The CDC “estimates that influenza has resulted in between nine million and forty-five million illnesses, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.” Because of the level of this disease burden, taking precautions and addressing symptoms in a timely manner is very important.

Flu is defined as a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus, spread through the air from person to person. Signs and symptoms of flu include:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • vomiting
  • loose stools
  • cough
  • runny nose
  • headache
  • muscle or body aches

The flu is not just a bad cold. Complications such as  pneumonia, myocarditis, and encephalitis, while uncommon, can lead to hospitalization or death, so when flu is suspected, proper medical attention is essential. Research shows that young children, pregnant women and older adults are at more risk of developing  complications. About 8% of Americans get the flu in any given year. This graphic from the Centers for Disease Control shows just how common and how potentially serious the flu can be. Naturopathic doctors are uniquely skilled at both prevention and treatment of influenza as outlined below.

Flu Vaccine

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends injectable influenza vaccines for prevention of influenza for everyone over 6 months of age. The vaccine does not work immediately, so vaccination ahead of the flu season is encouraged. If you do take the flu vaccine, be sure to take a probiotic and include fermented foods in the diet to increase the microbiome diversity, in the weeks before being vaccinated, as studies show this enhances efficacy of the vaccine.

Some people still come down with the flu even when vaccinated. Vaccines are produced each season based on which virus strains seem most prevalent and potent. Statistics show that how well the vaccine works varies each season as the flu viruses continue to change. Manufacturers do their best to create vaccines that work, but further research is needed to create more predictably effective vaccines. Some people develop side effects from the vaccine like pain or swelling at the site of the injection, overall body aches or fever. 

Naturopathic doctors are well-trained to help you both prevent the flu, and to help treat flu symptoms should you become ill. Naturopathic treatments are guided by the Therapeutic Order emphasizing determinants of health and using the most gentle approaches possible. Educated extensively in therapeutic nutrition and botanical medicine, naturopathic doctors are also knowledgeable in the use of pharmaceuticals; as state laws allow, licensed ND may prescribe medications and are specially trained in drug/nutrient and drug/supplement interaction to provide you with comprehensive plan for the prevention and treatment of the flu. 

Reduce the spread of the flu:

Prevent catching the flu:

  • Stop or reduce smoking, as it increases your chance of coming down with the flu and with having complications should you fall ill.
  • Use a humidifier as a higher air humidity reduces virus survival and potentially decreases transmission. 
  • Prioritize daily exercise and stress reduction to help fight off flu.
  • Reduce or remove refined sugars from your diet
  • Stay well hydrated (think: water, tea, broths, diluted juices)

Support your immune system’s optimal work:`

  • Vitamin C helps reduce influenza infection by a number of biochemical actions. Foods high in Vitamin C as well as supplements can be put to good use.
  • Vitamin D has been shown to help prevent the spread of influenza. 
  • Consider taking a probiotic, which also offers protection against flu.
  • Elderberry can be used as an anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, antioxidant, often used in syrup form, has been shown to help prevent flu.
  • Garlic has anti-microbial properties to help support immune function and that help break up mucus. 
  • Thyme is another anti-microbial herb and immune stimulant to consider when working to prevent the flu. Likewise, Echinacea, an anti-inflammatory, immune modulating herb activates white blood cells to fight infection and may also be used for prevention.

If you are ill, there are many things to do to help shorten the duration of your illness, reduce its severity and help you be more comfortable.

Any and all of the supplements listed above under “prevention” are also helpful for the treatment of flu. For instance, research on elderberry (Sambucus) shows its capacity to decrease flu symptoms. Likewise, echinacea has been studied and confirmed to inhibit the influenza viruses and by modulating the immune response. If you have nausea, add ginger or chamomile tea as desired. If there is significant coughing, honey in warm water can help.  Herbal teas and tinctures made from ivy leaf, thyme and marshmallow root have all been examined and found to help reduce cough associated with influenza.

Place 1-2 cups of Epsom salt in a warm bath raising magnesium levels, which can aid in reducing lactic acid which in turn assists in reducing aches and pains while also helping to relax the muscles.

A hot water bottle can be a welcome presence if you’re chilly and sore.

Gentle massage can be very soothing, as it helps increase circulation and facilitate elimination.

Chicken soup has mild anti-inflammatory components, and a comfort for many with the flu.

Remember the essential role of rest and sleep. Science confirms that those who are sleep deprived are less able to fight off influenza. Take the time you need to heal and remember that everyone gets sick sometimes, and giving your system the rest it needs, promotes healing.  

Lastly, as you are recuperating from the flu, strategize ways to keep stress down and keep healthy habits up, so you do not fall ill again.

Flu is a potentially serious acute ailment. Accurate diagnosis and appropriate medical care, including conventional and naturopathic approaches, is essential. Working with your licensed naturopathic doctor to help delineate a comprehensive and personalized treatment plan to prevent influenza or treat it should you fall ill, makes good sense. Emphasizing your body’s inherent healing capacity, using gentle natural medicines to stimulate immune function and decreasing stress can all contribute to your staying healthy or overcoming a bout with influenza.

A service for the public from the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and the Institute for Natural Medicine (INM). The AANP and the INM would like to acknowledge Amy Rothenberg, ND, for her contributions to the content of this FAQ.