Natural Cold and Flu Remedies
Americans are turning to cold and flu supplements in greater numbers.
Andrographis for Colds and Immunity
"Andrographis is called 'Indian echinacea,'" says Evangeline Lausier, MD, assistant clinical professor at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. "It seems to stimulate the immune system." Studies of andrographis show that it appears to improve cold symptoms significantly, at least when started within three days of the onset. There's also some early evidence that it may reduce the chances of catching a cold, at least when taken for several months beforehand. Most studies have used a specific product called Kan Jang, which combines andrographis with Siberian ginseng (eleutherococcus senticosus).
Combination Supplements for Colds and Flu
Many alternative medicines packaged for cold and flu are combinations of some of the herbs and vitamins listed above -- typically echinacea, zinc, high doses of vitamin C, and other ingredients. Although there's no particular reason to think that combination cold and flu products are more dangerous, they're much less likely to have been studied than the individual ingredients that they contain. You might be better off choosing the specific supplements in the dosages you want.
These aren't the only supplements sold as natural cold and flu remedies. Others include astragalus, goldenseal, kiwi, boneset, and homeopathic oscillococcinium. However, so far, there's not enough evidence to say whether they help with cold or flu.
Natural Cold and Flu Remedies: What Are the Risks?
Experts say that natural cold and flu remedies seem fairly safe -- at least when taken in normal doses by healthy adults. The fact that you'd probably only use them for a few days when you're sick adds to their safety.
"The risks of potentially toxic effects from herbs are almost always related to long-term use," says Paul R. Thomas, EdD, RD, scientific consultant for the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health.
There are some exceptions. Talk to your doctor before taking any herb, supplement, or vitamin if:
- You are pregnant
- You have a medical condition
- You take medicines or other supplements, which may interact to cause problems
Make sure you purchase brands of supplements that bear a USP or NF seal on the label. The USP and NF seals indicate the supplements have undergone quality-control testing. ConsumerLab.com can also be consulted to make sure the product is legitimate.
Also, don't rely on supplements when you truly need medical care.
"I think the biggest risk is when the symptoms don't subside but people just keep trying to treat themselves with supplements instead of seeing a doctor," Leopold tells WebMD. Self-treatment is especially risky when it comes to the flu. Influenza can be dangerous, especially to those who are very young, older, or sick.