Getting Over a Cold or the Flu?

Joseph Feuerstein, MD
Bottom Line Health


When you’re sidelined by the fever and head-to-toe body aches of the flu or even the endless sneezing and coughing of a cold, it’s tempting to want to get back to normal life at the first sign of feeling better. Wait! These illnesses take a toll on your body, and the flu, in particular, can set you up for serious complications. When flu turns deadly: While the flu itself can quickly lead to lethal respiratory failure if the lungs are overtaken by inflammation, complications of the flu, such as pneumonia or sepsis, are often the actual cause of death. In some cases, being run down from a bad cold can even set the stage for pneumonia. Whether you’re battling the flu or a cold, here’s a natural six-step recovery plan that will also help fortify you against serious complications:

• Get tested. If you’re sure you’ve got a cold, you might be able to tough it out on your own. But symptoms of the cold and flu can be similar. The distinguishing characteristics are typically the flu’s rapid onset and extreme fatigue, but both illnesses can cause headache, coughing and a runny nose. A fever is more common with the flu, but not everyone with the flu will run a fever.  That’s why if you’re not sure what’s causing your illness—especially if you’re over age 65…have had a heart attack or stroke…or have a chronic condition such as lung disease, diabetes or ­cancer—talk to your doctor about getting tested for the flu. Some nasal or throat swab tests can provide an answer in 30 minutes or less. If you do have the flu, your doctor may want to closely supervise your recovery—in some cases, with monitoring in a hospital if you’re frail and/or have a chronic health problem. Important: Don’t assume that a cold is harmless. If it improves but then worsens…lingers for more than 10 days without getting better…and/or causes fever that lasts for more than three days, consult your physician. This could signal a complication such as bronchitis or pneumonia. If you have a cold or the flu and experience shortness of breath, chest pain or a fever over 103°F, call your doctor or 911. Caution: Respiratory infections (particularly the flu) are linked to increased risk for heart ­attack­—especially in the week following a flu diagnosis.

• Stay “horizontal.” There’s a reason you’re tired and feverish and have no appetite. Your body is forcing you to stop all activity so that it can wage an all-out effort to fight the virus. In most cases, fever is an integral part of the process—it actually stimulates your immune system to work harder than normal. What you need is lots of sleep, fluids (see below) and bed rest! Don’t let a hectic schedule or guilt over missing obligations keep you from listening to your body. It usually takes about a week to get over a cold, but the flu can set you back for up to two weeks. It may take even longer if you were run down before getting sick or if you’re managing a chronic condition, such as lung disease or diabetes, that was already stressing your system. Important: When you must get up (to, say, go to the bathroom), do so in stages—sit up…swing your feet over the side of the bed…then stand for a few seconds before you start to walk. Prolonged bed rest can lower your blood pressure, which can cause dizziness and even fainting if you stand up too quickly. 

• Consider taking elderberry and echinacea. Even though some people prefer to take a pharmaceutical such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) for the flu, elderberry and echinacea are worth considering. While some modern research on these botanicals has been mixed, both have been used for centuries to ease cold and flu symptoms and a comprehensive 2017 study published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine found that elderberry and echinacea were effective against cold and flu viruses. The phytonutrients that give elderberry its deep black-purple color have been found to help stop virus cells from multiplying. Black elderberry extract is available in liquid, tablets, and lozenges. Sambucol, Black Elderberry is particularly effective. Echinacea purpurea (one of the various species of echinacea) has been shown to have immune-stimulating properties. It’s available in capsule, extract, and liquid form. Note: If you have allergies or asthma, be sure to check with your doctor before trying echinacea. Some cold and flu products, such as Gaia Herbs’ Quick Defense with Echinacea & Elderberry…and Solaray’s Echinacea & Elderberry, contain both herbs. A combination tea, Echinacea Plus Elderberry, is available from Traditional Medicinals. Also: To treat your fever, consider alternating the lowest possible dose of acetaminophen (Tylenol) and a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen (Motrin). This helps minimize the side effects of each medication. Zinc supplements have been shown to significantly reduce the length and severity of cold symptoms. For a cold, try zinc lozenges within 24 hours of the start of your symptoms and for the duration of the illness. 

• Drink more fluids than you think you need. You don’t have to force yourself to eat solid foods, but liquids are essential—and you may not realize how much water you’re losing when you’re sweating from a fever. This can lead to dehydration, another reason for dizziness when you go from lying to standing. My rule of thumb: Drink enough to make your urine clear. Listen to your body and stick with broth and other soups at first to avoid straining your digestive system.

• Spice up your chicken soup. To amp up the healing power of chicken soup, add immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric and ginger, along with garlic. Use as much as you can tolerate of each to taste. When you are ready for solid food, start with healthy starches such as oatmeal and whole-wheat toast. It takes more effort for your body to digest raw fruits and vegetables, so try to avoid them until you’ve recovered. 

•Pace your reentry. The common rule of thumb is to wait at least 24 hours after your fever is gone before returning to your usual activities, but that can be too soon. Whether it’s work, household chores or hobbies, the more physical activity that’s involved—even standing for long periods of time—the more gradual your return should be. As for resuming your exercise regimen, wait until you have gone back to your normal diet…and start with slow-to-moderate walking for 10 minutes. It could take a week or more to get back to your full workout schedule.

Top Cold and Flu Preventive

With its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, the herbal remedy American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) has strong research supporting its use as a cold and flu preventive. In a study involving nursing-home patients that was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, it reduced the risk for flu by 89% compared with a placebo. The study participants took 200-mg capsules twice daily of a product called Cold-FX, which is usually taken throughout the cold season. Important: For cold and flu prevention, it’s American ginseng that should be used, rather than Asian, Siberian or other ginseng varieties.