The flu, or influenza, is a viral illness that affects the respiratory tract including your nose, throat, lungs and bronchial tubes (the airways that lead to the lungs).
Mild cases of the flu can be confused with the common cold, however, the flu usually causes a more serious illness. Symptoms of the flu can include coughing, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue and headache. Flu symptoms tend to start suddenly and be accompanied by a high fever. Complications can occur, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and ear and sinus infections. People at higher risk of flu complications include children, people over 50 and those with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, heart or lung disease or HIV infection.
Although it's tempting to rely solely on natural remedies, the flu can be potentially deadly, which is why you should talk with a qualified healthcare provider if you think you may have the flu.
Further research is needed on the effectiveness and safety of herbs and supplements for the flu. The following are some remedies that are being studied.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a herb that has a long history of use as a folk remedy for colds, sinus infections and the flu. In preliminary lab studies, elderberry extracts have been found to fight off viruses. Researchers believe that anthocyanins, compounds found naturally in elderberries, may be the active component that strengthens the immune system and blocks the flu virus from sticking to our cells.
There haven't been many studies yet on whether elderberry is effective in humans at preventing or treating the flu. One small study found that five days of elderberry syrup (15 ml four times a day) was more effective than a placebo at relieving flu-like symptoms. Those who took elderberry had nearly recovered by the third or fourth day of treatment, while people who took the placebo required seven to eight days. Most studies on elderberry have been small, have tested only one commercially available product, and have received financial support from the manufacturer. Larger, independent studies are needed.
Health food stores carry elderberry juice, syrup and capsules. Side effects, although rare, may include mild indigestion or allergic reactions. Only commercially prepared extracts of the berry should be used, because the fresh leaves, flowers, bark, young buds, unripe berries and roots contain cyanide and could potentially result in cyanide poisoning.
Oscillococcinum, also known as Anas barbariae hepatitis and Cordis extractum 200 c, is a widely available homeopathic product that's manufactured in France.
The rational for its use come from the homeopathic principle “like cures like." Oscillococcinum is made from the hearts and livers of ducks, which are believed to be particularly vulnerable to influenza viruses.
Being a homeopathic remedy, Oscillococcinum is prepared using a number of dilutions, in this case 200. The first mixture contains 1% of the duck extract, the second mixture contains 1% of the first mixture, the third mixture contains 1% of the second mixture, and so on until it has been diluted 200 times. After that many dilutions, it’s likely that there aren't any molecules of the duck extract in the final pill. According to homeopathic theory, molecules of the active ingredient don’t have to be present in the remedy to provide therapeutic value and in fact, the more diluted remedies are considered more potent. Critics of homeopathy say that if there are no molecules in the final remedy, it’s impossible to provide a chemical basis for its action. Still, Oscillococcinum is the most popular over-the-counter product for the flu in France and is one of the most popular homeopathic products on the market.
A review by the Cochrane Collaboration of seven previously published studies found some evidence that Oscillococcinum helped to reduce the duration of the flu by about six hours. It had no effect, however, on preventing the flu. The researchers concluded that although there isn’t enough data to draw a strong conclusion or to recommend Oscillococcinum as a flu treatment, it’s promising as a natural flu remedy and large, well-designed studies were warranted.
Although recent findings question the use of echinacea for colds and flu, it’s still one of the most popular herbs used today. A 2005 study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that echinacea did little to prevent or shorten the common cold. There were many critics of the study, who say that the study shouldn't be used as evidence that echinacea doesn't work. The Cochrane Collaboration conducted a review of 15 studies on echinacea, however, and found that it wasn't more effective than a placebo at preventing colds.
Although there are several types of echinacea, including Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida, the above-ground parts (the leaves, flowers and stems) of Echinacea purpurea have the best supporting evidence.
One study tested two different doses of Echinacea purpurea (450 mg and 900 mg) and found that the higher dose was significantly better than a placebo at reducing the severity of flu symptoms on days three and four.
Herbalists often recommend taking echinacea every two to three hours with a total daily dose of three or more grams per day at the first sign of symptoms. After several days, the dose is usually reduced and continued for the following week. Echinacea is also an ingredient in Airborne, a supplement containing vitamins and herbs that’s sold over the counter.