Complementary and Alternative Medicine Therapies for Cold and Flu Season: What Is the Science?

Kathi J. Kemper, MD, MPH


November 03, 2009


Upper respiratory tract illnesses and influenza-like illnesses are common, as is the use of home remedies and natural products to prevent and treat them. Most natural or folk therapies have not been tested in rigorous controlled trials in diverse populations, and for those that have, studies have often had mixed results. It is prudent to ensure good hygiene, immunizations, adequate rest, and adequate fluid intake, while avoiding deficiencies of essential nutrients. Taken prophylactically, echinacea can reduce the risk for URTI in adults by 58%; some data also support the use of garlic, American ginseng, pelargonium, and probiotics in adults to prevent or treat URTI. In children, some data suggest that vitamin C and echinacea can help reduce the risk for prolonged URTIs. The strongest data for prevention of URTI in both adult and pediatric patients are from studies on probiotics; additional research is necessary to determine optimal doses and to compare the effectiveness of various combinations of different probiotics with and without different prebiotic compounds. Little research has addressed the role of natural products in preventing or treating ILI. Although studies of black elderberry and andrographis are promising, no research has evaluated the optimal roles of these products with atypical H1N1 influenza infections. Aside from common sense precautions (avoiding honey for children less than 1 year old to reduce the risk for botulism; avoid giving bacterial products to severely immunocompromised patients), natural products are generally very safe, and their use can be tolerated.


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