Home Treatment of Flu and Cold Symptoms

Recognizing the difference between a cold and the flu

Common Cold Influenza
Gradual onset of symptoms Abrupt onset
Low-grade fever Significant fever, usually >100 degrees F
  Chills sweats, fatigue
Less achiness Muscle aches
Sore, itchy throat, stuffy and/or runny nose Sore, itchy throat, runny nose
Sneezing Photophobia (pain with bright light)
Very Annoying Potentially Life-threatening

Treating the flu


If you have the flu, and are considered high risk, there are some antiviral medications (Tamiflu and others) that can shorten the course and decrease the severity of your illness, but they must be started on the 1st or 2nd day you are sick, so call us immediately!!


Elderberry extract has also been studied for treating influenza
Elderberry extract – 1 tablespoon 4 x daily. J Altern Complement Med 1995 Winter;1(4):361-9. Improved flu recovery time to 2 days from 6 days in the placebo group.


Antibiotics do not affect the course of influenza, but some people may develop pneumonia as influenza is resolving. If you start to get better but then develop high fevers, chest pain, or shortness of breath, come back to see us, since you may need antibiotics if you develop this complication. Giving antibiotics during the initial course of the flu does not prevent this, but may cause you to develop secondary infection with more resistant germs.

Shortening the course/decreasing severity of a cold or other non-flu respiratory infection - and maybe Covid-19?


Pelargonium(Umcka over the counter or V-clear from our office) 30-60 drops three times daily reduces the duration of colds, bronchitis, sinusitis and other syndromes and decreases the severity of symptoms. Overall, it looks like it shortens the course by up to 50% and lowers symptom scores by 1/3. It is more effective the earlier it is started.


Andrographis 400 mg three times daily reduced symptoms at 2 days, even more dramatic difference by 4 days. Phytomedicine 1999 Oct 6(4):217-23 Also effective in sore throat. J Med Assoc Thai 1991 74(10):824-9


Zinc acetate lozenges can shorten the course (dissolve in your mouth every couple hours for the first few days) – watch for nausea as a side effect Ann Intern Med 2000 Aug 15;133(4):245


Vitamin C 2 -5 grams/day: 9% -37% decrease in symptom days in studies with 1 gram per day or more;works better if you start in the first 24 hours or are already taking it before catching cold. Cochrane 2000; 2:CD000980


There is some preliminary research suggesting Quercetin may inhibit viruses from entering cells, and a clinical trial has been planned to test this against Covid-19. Doses range from 50-500 mg per day; absorption is improved by bromelain.

Decreasing symptoms of colds and other respiratory infections


Steam inhalations using essential oil:
Boil some water and pour in a bowl or mug. Add 1-2 drops of essential oil (eucalyptus/thyme oil) and breath the steam for 5-10 minutes twice daily
Apply a few drops of essential oil to the edge of the bathtub and run the shower very hot with the bathroom door closed. Spend 10 - 20 minutes in the bathroom breathing the steam (this method works best with kids)


Guaifenesin up to 2400 mg per day can thin secretions - it has been shown to decrease relapse rate in sinusitis and to help symptoms in acute URIs as well as chronic bronchitis
Bromelain 500 - 1000 mg 2-3 x per day on an empty stomach can help with symptoms of sinusitis Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg October 2006 vol. 135 no. 4 496-506


Use salt water or other things in the nose to thin secretions or even introduce antimicrobials
Nasal saline:
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 C water (use distilled water or boiled water)
Pinch of baking soda
Use 1 mL in each nostril three times daily
Consider commercial saline sprays (Ayr and others)
Consider Xlear spray - has xylitol, grapefruit seed extract, and the Rescue version has essential oils as well


Suppress cough at night to sleep better, but we recommend actually allowing the cough during the day to clear out infected mucus.
Honey was as effective as medications to suppress cough in a study in children
Dextromethorphan is also helpful in adults, but avoid in children


Use a vaporizer at night, or a "cool mist humidifier"


Hot drinks and Chicken Soup may actually be helpful as well. Rhinology. 2008 Dec;46(4):271-5. Chest. 1978 Oct;74(4):408-10



Antibiotics won’t help your cold (they are effective against bacteria, not viruses), and taking them for colds may cause resistance to develop so they won’t work when you actually need them.

Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs

There is some data that ibuprofen may aggravate symptoms of Covid 19 - use acetaminophen instead, or maybe ride it out and let the fever do its work

OTC Medications

Over-the counter cold medicines are not particularly useful. Antihistamines make no difference in the course of a cold compared to placebo(sugar pill.) Decongestants can help some symptoms but can also elevate blood pressure and cause circulatory problems. Nasal zinc can cause some people to lose their sense of smell – use the lozenges instead.

When to call the Doctor

We need to see you if you develop chest pain or shortness of breath, if you cough up blood, if fevers persist more than 3-4 days, or if you are not improving after 2 weeks of illness.

Prevention - Staying Healthy

How can you keep yourself from getting a cold or flu?


Wash your hands carefully and frequently during cold and flu season. Sch Nurs. 2001 Oct;17(5):258-65
This is especially important before touching food or touching your face. When you are not able to wash your hands, use hand sanitizer.


Probiotics (acidophilus, bifidus) decrease the frequency and severity of respiratory infections in children. and adults. Pediatrics. 2009 Aug;124(2):e172-9. Clin Nutr 24:481–491
In one nursing home study, 1/2 cup kefir per day decreased the risk of influenza by 40% during an outbreak


Regular Vitamin D may decrease the frequency and severity of respiratory infections. 1200 IU per day in schoolkids, 800 – 2000 IU per day in adults. Cannell JJ et al Epidemic Influenza and vitamin D Epidemiol. Infect. (2006), 134, 1129–1140 Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 May;91(5):1255-60


Eat garlic regularly or consider a garlic capsule with allicin. Adv Ther 2001 Jul-Aug. 18(4):189-93 Those taking garlic had fewer colds (24 vs. 65), and shorter symptoms with colds (1.52 vs. 5.01 days)


Regular zinc also can be preventive (15 – 40 mg per day) Cochrane 2011 Feb 16;2:CD001364 as can Vitamin C (2 grams/day) though mostly in people under physical stress, such as runners or soldiers. Cochrane 2007,3: CD000980


Get enough sleep

Manage your stress

One study showed that job stress was one of the biggest risk factors predicting severity of illness in volunteers exposed to equal amounts of cold virus, and epidemiology shows that those with more stress have a 3-4x higher chance of catching cold. Behav Med 1992 Fall;18(3):115-20, N Engl J Med 1991 Aug 29;325(9):606-12, Epidemiology 2001 May;12(3):345-9

Eat well

Eat well, including at least 5 servings of fruits and veggies every day, and eat fermented foods (Yogurt, Kefir) or take a probiotic supplement. If you cannot, consider taking a multivitamin with minerals, or, preferably, a fruit/vegetable extract if you are not able to eat right. Public Health Nutr. 2010; 13(2): 276–282. British J Nutr 2010 104(7):998-1006; Archives of Internal Medicine 1999 159(7):748-54, Children’s research study, 2002, www.childrensresearch.org.(external link)


There are a number of other immune tonics which may be helpful:


Panax Ginseng

Use Panax Ginseng extract(Korean or Chinese) for prevention. Drugs Exp Clin Res 1996;22(2):65-72 Daily Ginseng cut the frequency of upper respiratory infections by 2/3.

Mushroom Extracts

A variety of medicinal mushrooms have been shown to stimulate immune function, though there are not a lot of studies looking at them for preventing cold and flu. Our favorite extract is a Maitake/Reishi/Shiitake blend called M/R/S, but studies have looked at Cordyceps and other fungi for this purpose.
Added to NoHum's coronavirus webpage on 03/23/2020 by Johnny Kell, RN, CSN School Nurse