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Flu vs Cold: A Natural Approach

Written by: Dr Arien van der Merwe MBChB FRIPH FRCAM MISMA

‘Sickies’ the new epidemic’. This was the front page title in an issue of Business Times newspaper. Global studies indicate that short term absenteeism in the workplace is spiraling out of control. In SA it costs our economy in excess of R2-billion a year. 40% of the short term sick leave and absenteeism costs are due to respiratory (40%) and digestive (14%) illnesses.

Most of us get a feeling of impending doom as winter approaches. The reason: cold and flu season associated with stuffy noses, fever, aches, pains.

The following information might just help you to prevent and control the winter blues!

Flu can mimic a cold in many ways. Both are respiratory infections caused by many (more than 200) viruses. While a cold may sometimes lead to secondary bacterial infections of the middle ear or sinuses, flu can lead to potentially life-threatening complications like pneumonia. Each winter, thousands of people suffer from colds and flu, both highly transmittable infections. It spreads easily from person to person through droplet distribution when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Flu (the common name for influenza) is caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat, sinuses, upper airways and lungs. It is mostly a mild disease in healthy children, young adults, and middle-aged people. Flu can, however, be life threatening in older adults and in people of any age who have chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart, lung, or kidney disease, or a compromised immune system.

Colds usually begin slowly, two to three days after infection with the virus. The first symptoms are mostly a scratchy, sore throat, followed by sneezing and a runny nose. Temperature is usually normal or only slightly elevated. A mild cough can develop several days later.

Symptoms tend to be worse in infants and young children, who sometimes have temperatures of up to 390C. Cold symptoms usually last from two days to a week. Signs of the flu include sudden onset with a headache, dry cough and chills. The symptoms quickly become more severe than those of a cold. The flu sufferer often experiences extreme exhaustion, with muscle aches in the back and legs. Fever of up to 400C is common. The fever typically begins to subside on the second or third day, and then respiratory symptoms like nasal congestion and sore throat appear. Fatigue and weakness may continue for days or even weeks.

The symptoms of cold and flu are mostly side effects of the body’s efforts to get rid of the viruses and infection.

A comparison between cold and flu symptoms:

Symptoms Cold Flu
Fever Rare; if it does occur, it is not very high Characteristic, mostly high (380- 400C); lasting 3-4 days
Headache Sometimes Prominent
General aches, pains Mild Usually present, can be severe
Fatigue, weakness Mild Usual, can last 2-3 weeks
Exhaustion Never Prominent
Stuffy nose Usual Sometimes
Sneezing Usual Sometimes
Sore throat Common Sometimes
Chest pain, discomfort, cough Mild to moderate; dry, hacking cough Common; can become severe
Duration 2 – 7 days 2 -3 weeks
Side effects Seldom secondary bacterial infection of the middle ears or sinuses Serious secondary bacterial infection common e.g. pneumonia or bronchitis

Cold and flu-like symptoms can sometimes mimic more serious illnesses like streptococcal infection of the throat, measles, and chickenpox. Allergies can also resemble colds with runny noses, sneezing, and generally feeling miserable.

Younger children are more prone to colds and flu, because of their lack of acquired immune resistance to infection and the close contacts with other kids in schools and day care. Women’s closer contact with children may also explain the greater prevalence of colds in women than in men. Natural remedies and precautionary measures will make a huge difference in quality of life for everybody.

Most colds strike in the fall and winter. Contrary to what many people believe, the increased incidence of colds during this time is actually not due to the cold weather as such. Why then do more people get colds and flu during the winter months? Probably because of more time spent indoors in cold weather, increasing the opportunity for viruses to spread among people. The warm, dry air inside helps viruses to thrive and also dries the lining of the nasal passages, making them more susceptible to infection. People also tend to eat less salads and fruit, and more soups and stews with a resulting decline in intake of antioxidants and other immune boosting phytonutrients (phyto = plant).

There are lots of natural remedies you can use to treat a cold and flu. Here are a few wellknown, proven and trusted ones to try:

  1. First Do No Harm: Stay in bed for a few days. You will recover a lot sooner. Listen to your body and rest a while. Your immune system is exhausted, too tired to fight the foreign invaders, all because of your hectic lifestyle. So take a break and relax. Click here for Stress solutions and quick tips.
  2. Don’t exercise while you’re sick and during the recovery phase – it might strain your heart and lungs. Your body is fighting a viral war, so help it!
  3. Drink lots of fluids, drink filtered water, fresh fruit and vegetable juice or soup.
  4. Put some eucalyptus or peppermint oil in boiling water in a bowl, put a towel over your head and inhale the steam. This will loosen the phlegm, hydrate the mucosal lining of the airways, while disinfecting the environment. Other aromatherapy oils to try are lavender, grapefruit, rosemary and tea tree oil (put a few drops in a burner, or in the bath, or use in a carrier oil for a soothing back and shoulder massage).
  5. Increase your intake of antioxidant food supplements: increase vitamin A to 10 000 IU’s (3mg RE activity) a day and vitamin C to 1000-2000mg a day in divided dosages. Once you are feeling better, return to your normal maintenance level.
  6. Use medicinal herbs. Herbs like garlic, Echinacea and golden seal act as natural ‘antibiotics’ active against viruses, bacteria and even fungi. They are also decongestants that dry the mucosal linings in a gentle way. They do not have side effects. They actually support the immune system.
    • Double-blind placebo controlled studies suggest that Echinacea purpurea not only shortens the duration of colds and flu while making it less severe, it also actually stops a cold that is just starting.
    • Andrographis seems to be a promising treatment for colds. It is a shrub found in India and throughout Asia. It is sometimes called Indian Echinacea because it has much the same benefits as Echinacea purpurea. Although it is not certain how Andrographis works for colds, some evidence suggests that it stimulates immunity.
    • Other herbs used in the natural treatment of cold and flu are astragalus, lime blossom, sage, elder flower, thyme and liquorice root. Most of these herbs help to reduce mucous, help the mucosal lining to recover more quickly after infection and are also effective against viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. Most of them also strengthen the immune system. Garlic and mustard both have a high content of the amino acid N-acetyl-cystein, that makes it very effective in reducing mucous in colds and flu. Turmeric contains curcumin which has a strong antiviral and anti-inflammatory effect.
    • Wild cherry bark is often used to treat an irritating, persistent cough that keeps you awake at night. It is also good for people who suffer from chronic bronchitis and for whooping cough. One of its ingredients is prunacin, a light cough suppressant and antispasmodic.
    • Pineapple extract (containing the enzyme bromelain) is a potent anti-inflammatory with mucolytic (to break down mucous) and antibacterial properties. It also improves the efficacy of prescription antibiotics and reduces the infection of the sinuses and bronchial tubes.
    • Quercetin, one of the bioflavonoids, accelerates the recovery of the mucosa after infection. It also has an anti-inflammatory, antihistamine, decongestant and antiviral effect.
    • Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) has been used for thousands of years as a fever-reducing substance and painkiller. It also helps for migraine and muscle spasm. People who are taking anticoagulants such as warfarin and aspirin should be careful when using feverfew and come off it gradually to avoid rebound blood clotting. vii. Try zinc lozenges to soothe a sore throat and zinc nasal spray for a runny nose. Make tea with fresh or dried sage leaves simmered in boiling water, with a teaspoon of honey, for a sore throat. You can also gargle with sage tea.
  7. Take additional calcium in a food form or in an amino acid chelation while you’re sick. Calcium helps blood vessels to dilate, thereby preventing the cold extremities associated with colds and flu. It also relieves allergy symptoms.
  8. What about chicken soup? It may soothe a sore throat, clear clogged passageways, and hydrate a thirsty body. At the very least, it’s good TLC, very important when you’re feeling sick and sorry for yourself!
    Sinusitis: Thick, yellow or green mucous, pain over sinuses, severe post-nasal drip.
    Bronchitis/Chest infection: Lumpy yellow or green discharge, may have speckles of blood; coughed up from chest, tight feeling when breathing
Try this recipe for immediate relief of colds, flu, thickened mucous and sinusitis: Mix together a pinch of ginger, cinnamon, mustard, cayenne pepper (optional) and turmeric with a fresh clove of garlic (optional), a little lemon juice and honey in hot water – it makes for a delightful spicy drink. (You might even add a tot of brandy!). Add a pinch of sage and thyme if the mucous is yellow or green. Drink this regularly until you feel better.
From: ‘Health & Happiness’ and ‘Geluk & Gesondheid’ written by Dr Arien van der Merwe.

Don’t use antibiotics at the first sign of a cold

If you take antibiotics for every respiratory tract infection or problem, you will soon end up with a vicious circle of lowered resistance and re-infection. Upper respiratory tract infections are often a sign that you’re overdoing things. Don’t insist on antibiotics and antihistamines. Rather take a few days’ leave and give your body a chance to recover. Keep the antibiotics for serious, persistent and life-threatening bacterial infections and they will be much more effective. Remember that 95% of upper respiratory tract infections are caused by viruses (against which traditional antibiotics are ineffective). Only 2-5% of colds develop into secondary bacterial infections. Don’t take antibiotics too soon. Even the most severe bacterial infections can be cured without antibiotics by using an immune-boosting supplement and medicinal herbs.

Antibiotic abuse has become a very serious problem, leading to increasing resistance in disease causing bacteria that may render antibiotics ineffective for certain life threatening conditions in immune compromised patients (Aids, after surgery, organ transplant patients, patients on chemo- or radiotherapy). Your abuse of antibiotics has an effect on the whole community!

Be careful of aspirin

Children and teenagers with symptoms of flu or chickenpox should not take aspirin or products containing aspirin or other salicylates (white willow bark is natural aspirin). Use of these products in young children has been associated with Reye syndrome, a rare liver condition that can be fatal.

In conclusion

These guidelines should not be seen as an attempt to replace medical advice. If natural remedies and supplements do not improve the condition within three days, if you are worried about anything, or if the condition gets worse and develops into sinusitis or bronchitis, consult your doctor at once. An acute asthma attack, croup, and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) are apposite examples of diseases where Western medicine and technology can be utilised to best advantage to save lives.

Prepare now for winter

Written by: Dr Arien van der Merwe MBChB FRIPH FRCAM MISMA

Because the symptoms of the common cold are caused by more than 200 different rhinoviruses (rhin = nose) the development of a vaccine for the common cold isn’t practical.

To minimise the spread of colds and flu, people should try to keep their defenses up and their exposure down.

Prevention is the best cure:

Cold and flu viruses can be transmitted in the following ways: touching respiratory secretions on a person’s skin (when shaking hands, for example) or environmental surfaces (such as doorknobs, kitchen counters, wash basins or handrails) and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth; also by inhaling infectious particles in the air (from a cough or sneeze).

The best way to break the chain of infection is by frequent hand washing and not touching the nose, eyes or mouth. The inner, mucous lining of the respiratory tract is the body’s first line of defense against cold and flu viruses. Drink lots of fluids, prevent air from drying out by using humidifiers, and take a vitamin A and beta carotene supplement to protect these delicate membranes. (More details further on)

To minimise the spread, avoid close contact and prolonged exposure to people with colds. Always sneeze or cough into a facial tissue and immediately throw it away. Clean surfaces with a virus-killing disinfectant. The Japanese have an excellent habit of wearing face masks when they have a cold. It is a very considerate thing to do and something we could definitely adopt in South Africa – start a new fashion accessory by wearing multi-coloured, fluorescent face masks!

Improve and maintain the optimal functioning of your immune system:

  1. Increase your intake of the antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin A, beta and mixed carotenes, vitamin E and selenium. Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, drink a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice every day and take an antioxidant food supplement combination throughout winter.
  2. Control your stress levels with daily relaxation techniques (refer: stress management techniques), do regular moderate exercise (strenuous exercise exhausts your immune system) and listen to your body by taking a break when you’re feeling under the weather.
  3. Herbs like Echinacea, garlic, chickweed, licorice root and golden seal are excellent immune system boosters. Ginseng improves general immunity against infections and as an adaptogen, also supports the body during stressful times. Regular use of ginseng seems to prevent colds and flu. There are three different herbs commonly called ginseng: Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), and Siberian ‘ginseng’ (Eleutherococcus senticosus).

Avoid crowded, dry, smoky, hot places

Your environment can increase your chances for getting colds or flu, so beware.

Wear a mask if you have to! The Japanese do and there is nothing preventing you from starting a new, healthy fashionable habit. Use your imagination and design a mask for every occasion!

Turn off the air conditioners and heaters to allow the air to humidify. Dry air and smoke irritates your mucous membranes and this may lead to catarrh (runny nose, phlegm becoming yellow or green).

What about the flu vaccine?

The most important tool in mainstream medicine for fighting the chameleon like flu virus, is immunisation by a killed virus vaccine. A few of the most common flu virus strains are identified in the Northern hemisphere during their winter. The vaccine is then made from highly purified, egg-grown viruses that have been made non-infectious. As a doctor of natural medicine, I would never recommend the flu vaccine for everybody. There are very effective, natural guidelines and remedies available to prevent the flu.

It is important to remember that the flu vaccine does not prevent the common cold.

Vaccination is recommended for the following high-risk groups:

  1. People aged 65 or older
  2. Residents of nursing homes and other facilities that provide care for chronically ill persons
  3. Everybody over the age of 6 months, including pregnant women, who have certain underlying medical conditions that required hospitalisation or regular doctors’ visits during the preceding year. These conditions include:
    • asthma, anaemia, chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart, lung or kidney disease
    • impaired or compromised immune system function due to HIV infection, treatment with drugs such as long-term steroids, or cancer treatment with radiation or chemotherapy
    • Children and teenagers (6 months to 18 years) who must take aspirin regularly and therefore may be at risk of developing Reye syndrome if they get the flu
  4. For health-care workers, nursing home personnel, and home-care providers to reduce the risk of transmitting flu to high-risk persons (and to protect themselves from infection). Police, ambulance personnel, fire fighters, and other community service providers may also find vaccination useful.It takes the immune system about six to eight weeks to respond to vaccination. The best time therefore to get the flu vaccine, is mid March to end May, before the flu season starts.

    The vaccine’s most common side effect is tenderness at the vaccination site for up to two days. Some people may experience fever, malaise, sore muscles, and other symptoms resembling the flu that can last for a few days after the flu shot.

    People allergic to eggs and people with certain other allergies and medical problems like bronchitis or pneumonia should consult a doctor before getting a flu shot. If you have a high fever and acute infection, you should not receive the vaccine until you feel better.

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