Ready For Relief
This winter, herbs will help you give sickness the cold shoulder

By James J. Gormley

No one wants to be slowed down by illness, yet every year 1 billion people in the United States get a cold and anywhere from 56 million to 140 million come down with the flu. Your best defenses against sickness are to wash your hands frequently, eat well, get plenty of rest, and keep a positive attitude. (I will stay healthy. I will stay healthy.) But if you happen to catch either a cold or the flu, it's helpful to quickly identify whether your infection is bacterial or viral, and to know how to support your system with herbs as you begin to recover.

Which Do You Have?
A cold begins slowly, often two to three days after infection. It brings on a scratchy, sore throat, followed by sneezing and a runny nose. Body temperature stays about normal, or goes up slightly (except in children, who can run a fever as high as 102 degrees). Cold symptoms can stick around anywhere from two days to one week.

Of the 200-plus viruses that cause the common cold and sinusitis, the great majority are rhinoviruses, or "nose viruses." Nose viruses lead to inflammation of the mucous membranes that line the nasal passages (rhinitis) and bronchial tubes (bronchitis).

Flus, on the other hand, come on like gangbusters, along with headaches, a dry cough, chills, fatigue, and weakness. The incubation period for flu viruses is about 18 to 72 hours. With symptoms that usually become much more severe than those of a cold, the flu—which refers to illness caused by a group of influenza viruses that fall into three major types—makes you feel "knocked out" and often produces muscle aches in your back and legs. Fevers can run high (102 to 104 degrees), though the temperature normally starts to drop on the second or third day, when respiratory symptoms, such as nasal congestion and sore throat, crop up. Fatigue and weakness can go on for days and even weeks.

Over-the-counter cold-and-flu remedies, though popular, simply mask undesirable symptoms. Herbs, when used properly, are safe alternatives that work with your body to provide cold and flu relief.

Over-the-counter cold-and-flu remedies simply mask symptoms, such as fever, congestion, and sore-throat pain, and they decrease nasal secretions and suppress coughs. Despite the fact that many over-the-counter remedies, including cough preparations, combination cold products, pain relievers (analgesics), decongestants, and antihistamines, are considered ineffective and transient, Americans spent around $3.2 billion on such medications in 1995. And the National Center for Health Statistics estimates we now spend more than $5 billion annually on over-the-counter cold-and-flu products.

Herbs To The Rescue
In contrast, an impressive body of evidence—much of it carried out in European studies—is building in support of herbal relief from cold-and-flu symptoms. Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH, and Ray Sahelian, MD, authors of The Common Cold Cure (Avery, 1999), recommend the following ten herbs for help.

  • Herbs For A Cold
  • Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). To ease sore-throat discomfort, use lozenges or tea. If tea, drink three to four cups a day.
  • Marshmallow (Althea officinalis). To soothe a sore throat, use lozenges, syrup, or tea; if using as a tea, gargle at the back of the throat.
  • Mullein (Verbascum thapus). To loosen phlegm and congestion, drink several cups of the tea per day.
  • Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra). To quell a cough and soothe a sore throat, dissolve lozenges on the tongue, as needed.

    Herbs For The Flu
  • Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). To reduce a fever over 102 degrees, use one to two teaspoons of the dried herb to make a bitter-tasting tea, or take one to two ml of the liquid extract three times a day. Take homeopathic eupatorium at a schedule of five pellets (at 7C or 9C potency) every hour. Caution: The herbal form (not the homeopathic form) can cause nausea and vomiting if overused. Use only for short periods while suffering from the flu. People with liver problems should avoid the herbal form.
  • Elderberry (Sambucus nigra). To shorten the duration of the flu, take ten ml of the liquid extract twice a day, or 100 to 200 mg in tablet or capsule form three to four times a day. Begin within 24 hours of the first symptoms.
  • White willow bark (Salix alba). To ease aches and pains, take one to two ml of liquid tincture three times a day, or 60 to 120 mg of salicin in tablet or capsule form. Caution: Do not take if you are allergic to aspirin or younger than 14 years.

    Herbs For Colds And Flus
  • Echinacea (Echinacea spp). To shorten cold and flu duration, take one to two ml of liquid extract three times a day, or 200 to 400 mg in tablet or capsule form three to four times a day.
  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale). To ease nausea when suffering from colds and flus, take one gram (1,000 mg) of ginger in tablet or capsule form, or drink several cups of ginger tea a day.
  • Green tea (Camellia sinensis). To boost immunity, drink several cups of this tea a day, or take 250 to 750 mg of green tea extract in tablet or capsule form.

Strive For Prevention
Attempting to avoid catching a cold or the flu in the first place is still your best option. Even so, germ exposure happens.

"Barring locking yourself in a bubble, it seems that almost no one can escape the flu every season," says James Duke, PhD, herbalist and author of the upcoming CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, second edition (CRC Press, 2002). "Each year, viruses seem to hit harder than they did in previous years, leaving millions of Americans walking around with fevers, aches, and runny noses." Flu viruses, Duke notes, "can pass along mutations to their offspring, perhaps in an hour or less." Thus, they seem to be "more virulent and more resistant year after year."

So remember to wash your hands, eat well, and get enough sleep. But if this season's batch of maladies catches you off guard, look to a selection of herbs to help you recover.

James Gormley wrote DHA, A Good Fat: Essential for Life (Kensington, 1999). A former editor-in-chief of Better Nutrition magazine, he is a regular health commentator on FOX TV's Good Day New York.