, simply prepared (either boiled or steamed), and avoid meat. The less work your body has to do to digest at this point, the better you’ll feel.
4. Don’t Believe the Myths
For every natural home remedy for cold or flu, there is at least one myth. Don’t believe everything you hear – our experts say that some of these things just aren’t true.
"Get plenty of rest."
While it is important to take it easy and get lots of rest when you're ill, this myth gives people the wrong idea about the importance of movement in getting better, according to Goldstein.
“You don’t have to go to cross-fit every day, but exercise and movement (e.g. yoga, walking) helps keep blood and lymph moving, important fluids in circulating oxygen and nutrients, and cells in your immune system, respectively, to your organs and muscles.”
Instead of heading to the gym for your regular 30 cardio minutes, try bundling up and taking a brisk walk around the block, or do 20 minutes of yoga in your living room.
"Feed a cold, starve a fever."
You probably heard this one growing up, but Tina Fabiano, DO, Quality of Life Physician at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center says we should be wary of buying into it.
“This is definitely one of those myths that have found its way into the American home through folklore,” she says. “Proper hydration and nutrition are warranted for the common cold and especially the flu.”
But our experts also stress the importance of not forcing your digestive system into overdrive when you're sick. Luckily, your body is primed for this -- ever noticed that you're just not as hungry when you're sick? That, according to Major, is natural.
“During an illness, we want the power to fight the invaders, not food," she says. "Our body slows and stops our digestive system to allow this to happen. Forcing ourselves to do anything more than sip water or tea causes us to stay sick longer. When the fight is over, we naturally become hungry again.”
In other words, eat when you're hungry, and don't be worried if you aren't as hungry as you were before being sick. Stick to foods from our list of immune boosters, and you'll be feeling better in no time.
"Cover up or you'll catch a cold!"
One common myth about the cold and the flu is that they are cold weather illnesses. But according to our experts, we're not actually more susceptible to catching a cold because it's cold out (actually, Major says that there are actually more germs out there in the summer time!), but rather because we're indoors more often in the winter, and thus in closer contact with others.
“While we don’t completely understand why influenza is a seasonal illness, we know that cold weather brings people closer together, which allows for easier transmissibility of the virus,” explains Fabiano. “Because winter is the traditional time of the flu, perhaps people associated it with cold weather and thus warned of bundling up properly.”
This is a big one: no matter how bad the flu gets, you should never take antibiotics to cure it -- because they won't work.
“These viruses do not respond to antibiotics, which are treatments targeted toward bacteria,” says Fabiano.
But you might also want to be wary of taking over-the-counter meds to combat your symptoms as well.
5. Don’t Jump Straight for Pills
The downsides of treating cold and flu symptoms with over-the-counter medications often far outweigh the benefits, as our experts explain.
Medicine May Make You Sicker for Longer
Many of the OTC medications that are supposed to help treat the flu and the common cold are actually just treating symptoms. By treating symptoms, you're not allowing your body to combat the illness on its own, meaning that you might be drawing out your illness.
Here are just a few examples from our experts of how medications may have the opposite effect.
- “Decongestants may raise blood pressure and have a rebound effect, meaning that while it helped reduce stuffiness, it may reappear in a few hours,” explains Goldstein.
- Antihistamines may cause drowsiness, making it hard to function.
- Major warns against using nasal sprays that dry out your nose. “(They) only will make the symptoms stick around longer,” she says.
The One Exception: A Dangerously High Fever
The only symptom you may want to watch and possibly treat is a fever, according to Fabiano, who says that a temperature above 100.4 is worth bringing down safely with Tylenol or ibuprofen. But Major warns that a low-grade fever is not necessarily a bad thing.
“You should never break a fever unless it becomes dangerously high,” she says. “A fever is our body’s natural defense mechanism to destroy viruses and bacteria. It turns out, these little invaders are very sensitive to temperature. When you force a fever to break, you are making your immune system work harder and delaying your own natural healing processes.”
She does caution that if a fever goes over 104 degrees or lasts for 3 days you should seek out the opinion of a medical professional, so keep a close eye on a fever if it does develop, and do not hesitate to call your doctor if needed.
Trust Your Body
At the end of the day, however, the best cure for a cold or the flu is time. “Some medications aid the body's natural healing processes,” says Major. “Most do not. Most will allow you to function in daily life, but delay your true healing. The longer you delay healing, the worse you will feel. Plus, your body now has to fight the pills, and that leaves less to fight the invaders.”
Give your body the tools it needs, and it will fight off seasonal cold and flu symptoms on its own.
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