Treating the flu naturally

Sales of herbal remedies grew 55% in 1998 to $668 million. Americans are exploring their (medicinal) roots, and in this flu season they are ready for an integrative approach.

By John Russo/

Nationwide, the flu season picked up noticeably in December and then peaked in January. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence that this year’s strain of influenza is being diagnosed in more people than in past years. However, this is small comfort to those who are suffering from a runny nose, cough, headache, malaise, inflamed respiratory mucous membranes, vomiting, diarrhea and other unpleasant flu symptoms.

Modern miracles

Another sign of the early spread of influenza infections this season was the response to the two new drugs, Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate capsules) and Relenza (zanamivir for inhalation), members of the new class of drugs called the neuraminidase inhibitors. For the week ending December 24, there were more than 51,000 prescriptions written for Relenza and nearly 45,000 prescriptions for Tamiflu. By January 13, the FDA had issued an advisory to doctors, reminding them of the safe use of influenza drugs:

  • To be effective, influenza drugs must be started during the first two days of symptoms.
  • Treatment benefit is limited to a modest increase in the rate of symptom improvement.
  • Antiviral drugs have not been proven to prevent or effectively treat viral complications of influenza, such as viral pneumonia.
  • Patients with compromised health who develop bacterial infections that mimic or accompany influenza will not respond to antiviral drugs.

If administered within 48 hours of the first signs of the flu, they can shorten the course by 24 to 36 hours. So, an illness that normally lasts about eight to 10 days may last only seven or eight days. These miracles of modern medicine come at a cost of $45 to $65 per prescription, and some insurance companies do not cover their use.

“This is a step forward, but not a giant step forward,” according to Dr. John Bartlett, chief of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. Type A, the flu’s most common strain this season, can also be treated by older medicines such as the generic drug amantadine, which typically sells for $10 for a course of therapy.

Treating the ‘external invasion’Regardless of whether they receive treatment with a neuraminidase inhibitor, there will be approximately a week during which patients will feel ill. Here are some herbal remedies, teas, soups, and an herbal bath that should make the “external invasion” (as the cold and flu are described in Chinese herbal medicine) more tolerable.

Herbal remedies Echinacea, obtained from soluble root extracts of the American coneflower, is the best known of the herbal remedies available to treat or prevent upper respiratory infections. A recent literature review revealed generally positive results in eight out of nine treatment trials, but marginal benefit in three out of four prevention trials.

Echinacea appears to enhance immune function by increasing antigen-specific immunoglobulin production. In addition, natural-killer (NK) cells and monocyte levels (both mediators of nonspecific immunity and well-demonstrated killers of virus-containing cells) increase in mice as early as one week after beginning treatment.

Starting echinacea therapy early in the course of an infection leads to greater symptom reduction. However, there is very little evidence to support its prolonged use to prevent upper respiratory infections.

Other herbals with limited data supporting their role in managing viral infections include Andrographis paniculata SHA-10 extract and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).


Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, in her book The Chinese Kitchen, recommends a simple tea of chrysanthemum flowers and sugar if you feel wet and cold. If you are experiencing a tight cough, try winter melon tea with fresh water chestnuts as a snack.

Among the more traditional teas, peppermint tea can be used to treat indigestion and GI (gastro-intestinal) discomfort. It should not be confused with spearmint, which is similar in appearance. Both are used as flavoring agents, but peppermint owes its therapeutic utility to the presence of menthol, which is not found in spearmint.

Thyme tea dries mucous membranes and relaxes bronchial passages. It is useful to sooth coughs and sore throats. Thyme’s strong flavor can be enhanced in teas by adding licorice, mint, or lemon juice.


Grace Young, in her book The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, describes a dried fig, apple and almond soup that she says helped eradicate a persistent cough that had lasted for months despite taking codeine cough syrups and throat lozenges.

For a sore throat, Yin-Fei Lo recommends poached pears with honey and lemon balm, or steamed peaches with honey dates. Fortunately, you don’t have to be sick to eat this delicious treat.

Herbal baths

Finally, a hot herbal bath can soothe aching muscles. Steep one large handful each of fresh thyme, lavender and pennyroyal in eight cups of hot water for twenty minutes. Strain and add to bath water.

This year, instead of sticking to the old adage “take an aspirin and call me in the morning,” consider including food and natural remedies as part of your prescription for the flu.

John Russo is senior vice president of medical communications at He is a pharmacist and medical writer with more than 20 years of experience in medical education.