7 Tips for Preventing Colds and Flus | Chris Kresser
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7 Tips for Preventing (And Shortening) Colds and Flus

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Cold and flu season is upon us—but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer. Check out these tips for supercharging your immune system and boosting your resilience.

preventing a cold
Knowing how to prevent a cold or the flu is your best chance for a misery-free season. istock.com/AlexRaths

Conventional wisdom holds that there’s not much you can do to prevent colds and flus—and even less you can do to treat them. Of course you could get a flu shot, but research suggests they aren’t nearly as effective as many believe. OTC remedies like antihistamines, decongestants, and NSAIDs can suppress some of the symptoms associated with colds and flus, but they do nothing to prevent them or shorten their duration. And while antibiotics may be necessary in certain cases (e.g. a cold that progresses to a severe sinus infection, though even this is debatable), they aren’t useful for treating the viral infections that cause colds and flus.

Cold and flu season beating you down? Check out these 7 tips for boosting your immune system.

But here’s the good news: there are, in fact, several steps you can take that will strengthen your immune system and not only decrease the chances that you’ll get sick in the first place, but help to reduce the intensity and shorten the duration of any cold or flu you do get. Instead of just suppressing symptoms, these tips will actually improve the function of your immune system as well as attack the viruses themselves.

#1: Load up on Immune-Boosting Nutrients

There are several micronutrients that are essential for immune health. Many Americans don’t get enough of these nutrients through their diets. But even if you are getting enough, taking additional amounts of them when people around you are sick, or if you’re already sick, can be a big help. These include:

  • Vitamin C. Liposomal forms are best absorbed. I suggest one teaspoon once a day on an empty stomach for prevention, and one teaspoon twice a day for treatment. If you’re using ascorbic acid, take 1,000–4,000 mg/d, up to bowel tolerance.
  • Vitamins A & D. Both of these fat-soluble vitamins are important for immune health, but here’s a little-known fact: research suggests that they are only effective for preventing/reversing colds and flus when taken together. This is why I’m such a proponent of cod liver oil: it contains natural forms of both A & D in a synergistic blend. I recommend Extra Virgin Cod Liver Oil from Rosita as my preferred cod liver oil product. For more information, read this article. You can purchase EVCLO here.
  • Selenium. Selenium helps to balance and regulate the immune system. Most Americans get enough in their diet, but taking a little extra during cold and flu season can help. I suggest 200 mcg/d 3-4 times a week. This is the brand I recommend. Note: I do not recommend long-term, continuous selenium supplementation because it has been associated with increased risk of prostate cancer in men.
  • Iodine. Iodine also plays an important role in immune health, and many Americans don’t get enough of it. Ironically, this is especially true for health-conscious people that have removed iodized salt from their diet. The only significant sources of iodine in the diet are sea vegetables, fish heads, and dairy (especially pasture-raised dairy). If you’re not eating these foods regularly, you may want to supplement with about 1 mg per day of iodine in the form of kelp capsules. Note: some people with autoimmune thyroid disease cannot tolerate iodine even in this relatively low amount, so exercise caution if you have Hashimoto’s or Graves’.
  • Zinc. Zinc is another immune-boosting nutrient that many people don’t get enough of. If you like oysters, they are your best bet for meeting zinc needs through diet. You can also take 30 mg/d of zinc picolinate or zinc gluconate for short periods when you feel you’re fighting something.

#2: Drink Fresh Ginger Tea

Ginger is a potent anti-viral substance that prevents the adhesion of viruses to the upper respiratory mucosa.

If you drink the concoction I recommend below at the first signs of sickness, you can often fight it off successfully. But—and this is a big “but”—you have to drink it at or near the strength I suggest, or it won’t be effective. Some people find this difficult to do, because ginger is so intense, but if you can handle it your immune system will thank you.

Also, while it’s possible to do this without a juicer, it will take a lot longer. You can get pretty good juicers now for less than $100, so if you or someone in your family suffers from frequent colds/flus, a juicer is a worthwhile expense (and of course it has many other uses).

Directions:

  • Juice (or grate on a fine setting) 1–2 pounds of ginger; place juice in a jar and refrigerate
  • Place 2–4 ounces of ginger juice in a mug with the juice of one-half lemon and a large tablespoon of honey (honey is also anti-viral). I recommend Beekeeper’s Natural honey. Add 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper and 6 ounces of hot water.
  • Drink 2–6 cups of this a day, sipping slowly throughout the day

#3: Wash Your Hands

Maybe you already know this, but studies have shown that frequent hand-washing is one of the most important things we can do to protect ourselves during cold & flu season. Wash your hands every time you arrive at a destination while out and about, and first thing when you get home.

#4: Take Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry is one of the most effective botanicals for strengthening immune function and preventing colds and flus. Take 1 teaspoon twice a day if you feel like you’re coming down with a cold or flu—and continue taking it if you do get sick.

#5: Take Immune-Boosting Herbs

There are several botanicals that have a potent immune-boosting effect. I recommend the following blend for prevention during cold season:

  • Mix equal parts astragalus, cordyceps, and rhodiola in tincture form. Herb-pharm is my favorite brand.
  • Take up to 1/4 teaspoon 3x/d for prevention, and 1/2 teaspoon up to 6x/d if you’re already sick.

Note: since astragalus, cordyceps, and rhodiola are “immune boosting” botanicals, people with autoimmune diseases that involve an overactive immune response should exercise caution and speak with their health-care practitioner before using them.

#6: Take Anti-Viral Herbs

If you’ve finally succumbed to a cold or flu despite your best efforts, there are a number of anti-viral herbs that can be helpful. If you want to go deep on this topic, I strongly recommend Stephen Harrod Buhner’s excellent book, Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging & Resistant Viral Infections. But if you just want to cut to the chase, here’s the formula he recommends for treating mild influenza and colds:

  • Mix 2 parts lomatium, 2 parts red root, 2 parts licorice, 1 part isatis (all in tincture form).
  • Take 30–60 drops mixed with 1–2 ounces of water each hour until condition improves. You may have trouble finding some of these botanicals locally, but you can get them fairly easily online.

#7: Rest

Of all of the recommendations, I suspect most people will have the hardest time with this one. In our crazy, hectic world, rest is simply not valued—but it’s absolutely necessary when battling a viral infection is consuming a lot of your energy.

Of course it’s not always easy to take time for yourself, especially if you have young children (I know this firsthand!), but even a few short rest periods throughout the day can make a big difference when it comes to supporting your immune system.

159 Comments

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  1. I nipped a cold in the bud just this past week by sleeping whenever I felt exhausted, doubling up on my probiotics for a few days and taking olive leaf extract. Hooray!!!

  2. My remedy: good alkaline diet with lots of greens and good water, and Donny Yance’s Immuncare 1 & 2, buffered vitamin C, cod liver oil, raw fresh pineapple juice for cough, hot ginger tea. If strep: raw honey, cayenne, raw garlic!

  3. Squeeze 3 or 4 lemons first thing in the morning and add hot water and some honey. Repeat before bed. Works wonders to stop a cold.

  4. I am an Internal Medicine physician who works exclusively in the hospital.
    I want to remind you that the flu shot is to prevent deadly influenza such as the influenza of 1918 that killed 69,800 and injured more. It is NOT to prevent the common cold or viruses that people call the “flu”. Last year I helped attend to healthy active people who succumed to a HINI variation of influenza. Some had multiple week long stay in the hospital and some died. None had gotten the flu shot. The death toll that year for influenza was around 600.
    The CDC recommends annual influenza vaccinations for everyone age 6 months or older. Vaccination is especially important for people at high risk of influenza complications, including:
    Pregnant women
    Older adults
    Young children
    Children between 6 months and 8 years may need two doses of flu vaccine to be fully protected. Check with your child’s healthcare provider.
    Chronic medical conditions can also increase your risk of influenza complications. Examples include:
    Asthma
    Cancer or cancer treatment
    Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
    Cystic fibrosis
    Diabetes
    HIV/AIDS
    Kidney or liver disease
    Obesity
    As a healthcare worker, a flu shot is recommended and in some places required because it prevents the health care worker becoming a carrier.

    The recommendations above are really more about common cold/viruses. Please do not get that confused with the type of influenza that kills people. By all means help prevent spread by monitoring your own activities and care. You are the most important key to prevent spread. Most of the best literature about herbal preparation come from the Germans- look it up if you want evidence

    • 1918?….that was like a century ago!

      Hmmmm, and what about presenting a balanced perspective? Like the fact that most (if not all) countries in Europe have no recommendations for whole populations to get flu vaccinated, other than the immune system impaired like the elderly!

      Sorry but your comment seems very one-sided and fear mongering.

      • Galina,
        Not sure if your are just being obtuse or what. Of course JGM wasn’t talking about the exact flu of 1918. Some flu are more virulent than others and any one of those could be a killer flu should the general populatoin not take the flu vaccination. JGMs point is that taking a bunch of home remedies does NOT take the place of the flu shot, might help with the common cold which is always a virus but not the more virulent strains.

        • Drexel,
          Yes JGM was talking about the exact flu of 1918 as he used that as an example of how deadly a flu virus can be.

          My point was, that the likelihood of a deadly flu infection is extremely low and depends on the person in question. Therefore a flu vaccine is not a cure for all, but should be evaluated on an individual basis based on a risk benefit analysis.

          Hope that helps,

    • What about for people who are allergic to the flu vaccine like me? What am I supposed to do??? It terrifies me when medical professionals say what you wrote because I don’t have a choice. In fact, the flu vaccine caused the worst autoimmune response I’ve ever had which continued for over a year…I have never been so sick; I was bedridden for 2 months. It elevated my immune system and has taken thousands of dollars to calm it back down. If I had a normal immune system I would get it but I obviously can’t.

    • respectfully- although it’s difficult to be when a “doctor” swoons over the flu shot. last week the cdc (are you familiar with them?) announced this years flu shot will likely not work! pregnant women should certainly NOT poison themselves or their babies with the toxic ingredients in this needle- no one else should either! boosting our immune systems, eating well and nourishing ourselves with food and herbs is far more helpful and causes no damage. my kids are rarely ill, recover faster then their schoolmates AND are educated about the risks which you don’t seem to be…

    • Doctors need to read up on Gut And Psychology Syndrome & read Dr Campbell-McBride’s assessment for parents & children looking to be vaccinated before making such broad recommendations. The CDC guidelines are not appropriate for people with abnormal immune responses. You mentioned those with asthma being at risk for the flu but they are also at risk for serious complications from the flu vaccine ! In other countries babies with asthma or allergies are not even vaccinated at all or delayed vaccination is advised! That is because Asthma is autoimmune & people with autoimmunity don’t react normally to vaccination. The same with allergies, diabetes, fibromyalgia and eczema. There is an epidemic of chronic disease that the medical establishment treats as distinct when they are in fact all triggered by a leaky gut. Dr Natasha & myself are pro vaccine in the appropriate situation, so the usual labeling of anyone who questions the one-size-fits-all approach as “anti vaxxer anti science” doesn’t apply. Until doctors educate themselves about Gut And Psychology/Physiology Syndrome we can expect the skyrocketing childhood cancer rate to continue to grow & the autism rate to be 1 and 2 by 2036. Before you push drugs & shots on people suffering from chronic diseases, you are ethically bound to research the underlying causes of those diseases. Flu shots are NOT safe for anyone with a leaky gut, nor children whose parents with conditions caused by a leaky gut. They need to be assessed & treated as individuals, weighing the specific risks in each unique situation before giving any shots.

    • Oh i forgot about pregnant women…the flu shot is not safe for the developing brain of a fetus. I highly recommend my own children’s pediatrician Dr Paul Thomas who has a YouTube show. I discovered him after curing my Lupus & my sons sensory processing disorder following GAPS protocol & wanting my babies to be vaccinated as safely as possible : https://youtu.be/VoY6vXEMsU8

  5. I too have changed my diet and this year I managed not to get my yearly sinus infection in Sept/Oct. However I do have a sure fire way to shorten a cold. My niece calls it Aunt Nan’s voodoo soup. A cup of good old fashion chicken broth warmed then add grated garlic cloves and ginger with a dash or two of cayenne. A few cups of this soup and all seems right again.

  6. All that sounds like a chore. Thankfully if I don’t eat junk, exercise daily and stay away from kids I don’t usually get sick. When I start feeling low I rest and the body fights it off quickly. That’s is, if I’m taking care of myself in general.

    • I suppose this information is more for people who are having a hard time with the symptoms of cold/flu or have had in the past.

  7. I have used oil of oregano at the first sign of a cold or flu…that heavy feeling at the back of the throat…for about seven years and the only time I have succumbed to anything was once, when I was in Tanzania for a year and the oil of oregano was back home in Canada! Now it travels with me everywhere.

  8. As an aromatherapist that has diffused essential oils for nearly 20 years, we very rarely get even a sniffle. They don’t exist in our home. I’ve seen certain essential oils nip a cold or the flu in the bud within 12-24 hours. Of course we use many of your suggestions too as far as Vitamin C, A & D, Selenium and Zinc. Gargling with salt water is another thing we add when you are coming down with ” the mystery illness?”. Haven’t used too many herbs, since the essential oils are very effective at prevention.

  9. Oil of oregano works well to nip those sore throats/cold in the bud. Also wild amla is like super charged vitamin C.

    • What oils can you use for stomach virus and how would you use them I usually diffuse never used them topically

  10. I just purchased and watched an Herbal Cold Care course. from Learning herbs. it is really excellent. It mentioned some of the herbs you mention plus many others. There are instructions for early onset of symptoms and also for relief when the cold has taken hold. They recommend elderberry syrup for prevention in one small dose a day but to take it every 30-60 minutes for early onset symptoms. I worry about the sugar in the syrup – even if it is made with honey.
    All of this stuff is so interesting. I’m surprised bone broth wasn’t on your list!
    I have successfully knocked out colds at early onset with various protocols: vitamin c titration, vitamin D megadose for short time, and even EFT tapping. It’s funny how my tried and true remedy doesn’t work for every cold. I guess it depends on what my body needs at the time.
    The good thing is that for most people the above methods are completely non-toxic.

  11. Going Paleo – or even AIP – seems to make all the difference!

    I’m thrilled to say that since starting the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol (to heal leaky gut and put Hashimoto’s into remission), I have not gotten sick! Not one little bit! No matter what my daughter brings home, I don’t catch it. It was the very first thing I noticed and it happened almost immediately after I made the move to AIP (I had been gluten and dairy free for years, but something definitely shifted when I went all the way).

    Looking forward to a cold & flu free winter, but it’s nice to know what to do if one little invader sneaks by.

    Love these articles! Thanks!

  12. I’ve found elderberry to be very effective, but not at the dose you recommend. It has to be much higher from all that I’ve read about it. I’ve used it at more like at 2 teaspoons an hour if I am actually feeling a cold coming on. The lower dose you mention is more for prevention in my experience.
    I’ve also had success with increasing my consumption of onion and garlic, especially in soup if I feel a cold coming on.

  13. One of the best articles I’ve read on viral prevention and treatment Chris. When I visited India, and this is a place where if you don’t get even colds like me, here you will because of, and this is what I heard, the amount of cow dung smoke in the air. The Indians use it for heating and cooking and you can’t see it. I wondered why I had gotten a chest cold, as it went away for a couple of days and then came back again, only to finally leave when I left the country 3 weeks later. I researched because I don’t get sick very often at all, and when I was there, ginger was readily available and put a lot of it in my tea and drank that. Great idea about the amount of ginger being 1 to 2 lbs in the fridge, for doing the job right. I’ve also had some great luck with oregano oil. I take 5 drops of olive oil and 5 drops of good Oil of Oregano with at least 70% carvacrols, and put it in a “00” vege cap. Research the caps though and try to find the ones made from mushrooms as the normal ones use bad oils. Everything is made cheaply, which we’re used to, except in the last 20 years or so, when we’ve got used to making our own tinctures and have learned that research is necessary to find that whatever goes in the body, has to be clean and made from the best.

    • To add to my own comment. I read the comment on garlic, and being a retired commercial union carpenter, where because there’s so many on the union books because of the high pay, if you miss a day you get your check. A day off is a lay-off and most that worked the most ate a clove of garlic a day and never got sick. This is the truth as I worked with the same guys through the years and we talked about it, but also, being real physical all day helps detox also, so you have to weigh that in, but garlic for me was more of a preventative medicinal.

  14. Oil of Oregano

    great anti-microbrial properties & taken sub-lingually can stop something coming on in it’s tracks

  15. Best tip I got from my time at Stanford with one of the best doctors in the nation:

    High dose vitamin D (as an adult, i take 5000 IU daily, bumped to 10,000 if I feel something coming on).

    It’s a communication hormone that sends your immune system to the battle early and boldly. After 3 years using this as a person with a condition that equates to having a weak immune system, I fight off illnesses like a champ.

  16. After having 4-6 severe colds a year, with bad after affects on sinuses etc., I upped my fruit/veg consumption, and regularly have a soluble Vitamin C tablet each morning at my work desk, and hey presto….I rarely get colds, and any I do are usually very minor that I hardly notice.

  17. Thank you for sharing this 7 great tips, Chris! Vitamin C and Fresh ginger with lemon juice and honey does really works well in both preventing and treating colds and flu.

  18. I have stopped all colds for myself within 24 hours by immediately using my Neti pot at the first little throat tickle or cough. I then use it every few hours (3 times a day or so) for one day, then again the next morning, and I have NEVER had a cold take hold in the last 10 years. Everyone else in the office takes off 3 days and are sick as dogs, but not me.

    The common cold virus replicates in the sinuses and that’s why a Neti pot will knock it out.

    With today’s superbugs, you have to use distilled water. Tap water has given the flesh eating disease to two people (per one report) who used it in their Neti pots and they died when the bugs reached their brains. You can google “died, water, Neti pot” to read the news stories yourself. People will argue that they’ve used regular tap water or river water for 10000 years in India, but they didn’t have the superbugs we do today. When DRINKING flesh eating bacteria, our gut acids destroy it, but when you put tap water straight into your sinuses, there is nothing to kill the bacteria. So use it wisely.