A throbbing throat. A nose that’s somehow equal parts congested and runny. A rapid-fire succession of gesundheit-worthy sneezes.
No matter what foreboding signs of the common cold come first, the reflexive need to eradicate them in one fell swoop is only natural—what with ubiquitous, heavily stocked medicine aisles bombarding you with promises of instantaneous, multi-symptom relief. But before reaching for a litany of over-the-counter medications, or begging your doctor for a preemptive Z-Pak prescription, it may be worth attempting a gentler holistic approach as the first line of defense.
“Typical OTC remedies target symptoms like a cough, cold, headache, but don’t target the root issues and sometimes further depress the immune system,” explains integrative medicine physician Taz Bhatia, M.D., citing the example of antihistamines, which dry up drainage but then lead to sinus or ear infections since the drainage gets thicker and harder to expel. “Natural remedies can have fewer side effects with less exposure to harmful chemicals, as well as can treat the root issue to keep you healthier in the long run.”
Every individual, of course, is different, and a doctor should advise on when it’s time to actually break out the proverbial big guns. But in the spirit of taking a 360-degree approach to prevention and healing in 2019, here, Bhatia lays out an easy beginner’s guide to naturally warding off the basic cold and flu this winter.
1. Treat Symptoms as Soon as They Surface
How a viral infection is going to play out in the days, or even weeks, that follow its onset is largely influenced by how actionable you are in the first 24 hours. Taking it easy and upping hydration to flush a virus out are, indeed, essential, but Bhatia also recommends incorporating astragalus, a traditional Chinese herb; elderberries, a flavonoid-rich fruit; reishi, a staple healing mushroom; or antioxidant-rich vitamin C (in the range of one to two grams), which are all believed to boost the immune system, into the mix. “The minute you start feeling symptoms, take one of these every couple of hours,” she instructs.
2. Gently Draw Out Nasal Congestion
To clear congestion, Bhatia recommends a saline spray that uses salt water to cleanse the passages. Another popular vehicle for nasal rinsing to battle a cold, or just to wash out sinuses and improve the quality of breath, is a teakettle-like neti pot—just be sure the water is distilled before it passes through your nasal cavities. One more way to loosen up blockages is by steaming with anti-inflammatory essential oils such as lemongrass, eucalyptus, rosemary, and oregano. “They’re natural antihistamines that do not dry up drainage too aggressively,” she assures.
3. Soothe and Calm a Sore Throat
Consider tapping the super-herb slippery elm (the inner bark of a native North American tree), which is often mixed in powder form (no more than one tablespoon) with water or tea to form a mucilage that lines the length of the gastrointestinal tract and aids digestion. “It coats the throat and helps to alleviate pain,” explains Bhatia, adding that marshmallow root?and umcka can be similarly beneficial treatments. As for the old-fashioned, tried-and-true approach of honey and whiskey? “That’s not one I recommend,” laughs Bhatia.
4. Keep Up Rest and Fluid Intake
“Even I have been guilty of staving off a cold, jumping back into work or travel too quickly, and then dragging one out for days,” admits Bhatia. The reality is that there are no shortcuts: Drinking enough water—64 ounces of fluid per day, adding six to eight ounces for every additional cup of dehydrating coffee, alcohol, or soda—is essential for getting rid of a bug and so is getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy diet to regenerate the immune system.
5. Use Antibiotics as Sparingly as Possible
Yes, even if you’re dealing with a flu. “Antibiotics don’t treat the flu,” insists Bhatia. “They should only be used to treat flu sequelae, better known as pneumonia, or ear infections. Otherwise, they can depress the immune system by putting a greater burden on the gut microbiome and increasing the occurrence of candidiasis, a fungal infection caused by an overgrowth of yeast that’s an epidemic today.” That being said, if symptoms including vomiting, painful congestion, or intense headaches persist, see a doctor to be sure something more serious isn’t going on.
6. Remember, Prevention Is the Ultimate Defense
The best way to avoid getting sick in the first place is to take extra precautions before you are exposed to a bug: Washing your hands with soap frequently, cleansing your most common touch points (i.e. your smartphone or computer keypad), and living an overall healthy lifestyle, from daily exercise to a healthy diet to scheduling time for rest and sleep, can go miles toward a happier, healthier winter.