As an emergency turned integrative medicine physician, I have the unique opportunity to look at cold and flu syndromes through both traditional and holistic eyes. I love helping my patients prevent these illnesses AND treat them. As you can imagine, my toolbox includes both standard medical treatments along with holistic remedies.

Antibiotics are a last resort

Every winter, I experience a rush of people in my medical practice who need help with their respiratory infections (cold and flu). Some of my most frustrating cases involve patients who get frustrated when I won’t prescribe antibiotics. Usually this is when they have been sick for 3-4 days and appear to have a viral infection. As a healer, I truly want to help people and I know that antibiotics will often do more harm than good if used when not needed.

Viral infections vs. Bacterial infections

Before we get to the heart of the matter, let’s discuss some basic medical facts.

Viral infections are caused by viruses, tiny infectious agents that replicate inside living cells of other organisms (like humans!). One the virus starts to replicate, it causes symptoms in the organism/person it has invaded. Our body’s own immune system can fight most viruses, meaning the best treatment is keeping your body strong to let it do its job.

Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria. Bacteria are single celled microorganisms that live in living organisms (like humans) and throughout the planet (soil, water, etc.). While some bacteria can cause infections in humans, many of them simply “hang out” with us, living in our gut, nose, mouth and on our skin. When they do cause an infection in our body, antibiotics are usually needed for treatment.

Cold vs. Flu

Next is the difference between cold and flu. One of the most common things I see my patients get confused about is the definition of “flu.” “Flu” is short for influenza. Influenza is a viral illness caused by the influenza virus. It is highly contagious and causes a range of symptoms such as fever, cough, body aches and congestion.

People often confuse “flu” for gastroenteritis, which is the stomach “flu” involving vomiting and diarrhea. For the sake of today’s blog, we will be discussing the true flu, influenza.

Compared to the flu, the common cold has many different characteristics. It is also caused by a virus and does cause some of the same symptoms, but the symptoms are less severe. The table below shows a nice comparison of the two. Basically – flu is like a cold with high fever, bad body aches and extreme fatigue.

Symptom

Cold

Flu

Fever

Rare

Common

Headache

Rare

Common

Body aches

Mild

Severe

Fatigue

Mild

Severe

Congestion

Yes

Yes

Sore Throat

Yes

Yes

Cough

Yes

Yes

Dizziness

No

Often

Vomiting/Diarrhea

No

Sometimes

Source: Web MD

In summary:

  • A cold is typically caused by a virus and symptoms include: cough, congestion, sore throat, mild fatigue.
  • A flu is also caused by a virus but is more severe with symptoms including: all of the above PLUS fever, severe body aches, strong fatigue, headaches, dizziness and sometimes vomiting/diarrhea.
  • The viruses that cause cold and flu are typically taken care of by your body’s immune system.
  • Bacterial infections, when they occur, most often require antibiotic treatment by a physician or other health care provider.

Now for the good stuff.

How can you prevent and treat cold and flu?

The best news is, just as there is much overlap between cold and flu symptoms, there is overlap in the best preventative treatments and remedies! Whether you are suffering from the cold or flu, your options for treatment of symptoms and prevention of illness are very similar.

Let’s look at some of the best ways to combat cold and flu. These are some tried-and-true tips that I’ve learned in the emergency room and in my integrative medical practice. I recommend the following protocol to patients, friends and family. I love incorporating traditional medications with herbs and supplements in addition to soothing remedies. Enjoy!

Exposed to someone who is sick? Try this:

If you are exposed to someone with a bad flu or cold OR if you are just starting to come down with one*, consider using a combo of the following:

  • Vitamin C 500 – 1000 mg daily
  • Zinc lozenges every 2-3 hours while awake for 2-3 days
  • Echinacea (my favorite brand is called Esberitox by Enzymatic Therapy taken as package recommends

*These are best started within 48 hours and used for 1-2 days

Additional things you can try include supplement forms of Andrographis, medicinal mushroom blends and Pelargonium (my favorite is Umcka Cold Care by Nature’s Way).

For symptom relief, try some of my favorite remedies:

For sinus congestion and cough

OTC meds and treatments:

  • 12 hour pseudoephedrine once in the morning
  • Oxymetozalone (Afrin) nasal spray twice daily for no more than 3 days
  • Nasal saline spray (I personally use Simply Saline nasal spray once daily year-round every morning in the shower for nasal health; otherwise the Neti pot or equivalent nasal saline rinse works great.)
  • Peppermint/Eucalyptus Steam: Pour boiling water in a large bowl, being VERY careful not to burn yourself. Add either 6-8 peppermint tea bags OR 4-10 drops of peppermint or eucalyptus essential oil in the bowl. Lean over the bowl and using a large towel, make a tent over your head. Take deep breaths through nose and mouth for 5-10 minutes.
  • Hot tea: I like taking peeled ginger slices and steeping them in hot water for 5-10 minutes. Then add a bit of honey and lemon juice. Peppermint and chamomile teas are also great for cold and flu.
  • A spoonful of honey: For kids older than 1 (honey is not safe for kids under 1) and adults, honey is a wonderful way to help soothe cough and it simply tastes delicious! Enjoy plain or in some hot tea.
  • Peppermint rubs on chest or back: Make your own menthol rub using coconut oil, beeswax and essential oils (https://wellnessmama.com/3527/natural-vapor-rub/)
  • Don’t forget the chicken soup: Organic pasture raised chicken stock contains lots of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that will help keep your immune system strong. Use high-quality broth for optimal results.

Supplements:

In addition to these short-term remedies, don’t forget to keep your body strong with healthy supplements like fish oil, vitamin D3, and probiotics. I use these daily.

Most importantly, I always go back to basics when it comes to health. The best way to deal with cold and flu is to prevent it completely. Maintain a healthy and strong body and you are on the right track.

Don’t forget the basics and maintain these healthy practices to keep your body strong:

  • Engage in moderate exercise daily
  • Focus on good sleep and down-time
  • Keep stress low, which includes learning to cope with stressors you cannot control!
  • Spend time with family and friends – loving energy “heals”
  • Get outside – nature therapy is the BEST therapy
  • FUEL with FOOD!!!!! You most definitely ARE what you EAT! (For more on my food philosophy, read this.)

While cold and flu season can bring you down, with a little preparation and some useful tricks, you can make it through in great shape.

Disclaimer

The information presented in this blog should be cleared with your health care provider if you have existing medical conditions, take multiple medications or have a lot of allergies. Also, for illnesses lasting greater than 7-10 days, fever longer than 4-5 days, chest pain, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, rash or any worrisome symptoms, always get checked by a health care provider.

Sources

Rakel, David. Integrative Medicine E-Book Chapter 18, Viral Upper Respiratory Infection Elsevier Health Sciences. Kindle Edition.

Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine fellowship materials and study guide