As we head into winter, many of us will experience the misery of cold and flu symptoms. The stress of the holiday season, dry indoor air, and shopping amongst crowds of people all increase our risk of getting sick.
In fact, influenza and the common cold cost the U.S. economy approximately $40 billion a year.
That’s the latest estimate from a recent Archives of Internal Medicine report submitted by Dr. Mark Fendrick with the Consortium for Health Outcomes, Innovation, and Cost Effectiveness Studies at the University of Michigan.
“Many people choose to get a flu shot while others prefer to review the data to see if that is the best decision for them,” Dr. Ellen Kamhi, Ph.D., R.N., author of the “Natural Medicine Chest.”
She notes that the flu vaccine does not offer guaranteed protection against influenza. In a typical year it is only about 63 percent effective in preventing influenza. In a bad year — such as the 2014-15 flu season, when the vaccine was not a good match for the viral strains that were most common — it is even less protective.
“[An] article that appeared in The Lancet reviewed 31 studies of people who received flu vaccines and concluded that evidence for protection in adults aged 65 and older is lacking,” she says. “A major report by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] concluded that the flu shot used in the 2014-2015 season was only 23 percent effective.”
Kamhi says that whether or not your decide that the flu vaccine is right for you, there are natural ways to help build your own immunity to reduce the chance of getting sick and make cold and flu illnesses less severe.
“Everyone gets a cold or flu at some point in his or her life but our high tech medical system still has little help to offer except the use of drugs that might suppress the all too familiar symptoms — runny nose, cough, congestion and fatigue,” says Kamhi. “These drugs, however, often have side effects such as drowsiness, or could lead to more serious complications.”
Herbal treatments for colds and flu focus on supporting the immune system to resist infection, relieving congestion and coughs, soothing a sore throat and quieting an upset stomach.
Here are Kamhi’s top picks:
Echinacea. This herb increases the motility of white blood cells, the body’s soldiers that guard the immune system.
Goldenseal. This product contains the active ingredient berberine which has been shown to have antibacterial properties and doesn’t create resistance strains of bacteria like many antibiotics.
Maitake mushrooms. They are well recognized for their immune enhancing benefits. These mushrooms contain a wealth of beta-glucans, the mushroom’s active ingredient, which provides the extra protection the body needs during the peak cold and flu season.
Elderberry. You can buy this herb in a delicious syrup form at many health food stores or online. It’s great for both adults and children and helps calm the symptoms of cold and flu while decreasing the reproductive capacity of many viruses.
Salt water for stuffy noses. Salt water rinsing helps break up nasal congestion while removing virus and bacteria particles. Mix ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon baking soda in 8 ounces of warm water. Use a bulb syringe or nasal irrigation kit to squirt the water up your nose, one nostril at a time.
A steamy shower. Hot, steamy showers moisturize your nasal passages and may help you relax. If you are dizzy from the flu, run the steamy shower but sit on a chair nearby and inhale the vapor.
Blow your nose softly. It’s important to blow your nose regularly when you have a cold rather than sniffling the mucus back into your head. But when you blow hard, you can send germ-carrying phlegm into your ear passages causing an earache. The best way to blow your nose is to press a finger over one nostril while you gently blow to clear the other.
Use a salve under your nose. A small dab of mentholated salve or breathing eucalyptus oil can help open the breathing passages and soothe irritated skin. Put the product on the outside, under your nose, not inside the nostril.
Sleep with an extra pillow. Elevating your head can help relieve congested nasal passages.
Eat infection-fighting foods. These include bananas and rice to curb diarrhea and soothe an upset stomach, blueberries which are high in natural aspirin to lower fever, chili peppers to open nasal passages, cranberries to prevent bacteria from sticking to cells in the urinary tract, and green tea that contains catechin, a phytochemical that may have natural antibacterial and anti-diarrhea properties.
And don’t’ forget chicken soup! The warmth of the liquid combined with the nourishing broth can help you feel better. Add a couple of cloves of chopped garlic for extra antibacterial and antiviral fighting power.
Remember, if your symptoms are severe and don’t appear to be getting better within a week or two, call your doctor.
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