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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.

Natural Cold and Flu Remedies in Children

Are natural cold and flu remedies safe for kids? It's a question many parents are asking, particularly in light of the risks of cold and cough medicines for children.

Leopold believes that using supplements in children can be a reasonable option -- provided you always check with a pediatrician or family doctor first. Keep in mind that most alternative supplements have never been studied in children specifically. So we can't be certain that a treatment that is effective and safe in adults will work the same way in kids.

Always err on the side of caution. "When a child is really sick, you don't want to waste time messing with herbal stuff," says Lausier. "You need to get them to a pediatrician."

Cold and Flu: Other Natural Treatments

Natural remedies for colds and flu go well beyond herbs and supplements. Good lifestyle and hygiene habits are proven to reduce your risk of getting sick.

  • Eat healthy foods. Get regular exercise. Learn to manage stress. Those are among the best natural ways to prevent colds and flu, says Leopold.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough. Make sure to cough into your sleeve instead of your hand, Lausier says. You'll reduce the odds of passing your germs on to someone else.
  • Wash your hands. Washing with soap for the time it takes to sing two rounds of “Happy Birthday” -- or rubbing your hands with an alcohol-based gel with enough gel to rub hands together for 30 seconds -- remains one of the best ways of protecting yourself from cold and flu germs.

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