Flu symptoms can cause a world of misery, from fever and cough to sore throat, nasal congestion, aches, and chills. But there are ways to feel better.
Prescription antiviral medications may help ease symptoms of both seasonal and H1N1 flu when taken shortly after you get sick. In many cases, however, simple home remedies may be all you need for relief of mild to moderate flu symptoms.
WebMD asked experts to suggest 10 natural remedies for flu:
1. Drink up. The flu can leave you dehydrated, especially if fever is accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea. So be sure to get enough fluids. Water is fine. So are fruit juices, soda, and electrolyte beverages. You may want to stay away from caffeinated drinks, because caffeine is a diuretic. Herbal tea with honey can soothe a sore throat. If you feel nauseated, try taking small sips of liquids -- gulps might cause you to throw up. How can you be sure you’re getting enough fluid? Your urine should be pale yellow, almost colorless.
How about drinking alcohol? No way. “When you have the flu, the last thing you want to do is drink alcohol,” says William Schaffner, MD, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. “It makes you sleepy, and flu does that already.”
2. Sip some soup. For generations, caring parents have been serving chicken soup to kids with colds and flu. But was mom right? Possibly. A 2000 study published in the journal Chest showed that chicken soup may help relieve symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections.
“I believe that chicken soup does help with symptoms,” says Reid B. Blackwelder, MD, professor of family medicine at the James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University in Kingsport. But not all doctors agree that chemistry alone explains the soup’s apparent benefits. “When you lean over a bowl of hot chicken soup and the vapor gets up your nose, you feel better,” says Schaffner. “But some [of the benefit] is clearly emotional. It just makes you feel better having someone make soup for you.”
3. Be a couch potato. The advice may be clichéd, but it’s sound: Listen to your body. If it’s telling you not to exercise, don’t. If it’s urging you to spend all day in bed, do. Don't press on with daily responsibilities even in the face of severe cold or flu symptoms. Rest is “another way of supporting the body’s ability to fight infection,” says Blackwelder.
And don’t skimp on nighttime sleep. “Good sleep cycles help the immune system work well, so it’s important to get your full eight hours of sleep each night,” says Schaffner.
4. Humidify. Breathing moist air helps ease nasal congestion and sore throat pain. One effective strategy is to indulge in a steamy shower several times a day -- or just turn on the shower and sit in the bathroom for a few minutes, inhaling the steam. Another is to use a humidifier. Clean it regularly to make sure it’s free of mold and other impurities.
5. Pitch a tent. Need a quick way to open clogged airways? Bring a pot of water to a boil and remove it from the heat. Drape a towel over your head, close your eyes, and lean over the water under the “tent,” breathing deeply through your nose for 30 seconds. David Kiefer, MD, clinical instructor of family medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, recommends adding a drop or two of peppermint or eucalyptus oil to the water for extra phlegm-busting power. Repeat this as often as necessary to ease congestion. People with asthma should not use this method of decongestion.
6. Try a warm compress. On the forehead and nose, a warm cloth is a great way to relieve headache or sinus pain.
7. Be a sucker. Cough drops, throat lozenges, and hard candy can be surprisingly effective at easing a cough or sore throat. Some doctors, including Kiefer, swear by lozenges containing slippery elm. Others recommend zinc lozenges to help shorten cold symptoms -- though Schaffner is not convinced of their effectiveness. “If there is an effect [against colds and flu], it’s a small one,” he says. “I wish their effect were as good as their taste is bad.”
8. Swish and spit. Gargling with salt water helps get rid of the thick mucus that can collect at the back of the throat, especially after you've been lying down. It can also help ease stuffy ears by opening clogged eustachian tubes, Kiefer tells WebMD in an email.
9. Try nasal irrigation. To ease stuffiness and post-nasal drip -- and perhaps cut the risk of developing a sinus infection -- some doctors recommend nasal irrigation. You can buy a neti pot in natural foods stores and some drugstores, or opt for a saline squeeze bottle. You pour salt water into one nostril and let it run out the other, clearing out your nasal passages. You can buy pre-made saline solution or make it by mixing salt and lukewarm water.
10. Line up a caregiver. A caregiver can’t lower your temperature or cure a sore throat, but “having someone to tuck you into bed and bring you fluids is very comforting,” says Blackwelder. If a friend or family member offers to help, even if it’s only to stop by and check in on you, count your blessings -- and take them up on it.