4 Complementary and Alternative Medicines for the Flu


Influenza is a highly contagious viral infection that affects the respiratory passages causing symptoms such as fever, severe aching, running nose, and cough. According to the CDC, the flu viruses spread mainly by droplets dispersing when flu-infected patients cough, talk, or sneeze.

Influenza is a highly contagious viral infection that affects the respiratory passages causing symptoms such as fever, severe aching, running nose, and cough. According to the CDC, the flu viruses spread mainly by droplets dispersing when flu-infected patients cough, talk, or sneeze. The droplets land in the noses or mouths of nearby individuals and spreads the flu them. Individuals may also contract the flu by touching contaminated surfaces or objects that’s been touched by other flu-infected individuals. As pharmacists, we teach patients the importance of getting the annual flu vaccine to prevent influenza, and we recommend OTC products to manage symptoms caused by influenza once infected. Most patients know about the typical recommendations such as Nyquil or Robitussin and tend to overlook some of the other options. Although not enough official research has been conducted obtained to confirm the effectiveness of these treatments, some patients swear by them and tend to turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health classifies CAM therapies as whole medical systems, manipulative and body-based practices, mind-body medicine, energy medicine, and biologically based practices. CAM includes many different therapies, such the consumption of foods and spices that are easily available yet aren’t widely or popularly known to be medicinal. As pharmacists, we don’t really use CAM therapies as much as we could, and many people are unaware of some of these treatment interventions. According to the Mayo Clinic, 40% of people report using CAM treatments and actually prefer them to prescription medications. Here are 4 foods and spices that patients might already have in their pantries that may have benefits and relieve some symptoms during this flu season:

1. American ginseng

Ginseng is a slow-growing perennial plant characterized by its fleshy roots and oval green leaves. Ginseng has many indications as it’s one of the most popular herbal remedies and is believed to restore a patient’s normal well-being. According to research findings from studies conducted by Georgia State University’s Institute for Biomedical Sciences, Ginseng has been proven to help treat and prevent influenza along with other respiratory infections, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Ginseng works by improving the survival of the epithelial cells in the lungs that are affected by influenza and causing a reduction in the expression of genes that cause inflammation. When ginseng is administered over a long period of time, multiple immune modifying effects have shown to take place, such as stimulation of antiviral proteins that play an important role in immune response. Reductions in the number of inflammatory cells within the bronchial walls have also been observed. Although the adverse effects of this herb are generally mild, some cases of anxiety and insomnia have been reported.

2. Echinacea

Echinacea is a pink flower that works as a powerful immune stimulator. For years, medicine has been compounded using the chemicals extracted from the plant’s leaves, roots, and flowers. Many chemicals that contribute to boosting the immune system are located within the plant, such as flavonoids, inulin, polysaccharides, and vitamin C. Many studies have been conducted on this herb regarding the beneficial effects it produces within the immune system. According to the University of Connecticut, Echinacea cuts the chances of catching a common cold by 58% and reduces the duration of the common cold by one-and-a-half days. Echinacea is likely safe for most patients when taken by mouth for short periods of time. Possible adverse effects are dry mouth, stomach pain, and insomnia.

3. Elderberry (Sambucol)

Sambucol is a black elderberry that helps treat flu-like symptoms when taken upon onset of symptoms. The herb works by reducing swelling in the mucous membranes and relieves nasal congestion allowing the opening of the airways. Elderberry is also believed to display antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-influenza, and even anticancer effects. According to the University of Maryland medical center, the use of elderberry can reduce the duration of influenza by a total of 3 days. Cooked elderberry is rated as possibly safe but has the potential to cause nausea, vomiting, or severe diarrhea.

4. Vitamin C

Vitamin C, which is also referred to as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin. Vitamin C can be found in many fruits and vegetables and works as a powerful antioxidant, helping the body maintain connective tissue such as skin, bones, and blood vessels. According to a study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, patients receiving vitamin C experienced reduced symptoms of the influenza by 85% compared to those not taking the vitamin. Researchers concluded that when vitamin C is administered either before or just after onset of cold or flu symptoms, it was able to successfully relieve and prevent further symptoms. Vitamin C is rated as likely safe although some patients may experience adverse effects such as fatigue, cramps, and nausea.

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