Colds and Flu

Signs and symptoms

A runny or blocked nose, sore throat, sneezing, cough, headache and mild fever are all signs of the common cold. Flu symptoms are similar but the fever is usually higher, alternating with chills and accompanied by sweating, aches and pain and fatigue.

Many different viruses can cause colds and flu. They’re passed on by inhaling infected droplets that have been sneezed or coughed into the air or by touching an area with live infection. Infection is most likely to occur when immune function is low because of tiredness, stress, poor diet and digestive function, lack of exercise or smoking.

According to Chinese medicine and naturopathy, susceptibility to colds can be increased by constipation and sluggish bowel function.
Orthodox treatments

There’s no cure for a cold but decongestants or painkillers such as paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen may be given to ease symptoms. Your doctor will also advise you to get plenty of rest and fluids. Antibiotics are of no use in treating colds and flu but may be given if there’s a secondary bacterial infection.
Complementary approaches

* Herbal medicine – echinacea has been shown to stimulate immune function by increasing white blood cell and antibody production. Expectorant herbs, such as thyme, can be used to ease coughs. Gargles of red sage or gingercan ease sore throats. Garlic is a traditional preventive remedy for colds and flu because of its antiviral and antibacterial actions. Elderberry can reduce the severity and duration of flu.

* Naturopathy – dietary advice may be given to cleanse the digestive system and boost immunity. Steam inhalations are recommended to clear the sinuses. Mustard foot baths are used to improve circulation.

* Nutritional therapy – zinc supplementation has been shown to reduce the duration of colds and the severity of symptoms. Taking vitamin C may help to reduce the duration of a cold and the severity of symptoms.

* Acupuncture and acupressure – can ease congestion and boost respiratory function.

* Homeopathy – various remedies may help: gelsemium is indicated for chills and fatigue; allium cepa for streaming eyes and nose and sneezing; rhus toxfor stiffness, restlessness and sensitivity to draughts; nux vomica for runny nose by day and congestion at night plus irritability.

* Osteopathy and chiropractic – can be useful to improve respiratory function and ease sinus congestion.

Self-help tips

* Rest as much as possible in the early stages to strengthen the immune system.
* Drink plenty of fluids.
* Always eat a healthy diet. Reduce or eliminate dairy produce for the duration of the cold, as it can promote mucus formation, and refined carbohydrates (including sugar), which may damage immune function.
* Mix hot water, lemon, Manuka honey and garlic to make a gargle or drink for sore throats.
* Essential oils of eucalyptus and tea tree can be added to hot water for steam inhalation or added to a carrier oil and massaged into the chest and upper back to ease congestion.
* Acupressure applied to either side of the base of the nostrils may help to clear a blocked nose.
* Wash your hands after contact with an infected person to prevent spread of virus.
* Keep yourself warm and dress appropriate to the season.
* Reduce stress and make adequate time for rest and relaxation to boost immune function.
* Stop smoking.

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.

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