Most of us catch a cold or flu at least a couple of times a year, taking up to 10 days to recover each time. Read on to learn more about natural medicines that may help to relieve the symptoms of cold and flu and reduce their frequency.
What are the symptoms of colds?
The symptoms of colds are familiar to all of us: a sore throat, runny or blocked nose, watery eyes, cough, fatigue and a general sense of being unwell. Other symptoms that may occur include mild aches and pains, headache, enlarged lymph glands and a low-grade fever. Despite feeling unwell, when you’ve got a cold you’ll usually feel largely able to maintain your usual lifestyle, and will generally start to feel better after a few days.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
The symptoms of the flu (influenza) are similar to those of colds, but tend to be more severe and long lasting, and may include a high fever, bouts of shivering, loss of appetite, pronounced aches and pains, and sometimes gastric symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting. If you’ve got the flu, you’ll often feel weak and unable to go about your daily routine, instead needing bed rest to aid your recovery. The symptoms usually improve after around a week, but residual tiredness may persist for days or even weeks after the other symptoms have resolved.
What causes colds and flu?
Colds and flu are viral infections. At least 200 different types of virus can cause a cold (many of them from the Rhinovirus family), but just three types of virus are responsible for the flu: Influenza A, B and C. The viruses are transmitted through the spread of bodily fluids (as may occur through sneezing, coughing, kissing or sharing drinking vessels), so become more common during the colder months of the year when we spend more time indoors and in close proximity to each other. Children tend to catch colds more frequently than adults because their immune systems are not yet fully developed. Other people who are particularly susceptible include adults who work or live with children, pregnant women and the elderly. People whose immune systems are weak or run down (for example due to stress or illness) are more likely to catch colds and flu than other people, and may experience more frequent and/or severe infections and also take longer to recover. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), this type of lowered immunity is regarded as a consequence of weakness or deficiency of the Defensive Qi, a specific form of Qi (life force energy) responsible for maintaining your resistance to disease. According to this philosophy, when the Defensive Qi is weakened (for example by stress or over work), cold and flu viruses are able to enter the body and make you sick, commonly in conjunction with other disease-causing influences such as excess Wind and Heat. The symptoms associated with excess Wind-Heat in TCM are also typical of many cases of colds and flu, including sore throat, red eyes, nasal congestion, fever, headache and cough.
Natural therapies for colds and flu
Clear Wind-Heat with Chinese herbs
In TCM, Isatis Leaf and Root are prized for their cooling properties, and have traditionally been used to address contagious feverish conditions such as the flu. They are specifically indicated for conditions associated with excess Wind-Heat, where they are used to clear Heat and toxins from both the Blood and the Qi, and bring relief to sore throats, high fevers and sweating. Isatis Leaf and Root are traditionally taken in combination with other Chinese herbs. Examples include Magnolia to unblock nasal congestion, Platycodon to promote the expulsion of phlegm and relieve cough, and Honeysuckle and Forsythia, which relieve Wind Heat.
Fight infection with Echinacea, Andrographis and Olive Leaf
Echinacea and Andrographis support immune system function and have traditionally been used to aid the management of viral infections such as colds and flu, and may help relieve symptoms such as sore throat, runny nose and mucous congestion. These herbs are often taken in combination with Olive Leaf, which has traditionally been used in Western herbalism as an immune system tonic with specific benefits for feverish conditions. For optimal therapeutic benefit, choose a product that’s standardised for its content of oleuropein, a potent antioxidant that has documented antimicrobial activity against a wide range of disease-causing organisms, including some strains of influenza.
Boost resistance and aid recovery with Astragalus and immune tonic herbs
In TCM, Astragalus is highly regarded as an immune system tonic that augments Defensive Qi, thus helping to boost resistance to viral infections like colds and flu. It’s often taken throughout winter, usually in combination with other Qi and Lung tonic herbs, such as Ganoderma (Reishi) and Codonopsis. Together these herbs help to promote healthy immune responses and support recovery after infection. (However, they’re not suitable for use during the acute stages of colds and flu).
Diet and lifestyle recommendations for colds and flu
- If you’ve got a cold or the flu, allow yourself as much rest as you need; soldiering on when you’re unwell may slow down your recovery time, and continuing to go to work or school when you’re sick may expose others to the virus
- Eat lots of warming foods such as garlic, onions, ginger and chilli, which are traditionally viewed as supportive to the Lung organ-meridian system that governs immune defences
- Drink lots of fluids to soothe your throat and help prevent dehydration, but avoid dairy products, which increase mucus production
- Leading a healthy balanced lifestyle is the best way to support and nourish your Defensive Qi, which thrives on a healthy nutritious diet, clean air and water, and regular exercise, rest and play
- Further support your Defensive Qi by wearing a warm jacket, scarf and hat during cold or windy weather
- Help minimise the spread of infection by paying close attention to your personal hygiene (for example making sure to wash your hands well, especially after blowing your nose, sneezing or coughing, covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough, and avoiding sharing food, cutlery or drinking vessels)
When should you see your doctor or other health professional about colds and flu?
- Colds and flu can sometimes lead to serious complications, including pneumonia, so its important to consult your health care professional if you have a cold or flu that is particularly severe or lasts longer than a week (less time in children and babies)
- Specific symptoms that warrant medical investigation include: frequent vomiting, wheezing and breathing difficulties, intense headache, extremely high or persistent fever, rashes, chest pains, earache, weight loss or the refusal of fluids