Although medical textbooks list hundreds of different illnesses, a bad case of flu is high on the list of those that make you feel the sickest. Those who have really had the “flu” (and I’m not talking about a bad cold, although a mild case of the flu is indistinguishable from a bad cold) will know exactly what I’m talking about. It seems that your every muscle aches; you feel so weak you can barely click the remote on your TV; your mind is so foggy that comic books are challenging; and your throat is raw from a cough that brings up no phlegm. Conventional medicine can offer some help: If you’re at a high risk for flu, vaccines can reduce your risk of getting flu during an epidemic; antiviral medications can help (somewhat) check the spread of the germ to other members of your family; antibiotics can help you deal with bacterial superinfection, if you develop one.
Other than that, you’re on your own, which is why adding some alternative remedies to help ease discomfort and possibly speed up recovery is the approach we take at WholeHealth Chicago.
What is Flu?
Influenza, or the flu, as it’s commonly called, is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory tract. A mild flu is hard to distinguish from a bad cold. A more severe case affects the entire body, with symptoms that include a sudden onset of fever and chills, joint pain, muscle aches, headaches, dry cough, burning eyes, extreme fatigue, and loss of appetite. Flu symptoms generally appear three or four days after exposure to a flu virus. The illness usually runs its course within 10 days, although weakness and fatigue may persist for days or weeks afterward. As with colds, the symptoms of the flu aren’t caused by the virus itself, but rather are the effects of the body trying to prevent or fight off the infection. There’s no cure for the flu, but bed rest and sensible self-care measures can help make the symptoms more bearable.
Unlike colds, which rarely result in complications, the flu virus can sometimes lead to further, potentially serious problems, such as bacterial sinusitis, bronchitis or pneumonia. Those at greatest risk of developing flu-related complications are the elderly; people suffering from severe anemia, diabetes, or a major chronic illness (such as heart, kidney or lung disease); and anyone whose immune system is depressed as a result of serious disease (such as AIDS) or medical treatments (such as cancer chemotherapy).
- A moderate to high fever (between 101°F to 103°F) and chills that develop suddenly and last for three to five days
- Joint pain, muscle aches and headache
- Dry cough
- Sore throat
- Nasal congestion or runny discharge
- Burning sensation in the eyes
- Loss of appetite
- Deep fatigue
What Causes Flu?
Winter is the peak season for influenza, when indoor heating makes the air much less humid. This arid air dries out the nasal passages and creates the perfect conditions for viruses to invade and multiply. The flu often occurs as an epidemic, affecting a large part of the population in any given year. Outbreaks of the flu are caused by mutating strains of three basic types of influenza viruses.
Type A viruses are usually the most virulent and the ones most often responsible for major epidemics. They constantly mutate into new strains, making effective immunization against them difficult. The less-severe type B viruses mutate less often and cause smaller, more localized outbreaks. Type C viruses cause mild cases of the flu that resemble a common cold. Influenza viruses are often designated by their type and presumed place of origin.
The highly contagious flu virus can be contracted simply by inhaling virus-filled droplets expelled in a flu sufferer’s coughs and sneezes. The virus can also be transmitted by direct contact (kissing or shaking the unwashed hands of an infected person) or by indirect contact (handling an object touched by a flu sufferer’s unwashed hands). Flu is so common in the winter at least in part because it’s the time of year when people are most likely to be indoors and in close proximity to one another.
Treatment and Prevention
Although extremely debilitating and uncomfortable while they last, most cases of the flu are not dangerous, and usually clear up–with or without treatment–within 10 days. A self-care regimen of bed rest, hot fluids and aspirin or acetaminophen helps ease flu symptoms, and antiviral supplements may help speed recovery.
Conventional antiviral medicines designed for flu have received mixed reviews in the past, from both patients and physicians. The oldest, amantadine, was originally designed for Parkinson’s disease, but actually seemed to shorten influenza in these patients. The newer drugs, zanamivir (Relenza), which is a nasal spray, and oseltamivir (Tamiflu), are both very new and very expensive. You have to use them early in the course of the condition for any effectiveness. Most physicians are skeptical but feel they’re better to give than antibiotics, which are useless for the flu.
Getting a flu shot every fall is the most effective way to prevent that year’s flu variation (or at least reduce its severity if you do get it). The vaccine is especially recommended for the elderly and anyone else at high risk of developing flu-related complications. (Pregnant women should consult their doctors before getting a flu shot, and people allergic to eggs should avoid the vaccine.)
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it’s always a wise idea to talk with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
Antiviral supplements like vitamin A may help shorten the duration of the flu by attacking the virus itself, rather than suppressing symptoms. To treat a case of the flu, take vitamin A in high doses (50,000 IU twice a day) until symptoms improve, but for no more than seven days. After that, reduce the dosage to 25,000 IU a day, if necessary. (Pregnant women or women planning pregnancy, however, should never exceed 5,000 IU vitamin A per day.)
Taken in high doses (2,000 mg three times a day, for five to seven days), vitamin C may also help speed recovery from the flu. After five days, reduce the dosage by half. The best way to take high doses of vitamin C is in its buffered powdered form (1 1/2 teaspoon in 6 to 8 ounces of juice or water every four to six hours; cut back on the amount if watery diarrhea occurs).
Consider taking the herb echinacea to boost your immune system. For prevention, alternate it every three weeks with the herb astragalus. To treat (but not prevent) flu, combine echinacea with goldenseal.
If you tend to develop flu-related bacterial infections, such as bronchitis or sinusitis, start taking garlic at the first signs of flu. Compounds in garlic may prevent bacteria from invading tissues.
There’s also an effective homeopathic remedy called Oscilloccocinum. Place 10 pellets under your tongue every 30 minutes or so at first sign of flu symptoms. Usually after five to seven doses, the severity of your flu symptoms will lessen.
Get supplement dosages and tips in our WholeHealth Chicago Supplement Recommendations for the Flu.
Stay in bed until your temperature returns to normal and body aches and pains subside.
Take aspirin or acetaminophen to relieve pain and reduce a fever of 103°F or higher. Do not take acetaminophen or ibuprofen if temperature is up to 102°F because a low-grade fever is an antiviral agent working to get rid of the flu. And do not exceed 4,000 mg of acetaminophen in 24 hours to avoid damaging your liver.
Give children under age 16 acetaminophen, not aspirin, which can cause Reye’s Syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal childhood disorder.
Drinking plenty of fluids prevents dehydration and helps keep the mucous lining of the respiratory system moist and better able to fight the infection. If you find water boring, try apple, grape, blueberry, or orange juice; or vegetable, chicken, or beef broths; or even a sports drink with its added minerals and electrolytes.
Using a humidifer or cool-mist vaporizer during the winter can keep indoor air moist.
To ease a sore throat, gargle with warm, salty water. Many a sore throat is due to the accompanying post nasal drip of a cold; this might be treated with a natural antihistamine such as nettle (250 mg three times a day).
Zinc lozenges may also help speed recovery, perhaps by destroying the flu virus itself. (Read zinc lozenge labels carefully. Only zinc gluconate, ascorbate, and glycinate help fight colds. Don’t buy zinc products containing sorbitol, mannitol, or citric acid. When combined with saliva, these ingredients make zinc ineffective.) Another tip is to try breaking the tablets into quarters; suck on each piece every 30 minutes to 1 hour. If the particular virus you have is sensitive to the zinc, after the fourth tablet you should notice some relief in your sore throat pain.
If you have a dry, nonproductive cough (typical of the flu) that keeps you up at night, an over-the-counter cough suppressant containing dextromethorphan can help you get a good night’s sleep.
In addition to getting an annual flu vaccination, you can lower your risk of contracting the flu by avoiding close contact with flu sufferers and by not handling objects they’ve touched. Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your face with unwashed hands.
When to Call a Doctor
- If flu symptoms do not subside after a week or if you begin to feel better and then suffer a relapse. This could indicate a bacterial lung infection.
- If you notice green, dark yellow or brown mucus. This could indicate a bacterial infection in the lungs or sinuses.
- If you experience chest pain, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. This could be a sign of pneumonia, especially if accompanied by a high fever.
- If you have a sore throat in addition to a fever of above 101°F that lasts for 24 hours. This could indicate strep throat, which requires antibiotics.
- Whenever you contract the flu–if you are at high risk for flu complications
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: To me, colds are nothing in comparison to a bad case of flu, which just seems to flatten you. Perhaps it’s small consolation, but as uncomfortable as they are, many of the symptoms you’re feeling (such as fever and cough) are your body’s attempts to kill the virus or shed it.
If you’re in the middle of an flu epidemic, and you find yourself among the victims, the first step to take–if you’re less than 48 hours into your symptoms–is to call your doctor for a prescription for either amantadine (Symmetrel), oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza). These antiviral medications can sometimes (repeat, sometimes) reduce the symptoms and shorten the duration of a case of flu.
You can also seek some relief with over-the-counter remedies: Look for a cough syrup containing dextromethorphan (DM), and for fever and pain relief either some Tylenol or ibuprofen. Just remember that these medications won’t cure a thing, but they should help you feel a bit better.
HOW TO TAKE THE SUPPLEMENTS
As you can see in the chart below, the supplement dosages for flu are pretty substantial. Stay with all the “Most Effective” supplements in the doses recommended for the first five to seven days of your symptoms. Then reduce the dosages by 50% for the duration of your symptoms. (You can reduce the amounts sooner than seven days if you feel yourself improving sooner.)
Echinacea has potent antiviral and immune-stimulating effects and is approved by German physicians as part of a supportive treatment for influenza and other viral infections. When fighting a flu infection, consider combining your echinacea with the herb goldenseal as well. During the cold and flu season, take echinacea in one- or two-week rotations with other immune-stimulating herbs, such as astragalus and the reishi and maitake mushrooms. Such a rotation may help prevent your flu infection from happening altogether.
Vitamin A and the zinc lozenges also have antiviral and immune-stimulating effects. Vitamin C may help reduce the severity of your symptoms. Finally, although elder flower tea may have some antiviral properties, what’s more useful is elderberry juice syrup (Sambucol) which has been shown in several studies to have a specific antiviral effect against the influenza virus.
Add garlic if you are prone to developing bacterial infections, such as sinusitis or bronchitis, when you get the flu. Garlic’s antibacterial capabilities may prevent bacteria from invading susceptible tissues.
And next year, get a flu shot.
Of special concern
If coughing or some other flu symptom is interfering with your sleep, try taking the herb valerian (400-600 mg at bedtime) which will help you fall and stay asleep.
If you think stress contributed to your contracting the flu in the first place, once you’ve recovered, try the natural herbal relaxant kava (250-500 mg 2-3 times a day).
If you’re intrigued by homeopathic remedies, consider Oscillococcinum (follow package instructions), Europe’s best selling nonprescription therapy for influenza infections. Important:
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD