Here are some tried-and-true ways that my family treats colds and flu naturally. Bonus: many of these are so benign that they can be done regularly as a way of preventing cold and flu as well.
Treat Colds and Flu Symptoms Naturally
I’ll start with my new favorite: the sinus rinse. I had tried and dismissed the sinus rinse several times over the years, since initially I didn’t find it especially fun to do. But then I had a horrendous sinus infection that went on for months. After using every over-the-counter option and waiting as long as I could stand, I finally took antibiotics. Sadly, even antibiotics did not completely clear up the problem. My doctor concluded I had probably developed allergies (treatment: daily allergy medication) or a nasal polyp (treatment: surgery). Instead of pursuing further medical treatment, I continued faithfully with my sinus rinse (which I had started at the beginning of the sinus infection, as recommended by multiple doctors and family members), figuring it was the least invasive (and cheapest!) route.
My sinuses eventually cleared up, and now I use my sinus rinse almost every day. I credit my daily sinus rinse with keeping me illness-free for months despite multiple colds passing through all my kids. It’s tough for a virus or bacteria to take hold in your nasal passages when you are continually rinsing them out. I find it easiest to rinse my sinuses in the shower (it literally takes less than one minute to do). I probably do have allergies or a nasal polyp since if I miss a day using the rinse I wake up congested on one side the next morning. There are many options out there, but I personally have found the NeilMed Sinus Rinse to be the easiest to use. I usually purchase it at Costco or from Amazon. The neti pot is another option for nasal irrigation that has many devotees.
I really wish I could get my kids to use the sinus rinse, but so far that hasn’t happened. So instead I encourage them to use the Xlear nasal spray, a saline nasal spray with xylitol and grapefruit seed extract, both of which have antimicrobial properties. I buy a separate bottle for each child as the bottles should not be shared (to prevent spreading germs). My kids’ pediatricians have often emphasized the importance of nasal irrigation during a respiratory illness to prevent ear infections and other complications. The Xlear nasal spray is completely natural, non-addictive, and safe to use on a daily basis, which makes it perfect for preventing illness as well. I encourage my kids to use it after school or other high-germ venues. Just as with the sinus rinse, the idea with the nasal spray is that nasal irrigation washes away viral particles before they have the chance to multiply, take hold, and cause illness.
For the very youngest, too young to blow their noses, we used the NoseFrida (also called FridaBaby). Basically, you put a tube against your baby’s nostril and suck the snot out. It seems a little gross (don’t worry, a barrier prevents the snot from reaching your mouth), but it is a godsend when your baby has a stuffy nose and needs to nurse or sleep. One pediatrician recommended a little saline spray before using the Nose Frieda to loosen things up in there. (You could use the Xlear nasal spray mentioned above because it is safe for all ages, or just any simple saline spray.) Again, the goal is to keep things moving in the nasal passages so that a bacterial infection cannot take hold.
When a cold passes through my family, one of my kids frequently ends up with a cough that sounds just horrible (like he's going to cough up a lung). When he was younger, if he ran around too much on the tail end of an illness, he could have a coughing fit that went on for several minutes. I eventually discovered that only one thing could really stop his cough in its tracks: a large spoonful of honey. Cough medicines don't seem to do a lick of good for my kids. But honey seems to provide at least temporary relief. Enough relief to stop a coughing fit. Enough relief to soothe an aching throat. And enough relief to let a child exhausted from coughing finally fall asleep. Once my son got through a particularly bad cough that went on for weeks by continually sipping on a cup of honey water. When I am sick, I often prepare myself a mug of hot water with freshly squeezed lemon and honey, just as my mom used to do for me (and my Grannie for her before that).
As it turns out, science agrees that honey calms coughs and is just aseffective as over-the-counter cough medicines! Honey is an especially terrific option for kids (under 6) too young to take cough medicines. The beekeepers at the farmers market told me buckwheat honey in particular is supposed to be good for coughs, but I just give my kids whatever local honey I have. In a book about communities of unusual longevity, I read that in some societies people believe in taking a spoonful of local honey daily like a supplement for health purposes! We haven’t taken it that far, but honey is my sweetener of choice. Note that due to risk of botulism honey is not recommended for those under the age of 1.
The often dry air of winter can irritate nasal passages and throats and make cold symptoms, particularly coughs, more severe and miserable. A humidifier can help calm coughs and clear noses by keeping the air moist, especially useful while trying to sleep. We like this humidifier because it has a filter you can clean, rather than one that needs to be periodically replaced. It works great for small to medium-sized bedrooms. Be sure to air out the room and even wipe down windows and other surfaces the next morning to prevent any mold from forming around windowsills, etc.
Less sugar, more citrus and fluids
I tend to be a bit skeptical of supplements, and prefer to get my nutrients such as vitamin C straight from my foods. In the winter, and especially when folks are sniffly, we really push the citrus. We buy bags of oranges and grapefruits at the farmers market every Saturday and expect everyone to have some sliced oranges at dinner (not a hard sell when they are so sweet and delicious!). I also try to limit sugar even more than usual when any of us is sick. And, of course, anyone sick should drink plenty of fluids such as water, broth, or herbal teas.
Do I need to say it? Your body needs sleep! And little bodies need it even more. As you may have already discovered from personal experience, inadequate sleep often prolongs illnesses. Make adequate or even extra sleep a top priority when you or your family members get sick. I often lure my children into bed early or for a midday nap with a story, special book, magazine, or audiobook. After my bout with the flu morphed into a full-blown sinus infection, I vowed to make getting adequate sleep a top priority for myself as well, particularly when I’m feel under the weather and have low-energy.
This is one of the hardest to do. While most illnesses do not require you to enter a state of hibernation (mild exercise should be fine if your symptoms are mild and above the neck), you and your kids do need to slow down. Kids often have to be forced to slow down (see ideas for encouraging children to relax above). Most moms I know find it even harder to let themselves to slow down, even during a miserable illness. But take it from me. It will catch up with you. Skip every nonessential activity and give yourself a chance to recover.
Simple Ways to Prevent Cold & Flu
Below I remind you of a few things we all know we should be doing to keep our immunity high. I include these here as much for me as for you, because while these tips are easy to read and write, they are often much more difficult to put into practice, particularly during the busy holiday season. But after spending Halloween to New Year’s sick last year, I for one am determined to do better!
Get adequate sleep
Adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night; teenagers need 9 to 10 hours; and younger kids need 10 or more hours. Insufficient sleep decreases long-term health by causing inflammation and weakening your immune system. It increases your risk for chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and stroke. But researchers have also found that lack of sleep has an immediate effect on your ability to fend off colds. For example, a 2015 study showed that lack of sleep (six or less hours per night) made a person four times more likely to get sick after being exposed to the common cold. Sleep had a bigger effect than any other factor measured, including age, stress level, race, income, or whether or not the person was a smoker. Think about that next time you feel tempted to stay up late finishing a project or binge watching Netflix after your kids go to bed.
Eat real foods
As Michael Pollan recommends: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Avoid “food-like substances” made in laboratories with synthetic man-made ingredients never found in nature (hygrogenated oils, artificial colors, and the like). Eat lots of leafy greens and fruit. Avoid processed sugars and flours. Processed and refined foods (like white sugar!) are a drag on your system, while real foods keep your immune system happy and humming along.
Spending time outside in nature can certainly be more challenging in the colder months of the year. But the benefits to one's mental health, cognitive function, and, yes, the immune system are certainly worth it! Researchers in Japan found that visiting a forest had long-lasting effects on immune system markers: increasing the activity of antiviral cells and intracellular anti-cancer proteins... for a full week after the visit." Additional research has connected the scent of trees to improved immune defense and reduced anxiety. You can read about additional benefits of time spent outdoors in this post.
Wash hands with soap and water
Washing hands with soap and water is one of the best ways to prevent illness in yourself and others. Of course, given the hygiene hypothesis and the benefits of a bit of dirt you don’t want to go crazy with this. I don’t recommend slathering your hands with hand sanitizer every 5 minutes. I simply encourage my family members to wash hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, after germy venues (school, church, etc.) and before eating. Just make sure your hand soap doesn’t contain toxic antibacterial chemicals. Triclosan and triclocarban are the most common, found in over 90 percent of all liquid “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” soaps.
Antibacterial chemicals have many known harmful effects, are likely contributing to antibacterial resistance, and do not increase the effectiveness of soap one iota. Even the sluggish FDA now agrees that antibacterial soaps are no better than simple soap and water at killing germs, which is why new FDA regulations ban the use of triclosan and 18 other antibacterial chemicals in liquid soaps. Be aware that manufacturers have a year to remove the 19 banned ingredients from their products. In addition, several more harmful antibacterial chemicals are under discussion and still allowed: benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride and chloroxylenol (PCMX). Read labels carefully and avoid these harmful and useless ingredients!
Avoid touching your face
After suffering through endless illnesses (colds, pink eye, Hoof and Mouth Disease, to name a few) during my first months teaching elementary school, I trained myself to never touch my face. If my eye itched, I grabbed a tissue. I’m guessing that almost all illnesses enter your body through your eyes, nose, and mouth via your hands. Train yourself to never touch your face without first washing your hands and you will stop many germs from ever entering your body. I have a friend with an immune-compromised child that has trained all her children to do this to help keep the family as illness-free as possible.
Use a sinus rinse or nasal spray
I mentioned it above but I’ll say it again. Nasal irrigation keeps germs from multiplying and causing illness. Choose a natural, non-toxic sinus rinse or saline spray that is safe to use daily to prevent illness.
What is your favorite natural remedy for cold & flu symptoms?
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