How to get through cold and flu season naturally

Photo credit: iStock

Photo credit: iStock

by Kristen McElveen, ND

Well, it's here. 

The kids are getting back to school and I'm already seeing people with terrible colds, which means the flu is just around the corner. 

So how do you prepare to help naturally fight off nasty cold and flu viruses?

Step one is learning the difference between the two. 

So many people walk around saying they "have the flu," when they really have a cold. 

Colds can be pretty terrible sometimes, but flus can be a lot more severe and may have more dangerous complications, like pneumonia.

A cold virus typically causes upper respiratory symptoms (sore throat --> stuffy nose --> cough) with or without a fever and typically lasts 7-10 days with a sore throat often being the warning sign (though that nasty cough can last up to 4-6 weeks).

The flu virus can make you feel like you got hit by a bus and can cause fevers with extreme fatigue and body aches along with the upper respiratory symptoms listed above. The flu usually comes on fast and can last about 3-10 days depending on severity. 

Keep in mind vomiting is usually from food poisoning or a viral gastrointestinal bug like Norovirus and not typically from influenza viruses.

Colds and flus are both caused by viruses, so asking your doctor for some antibiotics isn't going to make a difference since antibiotics only help bacterial infections, not viral infections. 

Taking an antibiotic when you have a viral infection can stress your body out, potentially cause side effects (like stomach issues, diarrhea and yeast infections) and contributes to the antibiotic resistance of certain bacteria, now called "superbugs."

The best thing for a viral infection? 

Rest and fluids.

Grandma was right. Get your crock pot on and some bone broth a simmerin' (I do it in just a few hours with my InstantPot).

But there are some other things that you can do to help to prevent colds and flus as well as to help reduce the severity and duration of your cold or flu. 

It's all about the terrain.

Which means, that a healthy body is harder to invade than a vulnerable one, so by staying as healthy as possible through the winter, you are helping to prevent vulnerability to disease. 

As always, you should always check with your doctor (find your local naturopathic doctor here) before incorporating anything new into your routine as each person is different, but here are some things you can discuss with her/him:

1.  Wash Your Hands

Always wash your hands with regular soap and water for at least 30 seconds, scrubbing vigorously. Antimicrobial hand gels and soaps are ok in a pinch, but try to avoid them if at all possible as they are actually contributing to antibiotic resistance, creating "superbugs." Be sure to always wash your hands especially before eating or touching your mouth or eyes (and after blowing you nose and coughing if you are sick).

2.  Take a high-quality probiotic

This is important to discuss with your doc as there are so many different strains and different potencies out there. With probiotics, you don't want to take too much, so see what's right for you. In general, for maintenance, I would typically recommend 2 - 5 billion organisms daily, but when fighting off an infection, I would sometimes up it to 15 - 20 billion or more, depending on the person. 

Most products you find on the shelves in stores and even health food stores are not very high quality. Be sure to get quality probiotics from a reputable integrative pharmacy/medicinary with an ND on staff or directly from your health practitioner rather than off the shelf or through a multi-level-marketing (MLM) scheme (in other words, if your neighbor is selling it, it's probably not great quality).

Check out my virtual dispensary for the brands I recommend. 

3.  Avoid foods that suppress the immune system or produce mucus

Sugar can suppress your immune system for up to 7 hours after you eat it, as can alcohol, cigarettes and recreational drugs, so be sure you aren't inhibiting your immune system unnecessarily when you are trying to fight something off. 

Fatty foods full of trans-fat or seed oils (especially with additional sugar) like pastries and other baked goods should be avoided. 

Dairy (milk, cheese, ice cream, cream) and citrus fruits are natural mucus-producers, so you definitely don't want to eat those when you are dealing with too much mucus already!

Please remember, eggs are not dairy even though they are typically in the dairy aisle!

4.  Keep a preventive on hand to take at the first sign of a cold/flu

Check with your doc to see what's best for you. Some favorites include:

Oscillo and Muco coccinum are typically created each year or two based on the viruses of the current season.

5.  Nourish your body  

Stay well hydrated and eat immune supportive foods like onions, ginger and garlic, foods high in vitamin A (one of nature's best anti-virals) like shrimp, eggs, sweet potatoes, greens and winter squash and foods high in zinc like crimini mushrooms and pumpkin seeds. 

6.  Embrace the fever

So many people reach for that over-the-counter fever reducer at the mere sign of a fever, but in fact, fevers are our bodies first defense against invading infections and they often are able to kill off the bugs on their own. Obviously, you don't want it to get too high, but most fevers stay below 101F and with rest and fluids, you can safely let it do its thing. Some things that can help a fever is hydrotherapy and warming socks.

When to seek medical attention for fever:

  • over 100.4F in an infant 1 - 3 months old
  • over 102.2F in children 3 - 36 months old
  • over 104.5F in any age

7.  Get regular exercise, outside when possible

Breathing and sweating are two very important detox pathways for the body and are essential to keeping a strong immune system (though you will want to take it easy if you are already sick). Not to mention, getting outside helps to give you a little boost of vitamin D, which also helps to support your immune system.

In fact, Fall is a great time of year to get your vitamin D levels checked. If you live in the Northern US or wear sunscreen, you may be deficient. Vitamin D status can significantly affect your immune system, depression, hormone balance and more but you CAN get too much of it, so you need to test twice per year before taking a supplement - Fall and Spring - to be sure you are in the optimum range. I like to see my patients in the range of 50-70 ng/ml of 25 (OH) vitamin D for optimum health (see general ranges in the sources below).

8.  Get your ZZZ's

Lack of sleep can absolutely affect your immune system, so make sure you are getting good sleep, especially during Daylight Savings Time, when everyone gets a little off balance. 

Related article: 10 Keys to Healthy ZZZZs

9.  Take care of yourself right!

Use common sense and please think of others if you do become ill. Sneeze/cough into your elbow and not on the grocery store item you have in your hand that you are going to put back on the shelf. This is a hard one, but you need to stay home when you are sick. Far too many people spread illness by going to work sick (which is likely how you got sick), especially people who have high-exposure jobs or come into contact with many people daily like grocery store clerks, restaurant workers, college students, densely populated cities, etc. 

If you have a fever, that means you are contagious. 

It also means that you need to rest so that your body can focus on healing. Your boss should agree unless they want half of their employees out the following week! 

Too many people push themselves and then wonder why their cold lingers for weeks or even months. You need to give yourself time to heal! This is your body's way of bringing attention to that and it never happens at a convenient time, but the more time you take in the beginning to heal, the faster you will be feeling better. 


Here's to a healthy and happy cold and flu season!

Tell us your favorite remedies in the comments below!