Illustration of herbal medicine
Herbal remedies, taken as teas or essential oils, can help relieve symptoms of the flu

Q&A: Natural remedies for influenza

5 January, 2015

Q — I have decided not to get  flu shot. Can you tell me some of the best natural ways to treat the flu?


A — Influenza commonly called ‘flu’ is an acute infection of the respiratory tract similar to colds, but more severe, and accompanied by symptoms like fever, aches and coughs.

Different strains will produce different symptoms, e.g. sore throat, nausea, and these should be treated specifically. ‘Flu’ may often leave the person debilitated and depressed and these symptoms sometimes need to be addressed as well.

Flu normally lasts between one and two weeks, but more serious complications can develop, particularly in the elderly and children.

There are three types of flu virus – types A, B and C. Influenza A occurs more frequently, is the most virulent and is responsible for most major epidemics and pandemics. Influenza B often cocirculates with influenza A during the yearly outbreaks, but generally causes less severe illness. Influenza C usually only causes a mild or asymptomatic infection similar to the common cold.

Within each of these types there are many different strains of influenza virus. While some are more common than others, there are literally hundreds of flu viruses that can be circulating at any one time. Even so, each year the scientists at the World Health Organization meet to try and divine the three that are likely to cause the most misery the following winter. The viruses they choose – two type As and one type B, say – are then included in that year’s vaccine.

A shot in the dark?

The problem is that in the several months between formulating the vaccine and administering it, the viruses – which are naturally constantly evolving and mutating – may have changed, or new ones may have emerged.

Maybe you will be infected with the virus that matches the vaccine, but then again maybe you won’t; flu ‘experts’ often get it wrong.

While the health services often promote the flu vaccine as the best way to prevent flu, there are question marks over its effectiveness and safety as well as question marks over official warnings that flu is a killer.

The winter season can bring about a whole range of health complications, including higher cholesterol levels and worsening glucose control, which have nothing at all to do with viruses, but which can nevertheless add to the toll of winter deaths.

Unreliable data

In fact, according to a 2002 report published in the British Medical Journal in which British scientists tracked the causes of excess winter deaths over the preceding 10 years, flu accounted for less than three per cent of all excess winter deaths in the UK (a higher figure than in other developed countries). In this country ‘cold stress’ – lack of adequate heating indoors and lack of appropriate winter clothing when outdoors – was the bigger killer.

In the mean time meaningful information on whether the flu in itself is really deadly is hard to come by. That is because in most countries mortality rates attributed to influenza are in fact the result of combining influenza and pneumonia deaths, and in some cases, such as in the UK, adding bronchitis into the mix as well.

In fact it is difficult to establish how many people are seriously affected by flu each year as hospital admissions and deaths may be due to complications or the infection making other illnesses worse.

Less talked about but just as important is the fact that overuse of vaccines contribute to the ongoing threat of drug-resistant strains of the flu virus.

What makes us vulnerable?

Many things will affect how seriously the flu affects you. If you an otherwise healthy and well fed individual it may pass almost without notice. In fact a study in 2014 found that not everyone with the flu actually feels sick.

If you are living in poor socioeconomic conditions, if your diet is poor,  if you are emotionally drained and stressed for example, this will have a negative effect on your immunity and likely make the course of flu more severe.

The majority of us can keep flu at bay with good health and hygiene practices. Simply washing your hands regularly – and thoroughly – throughout flu season can be an effective way to stop spreading the flu virus.

Herbal help

For most of us the flu is an inconvenience that can be easily treated at home with natural remedies like those below. Indeed this may be a good idea given data showing that some conventional medications such as fever-reducing medicine can actually help spread the flu.

Persons at particular risk (for instance those with pre-existing health problems) or who not responding to treatment should be referred to a practitioner.


Elderberry A herb with effective anti-viral properties to promote recovery. Also suitable for children. Add one tsp of tincture to 25 mls of hot water or to the infusion below and take three times a day.

Elderflower, Peppermint, Yarrow A general mixture for feverish flu symptoms. Combine, infuse (see p. 5), or use the tinctures (one tsp of combined tinctures in 25 mls of water) and take three times a day.

The following herbs may also be added to this mixture.

Echinacea If symptoms linger.                            .

Pleurisy Root If a cough is present.

Red Sage If accompanied by a sore throat. Vervain: If accompanied by depression.

Avoid yarrow or vervain during pregnancy and breastfeeding unless prescribed by a qualified practitioner.


Choose the remedy that best matches the symptoms.

Aconite 30 For the early stages of colds and flu – with the feeling of going down with something. Sudden onset with fever. Dry, painful cough. Restlessness and anxiety; symptoms may develop after exposure to cold winds. Two doses a day on first day or two of symptoms.

Ars Alb 30 Shivering, restlessness, anxiety; loss of appetite; desires hot drinks; worse from cold drinks. Important remedy for gastric flu, with vomiting or diarrhoea. Burning sensations; symptoms worse at night. Feels very chilly. Take three doses a day.

Bryonia 30 Symptoms become worse with movement; great desire to lie down and be left alone; irritable; dry and thirsty. Important remedy for flu with a cough – painful cough, throat and chest. Take three doses a day.

Gelsemium 30 The most common flu remedy. Heaviness, and drowsy patient; chills up and down the spine. Aching in limbs and head. Little thirst. General flu symptoms. Take three doses a day.


Lavender, Ravensara, Rosemary Dilute one drop of each in 10 mls of a suitable vegetable oil base and massage onto chest.

Eucalyptus, Tea Tree Add three drops of each to a bowl of hot water. Add to a bowl of boiling water to make a steam inhalation for congestion, or add to a burner.