My Top Natural Cold & Flu Remedies, and the important reason why you probably don’t need those antibiotics.
Change of season is the by far the worst time of year for your overall immune health. Due to travel over March break, day light savings time and ever changing weather conditions many of my patients show up to their end of March appointments with a ton of miserable cold and flu symptoms. If you’re feeling under the weather it’s always a good idea to check in with your family doctor or ND; however, chances are that you don’t actually need to take an antibiotic.
A study, preformed by researchers from the Cleveland Clinic, found that 66% of visits for upper respiratory tract infections (URIs) resulted in an antibiotic prescription from US doctors. This is alarming when you consider that the vast majority of URIs are due to viral infections and that antibiotics only target bacteria. This means that the antibiotics being dispensed by MDs will very likely have no effect on your cold and flu making this a truly disappointing statistic.
New research also suggests that overprescription of antibiotics is also becoming a big problem closer to home. Ontario is seeing a high rate of prescribed antibiotics with statistics showing that there were over 8 million antibiotic prescriptions dispensed during a 1-year study period. A highly concerning statistic considering that the inappropriate overprescribing of antibiotics can lead to an increase in drug- resistant infections. Antibiotics also significantly damage the microbiome; the bacteria living in our bodies that help regulate your immune system, energy production, digestion, cognition, and even your weight.
So why is your medical doctor prescribing you an antibiotic when the overwhelming majority of colds and flus are caused by a virus? This Cleveland clinic study determined that 91% of patients who got an antibiotic prescription rated their encounter with their physician as 5 stars compared with only 73% of those who didn’t get a prescription during their visit. This shows that the desire to please patients and ensure repeat visits can, unfortunately, be a factor when it comes to your doctor’s prescribing practice.
Safe & Natural Cold & flu tips:
A cough, stuffy nose and fever are all your immune system’s way of trying to get rid of the virus that’s taken up residence in your upper respiratory tract. It’s a better idea to enhance your own immune system to encourage healing before you grab a prescription for an unlikely bacterial infection (see below for when you should actually be taking an anti-biotic). Over the counter medications should also typically be avoided since studies show that they do not shorten the duration of your illness and only suppress symptoms. The same symptoms that are your body’s way of fighting off invaders. That cough you’re experience is actually your throat & lung’s way of trying to expel pathogens, and all that extra mucous is binding up viruses in your sinuses and nasal passages to help move it out of your body.
The following natural medicines can help improve your own immune function in order to safely (you don’t have to worry about liver damage and stomach problems!) get rid of those change of season cold and flu symptoms:
- Increase your Zinc intake: Studies show that zinc supplementation can shorten the duration and severity of sore throat symptoms and enhance immune function. It works even better with paired with a little vitamin A. Zinc can be tough on the digestive system though, so I recommend taking small doses more frequently in the form of lozenges. It’s also beneficial to increase your dietary intake of zinc from foods like pumpkin seeds, oysters, cashews, shiitake mushrooms and chickpeas.
- Take a Warm Bath: A fever is your body’s way of fighting off a cold. Viruses are sensitive to shifts in temperature so a sudden increase in your body temperature makes you a less hospitable host to these pathogens. You can mimic these effects by taking frequent warm baths. I love to add a cup of Epsom salts to my ‘sick baths’ since they contain a ton of magnesium to soothe sore muscles. It’s also nice to add a table spoon of ground ginger as ginger is a diaphoretic herb, meaning it increases sweating.
- Herbal Immune Support: While herbal supplements like oregano oil, echinacea and astragalus can work wonders for your immune system they’re not appropriate for all symptoms and patients. What’s more, quality and concentration of ingredients can vary greatly, and your health food store herbal supplements don’t always have the right strains or potencies to effectively support your immunity. Always consult with your Naturopathic doctor or herbalist before starting any herbal remedies. I typically advise that my patients contact me at first sign of flu symptoms for a personalized immune protocol.
- Quit Sugar: Refined sugar weakens the immune system by decreasing the number of active NK cells, a type of white blood cell that are called in to fight infections. Most pharmacy cold medications and lozenges even contain high fructose corn syrup, which should be avoided at all costs when you’re immune system is already compromised. Avoid fruit juices at this time and instead stick with unsweetened teas and broths. If you need a little sweetener use something like raw honey which can ease throat pain (see below).
- Add a Spoonful of Honey: Delicious and soothing, studies show that raw local honey is more effective than over the counter cough syrups at relieving throat pain. Honey also contains a ton of naturally occurring antiviral and antibacterial properties to naturally boost the immune system. My favourite tea to drink when I’m feeling under the weather contains 1 tsp Manuka honey, 1 tbs freshly grated ginger and the juice from 1/2 a lemon. Lemon juice adds additional vitamin C to your brew, while ginger can help reduce inflammation and support the immune system. (Caution: avoid giving unpasteurized honey to infants).
- Take Some Vitamin C: Vitamin C is a cheap and safe addition to your medicine cabinet since it acutely supports the immune system during cold and flu season. As with any supplement, check with your Naturopathic doctor first, but studies show that between 500-1000 milligrams every 2 hours is effective at shortening the duration of upper respiratory tract infections. You can also add more vitamin C to the diet in the form of kiwis, bell peppers, oranges, strawberries, dark leafy greens and broccoli.
- Eat Healthy & Light Meals: It takes a ton of energy to produce a healthy immune response. White blood cell production takes major physical resources and the more energy your body requires to digest the food you’re eating, the less it will have left over to mount a strong immune response. Stick to light meals like veggie-rich soups, salads, teas and bone broths. Chicken soup with homemade bone broth, carrots, celery, grated ginger and plenty of kale is my go-to when I’m feeling under the weather.
- Rest: Sleep; sleep well and sleep often. If you need a little natural support to help you sleep through the night while your sick then go for it! Rest is one of the most important things when it comes to recovering quickly from a cold or flu since this is your time to heal. You may want to try a tea containing chamomile flowers or passion flower instead of over the counter meds to help you get a nice restful sleep. It’s also important to take a little time off work, no one likes to be around a sick person and you’ll only lengthen the duration of your illness if you don’t take the rest you need to get better.
- Enjoy a Eucalyptus Shower: A hot shower with eucalyptus oil is one of my favourite ways to recover from a cold; it almost feels like a day at the spa! This can be done two ways – the easiest being to just sprinkle 5 – 10 drops directly into the stream of hot water while you’re showering and take some deep breaths. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous you could also jump on the fresh eucalyptus shower bandwagon popularized by instagram. Get your non-sick family member or spouse to grab a bunch of eucalyptus leaves from the grocery store (Whole foods in Oakville usually has some in stock) and hang the leaves upside down in your shower near the hot water stream. The hot steam from the shower releases the essential oils within the plant to help clear congestion and break up mucus in your body. To reap the most benefits from your eucalyptus steam I recommend slowly breathing in the steam for at least five minutes.
How can you tell if your infection is actually due to bacteria?
- Bacterial infections often cause a more focused area of extreme symptoms, such as a severely painful ear or throat.
- Consider the duration of your illness. Viral colds and flus usually resolve after a week, while illnesses that last more than 10 days or that grow suddenly worse after five to seven days indicate that your virus may have evolved into a bacterial infection.
- People with underlying lung problems, such as asthma or COPD may be more prone to bacterial infections and should seek a professional opinion sooner.
- Note: it was once though that signs like thick, green mucus suggested the presence of a bacterial infection, but this is no longer believed to be accurate.
Antibiotics are still being over-prescribed despite the overwhelming evidence showing how harmful they can be to all aspects of health. Both the patient and the prescriber are part of this process and it’s your responsibility to do your research and be informed about the medications you’re taking.
If you do need to take an antibiotic this cold and flu season make sure you’re also paying a visit to your Naturopathic doctor to make sure you’re taking the right probiotic strains to decrease the possibility of damage. Probiotics have been shown to decelerate resistance to antibiotics with a recent study showing that only 30% of patients experienced antibiotic resistance when co-treated with an appropriate probiotic vs. 100% in the group that was not given prophylactic probiotics.
If you live in the GTA and want to receive your own individualized immune health protocol you’re welcome to book in for an initial consultation or contact me via my website for additional information.
This information is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your Naturopathic doctor or primary care physician. Do not use the information in this document for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. Always speak with your Naturopathic doctor before taking any medication or nutritional or herbal or using any treatment for a health problem. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your health care provider promptly. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking professional advice because of something you have read online.