Natural Cold & Flu Remedies (from Chinese Medicine)

It starts in the last weeks of summer with the “back-to-school” cold. By the time fall is slowly starting to turn to winter, it can feel like cold and flu infections are lurking on every door knob and elevator button.

And the truth is, they are! School age kids get 6-8 colds on average per year, and adults get 2-4. Women get more colds than men – probably because they often have more contact with kids. That averages roughly 5.5 missed work days per person, and 150 million workdays missed  nationwide, just due to the common cold virus.

But, you don’t have to get sick that often (or stay sick so long)! You can get through the fall and winter without sniffles, runny noses, hacking coughs, and more phlegm than you thought existed in the universe – and you can do it without prescription drugs or over-the-counter cough syrups.

Can You Treat a Cold or Flu Naturally?

Absolutely. If you catch it early enough, nutrients and herbs can cut a virus off before it takes hold. And if you don’t catch it in time to prevent it from taking root, holistic treatment works powerfully to decrease symptoms, shorten the duration, and prevent secondary infections (like bronchitis or pneumonia) from developing later.

And remember: antibiotics do not work for viral infections, so they have no use in treating the common cold. The only time you should use antibiotics is if a bacterial infection sets in on top of a cold or flu.  

Herbs, on the other hand, can help treat both bacteria and viruses. One plant can contain thousands of phytochemicals – compounds that are antiviral, help to boost white blood cell sounds, and antibacterial can all be in the same herb! Carefully combining herbs, as has been done for thousands of years, can make them even more powerful!

Why I Use Chinese Medicine to Treat Colds & Flus

When patients (or myself!) come down with the common cold, I always go back to my roots in Chinese Herbal Medicine. Herbs have been used by Chinese Medicine practitioners for thousands of years to treat and prevent colds and flus.

In Chinese Medicine, the common cold is divided into six distinct stages that each have unique herbal treatments. Formulas to treat symptoms of each stage are carefully created with different herbs. Chinese medicine herbalists consider not just what stage of a cold you’re in, but also the properties of the herbs, temperatures, and how a person will interact with the herbs based on their own constitution.    

These formulas can give you both quick, short-term relief (by treating your symptoms) as well as help you get better faster (by boosting your immune system).

To really customize an herbal formula to what stage of a cold you are at and your constitution, I would recommend an in-person consult. But even if you can’t see a Chinese Medicine practitioner like me in person, there are some general nutrient and herbal formulas that are balanced enough to be safe and effective in all generally healthy adults who are trying to fend off impending coughing and sneezing.  

Prevention First

Hands down, the best way to fight a cold or flu is to not get sick in the first place!

It goes without saying that practising good hygiene is the first step  – wash your hands with hot water and soap and cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. Eating a nutrient-dense diet, getting plenty of sleep,  and regular exercise can also help keep your immune system strong so that you effortlessly fight off anything that comes your way.

But Chinese herbs can be a secret weapon in preventing colds, too. Herbs can help strengthen our immune systems and fight off colds before they take root.

My favourite formula for taking throughout cold and flu season to strengthen the immune system is Yu Ping Fen Wan. This traditional Chinese formula contains lots of Astragalus, an herb which helps to increase circulating white blood cell counts and increases cytokines in our immune system that help ward off viral infections. The brand I use calls this formula Astra C, and the dose for adults is 2 tabs 2-3 times daily through cold and flu season.

What If I’m Already Sick?

With any Chinese Medicine formula, the quicker you start to take it, the better results you can expect. Personally, I will sometimes take a few doses of the herbal formulas for the first stage of a cold if I have had significant exposure to someone who is currently sick, just to make sure I don’t come down with the same thing!

But even if you don’t catch it before symptoms set in, the sooner you start treatment, the faster you’ll feel better.

But I know what you’re thinking – the last thing you want to do when you already feel bad from a cold (and maybe have a husband with the man-flu and kids who need your attention, too) is try and decipher labels at a Chinese herb shop!

That’s why I recommend keeping some herbal formulas on hand during the winter months. These are tablets that you can keep in the cupboard, just like you would a bottle of cold syrup. That way, when a cold or flu strikes, you’re already prepared.

I have my exact cold and flu protocols
(yes, even the exact brands of herbs I use!) – the same ones I use for myself and my clients – all in one PDF. You can download a copy for free here

When To Get More Help

The common cold, and a low grade version of the annual flu virus, as common as they are, can still make you feel really bad.

Both colds and the flu can usually be treated at home, without needing to see a doctor.

The most common cold symptoms are:

  • runny nose and sneezing
  • sore throat
  • sinus congestion
  • mild headaches
  • body aches
  • chills
  • low-grade fever
  • generally feeling unwell

A cold should run its course within 7-10 days, in most adults. Herbal treatments (like the ones in my protocol) can help with these symptoms.

But if your symptoms progress to any of these, you should seek medical attention:

  • If your fever rises above 101.3 or lasts for more than 5 days
  • If your headache, ear, throat, or sinus pain becomes severe
  • If you notice wheezing, or have asthma symptoms
  • If you get a deep barking cough or bronchitis, especially if you start to feel worse several days into the virus, rather than better.

The influenza virus (aka the flu), has many of the same symptoms as a common cold virus, but it is more likely to include fever (which is frequently over 100 degrees), and tends to have a more abrupt onset. Body-aches are usually more pronounced, and it is not uncommon to also have digestive symptoms like vomiting or diarrhoea.

The flu takes up to 2 weeks to recover from. The warning signs for seeking medical attention are the same as with the common cold, but according the the Mayo clinic, additionally include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough

Feel Better Soon!

Hopefully you’re reading this article before you get hit with a nasty cold or flu – but if not, I hope you feel better soon! Grab a bowl of bone broth, bundle up,  and try some of my cold and flu protocols here.