Defeat Cold and Flu Bugs

Create a winning game plan with herbs that boost your defenses.

| September/October 2005

  • Flu shot effectiveness can be improved by taking ginseng.
    Karen Bergeron,

Cold and flu season will soon be upon us, the time when those who use medicinal herbs stock up on the two most popular non-pharmaceutical cold remedies — vitamin C and echinacea. Both are effective cold treatments, but neither work all that well for prevention, and they’re far from the whole story. However, if you understand how the immune system defends against colds and how the pesky infection spreads, you may be able to remain cold-free while those around you are congested and coughing. And if you catch a cold, expanding your horizons beyond vitamin C and echinacea can limit your misery and speed your recovery.

Colds are humanity’s most common illness. They’re caused by some 200 viruses that infect cells at the junction of the nose and throat (nasopharynx). Technically, each virus causes a different cold, but because all colds produce similar symptoms, we consider the common cold a single illness.

Most colds start with a scratchy throat and progress through nasal congestion and runny nose to a dry, hacking cough. In adults, colds rarely cause fever (unlike flu — see “Beat the Flu with a Flu Shot” on Page 26). Medically, colds are minor and “self-limiting,” meaning they go away even if you don’t treat them, usually within a week.

But the misery colds cause feels anything but minor. Americans now suffer some 500 million colds each year and spend $17 billion a year to treat them. Most of that money is wasted on pharmaceutical cold formulas that merely suppress cold symptoms without speeding your recovery. If you really want fast relief, non-drug approaches — including several herbs — are the way to go.

Key to Prevention: A Strong Immune System

Americans tend to be fatalistic about colds. But considerable research shows that by bolstering the immune system, risk can be reduced significantly.

Get regular, moderate exercise. Exercise boosts immune function and helps prevent colds, according to researchers at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. But don’t overdo it: Strenuous exercise lasting longer than 90 minutes suppresses immune function, increasing the risk of colds.

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