As the mom of two kiddos, almost every single virus imaginable seems to make its way through my community, into my home, and try it’s best to take on my immune system.
Not a month goes by during the school year without my children bringing home at least one nasty bug — whether it’s a cold, sore throat, cough, mystery rash or the dreaded stomach virus.
Luckily, as a grown-up, I have a stronger immune system that shields me from most of their viruses. Nonetheless, I do sometimes catch them, and the symptoms can be really disruptive. Whether or not you’re a parent, no one wants to be up all night sniffling, coughing, or struggling to swallow with a sore throat and stuffed-up nasal passages. And certainly no one wants to be laid up for days with the flu.
While there are prescription and over-the-counter medicines that can help during cold and flu season, many of us would rather go a more natural route. I know I would choose good old-fashioned home remedies over possibly toxic chemicals any day. But with so many natural alternatives out there — and some are quite pricey — it can be hard to discern what will actually work.
Don’t worry: I’ve got you covered. After years of dealing with the junk my kids bring home, I’ve become something of an expert on the natural cold and flu remedies that are effective. The following are a list of immune-boosting remedies that have not only worked for me and my family, but have scientific studies to back up their efficacy.
To some, elderberry (from the elder flower) sounds like just another health food craze. That’s not the case, though. Elderberry is legit, and several reputable studies have supported its ability to fight off colds and flus.
Elderberry — which can be consumed in pill form, as a gummy, tincture or syrup — is known to have anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties, according to Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Elderflower may also help reduce swelling in the mucous membranes or sinuses. This ingredient can provide some much-needed relief when it comes to clearing up phlegm that can be hard to get rid of with a sore throat or the flu. One study, published in the Journal of International Medical Research, found that patients who took elderberry within 48 hours of presenting with Influenza A or B recovered up to four days faster than those who were given a placebo.
Elderberry can also combat the common cold. A study published in Nutrients examined the effects of taking elderberry at the start of a cold. Participants who took it recovered two days sooner than those who did not. They also had overall reduced symptoms. Not only is this some awesome data backing up this particular plant-based home remedy, it is also a call to action: take some elderberry at the first sign of a runny nose.
You’ve probably been told since you were a kid that honey is a cure-all for cold and cough symptoms. Put a spoonful of it in your tea and you’ll be healed in no time. Nonetheless, the research isn’t as comprehensive as you might think, and focuses primarily on the use of honey in children with respiratory infections.
Still, there is a quite a bit of evidence that honey really can help, especially when you are dealing with cough symptoms. For example, a 2007 study published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that honey can significantly reduce nighttime coughing symptoms in young children; and it was more effective than OTC cough medicine. (Note: If you are giving honey to children, you should wait until they are at least a year old, as the botulism* risk in honey is dangerous to infants.)
This research is why the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence [NICE] and Public Health England [PHE] recently released guidelines suggesting doctors consider honey as the first line of defense for coughs, before antibiotics are considered. For this reason, honey has become my go-to method of defense against coughs and has become one of my favorite natural cold remedies.
*Infant botulism is a rare but serious illness caused by the ingestion of bacteria usually found in dirt, dust and honey. Older children and adults can handle these spores, but babies are at risk of dangerous side-effects.
3. Vitamin C
“Drink your orange juice!”
Vitamin C is another remedy you have heard about all your life. It’s widely regarded as the arch-nemesis of the common cold, with many of us adding high doses of vitamin C to our daily routines.
Contrary to what you may have thought, vitamin C will probably not prevent you from getting sick in the first place, though it may decrease your symptoms and shorten the length of your illness (we’ll take it).
The best evidence for its use comes from a 2013 study with 11,000 participants. Supplementation of 200mg a day did not seem to prevent people from catching colds, but the dosage did reduce the duration of the illnesses by about 8% in adults and 14% in children. A study from 2000 found similar results, with relatively high doses of vitamin C reducing the length of the cold, but not preventing its onset.
If you are going the vitamin supplement route, there is even more promise in consuming zinc to combat colds. A 2011 systemic review concluded that patients who took zinc within 24 hours of presenting with cold symptoms had reduced duration and severity of symptoms. Five months of supplementation reduced school absences and antibiotic use in children.
Zinc is found naturally in cells throughout the body, but can also be taken as a supplement, ideally with warm water or in lozenge form. This powerful element helps the immune system fight bacteria and viruses.
5. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is probably the vitamin supplement with the best evidence for treating both cold and flu symptoms. It functions like a hormone and is sourced from sunlight and certain foods (it isn’t just good for your bones). The nutrient offers significant protection against respiratory infections. And with a large portion of the population deficient in vitamin D, it’s something to consider adding to your cold and flu prevention arsenal.
For example, this 2017 study discovered that in patients with vitamin D deficiency, daily supplementation cut their risk of picking up a respiratory infection by a whopping 50%. Another study found routine supplementation of vitamin D significantly reduced the incidences of Influenza A, especially among school children. Go vitamin D!
6. Eucalyptus Oil
Throw some essential oils in your diffuser or humidifier and you will feel soothed all over, whatever ailment you are fighting. However, it turns out there is one essential oil in particular you should most definitely mix into your humidifier during cold and flu season.
Eucalyptus oil has been proven to have strong antimicrobial properties and can even combat nasty bacteria like E. coli and staph infections. In addition, vapor rubs containing camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oils were found in one study to significantly reduce nighttime coughing symptoms among children. Deeply breathing in essential oils, especially eucalyptus, can loosen mucus and open nasal passages. Using a VapoRub containing eucalyptus or oregano oil will have a similar effect and act as a welcome decongestant.
7. Rest and Reduce Stress
Last but not least, probably the best, most natural tool for reducing your chances of getting sick is to make sure you get sufficient R & R. That’s not just your grandmother’s “eat your chicken soup” advice: studies show that sleep deprivation and stress leave you more vulnerable to illness.
A 2009 study, for example, demonstrated that patients who were sleep-deprived in the months leading up to exposure to a cold virus were more likely to catch cold symptoms. Another study proved how psychological stress can have a strong impact on our susceptibility to respiratory infections.
I don’t know about you, but I plan to stock up on each and every one of these items as winter approaches. This busy mom doesn’t have time to get sidetracked by a nasty cold or flu. Sleep and stress reduction will be harder to come by, but I’m going to try to make those a priority as well.
Fingers and toes crossed that this cold and flu season goes easy on us all!
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