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Nature's best flu-fighters... your guide to what really works

Aussies really, really hate getting sick.  More than $250 million worth of cold and flu remedies are sold in Australia every year, with ‘natural’ products particularly appealing to those who prefer a gentler alternative to chemicals.
But what really works and what doesn’t?  Here’s a round-up of some of the best remedies nature has to offer and the evidence behind them.

1. Rest & fluids (yes, yes, we’ll say it again)

You can’t buy these on a pharmacy shelf but together they’re one of the most overlooked of all nature’s cure-alls.  

Rest will particularly help you fight the virus in the first few days and, importantly, keep you away from others when you’re at your most contagious.  Water helps loosen congestion and prevent dehydration, which will make you feel much worse.  

If you can’t stomach lots of water try peppermint tea, which acts as a pick-me-up and helps clear the sinuses.  There could even be truth to grandma’s old chicken soup remedy… its warmth is helpful, but it may also have some anti-inflammatory properties (when made from proper chicken, that is – Cup-a-soup’s not going to do the trick.)
2. Honey – not just for your toast
We’ve swallowed honey to help soothe a sore throat for centuries and now science has given this age-old remedy a big, sweet tick.  

A 2010 peer review concluded that honey was more effective than placebo in reducing frequency of cough and improved sleep quality in coughing children.  Another study compared honey with the common cough medicine ingredient dextromethorphan, and found honey equally effective.  Participants in this study also rated honey more favourably than drugs for symptomatic relief.  Honey is a natural anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial which also coats the throat, providing an instant soothing effect on inflamed throat tissues and calming the cough reflex.  Delicious and useful!
3. Catch everything going around?  Try Echinacea.
Echinacea is one of the most popular cold fighting herbs in the world today, with sales of over $300 million annually in the US alone.

This medicinal plant was used by Native Americans for more than 400 years to treat infections and wounds and as a general “cure-all”.   But what does science have to say?  

Studies to this point have generally agreed it may help symptoms, but have been patchy on prevention.  But stronger evidence for Echinacea as an immune booster is now emerging.  A review of 14 clinical trials found echinacea reduced the odds of developing a cold by 58% and reduced its duration by 1-4 days.   Recently, the largest ever clinical study into Echinacea backed these findings, with researchers from Cardiff University discovering the herb could cut the number of recurrent colds suffered by those with a weak immune system, or with a history of catching several bouts a year, by up to 60 percent.
Take note: not all Echinacea supplements are made equal, and the chemicals in the root differ considerably from those in the upper part of the plant.  The above ground parts of Echinacea purpurea – known as the herb - tend to contain more polysaccharides (the substances that trigger the activity of the immune system) but are most potent in combination with Echinacea root, so look for products containing both types.
4. Lemon… and other fruity friends
A twist of lemon in a hot, steamy cup of tea is found on the bedside table of many a cold-sufferer.  But why?  The most popular school of thought is because lemons are loaded with vitamin C, a vitamin widely considered beneficial for colds.  Another theory holds as a citrus fruit, lemons promote an alkaline environment in the body that helps fight cold viruses.  One thing’s for sure - lemons certainly can’t hurt, so if you enjoy them go for it!  And although they don’t go as well in tea, you could also try eating a few kiwi fruit –they contain more than double the vitamin C of oranges.
5. Getting steamy
Steam is a quick, effective and totally natural cure for nasal stuffiness and congestion.  While we’re all familiar with the old “bowl of hot water, towel over the head” trick, an electric steam vaporiser or humidifier has several advantages.  They help increase ambient (room) humidity, which in turn prevents dehydration and dryness of the nasal and throat passages.   Increasing moisture in the air also helps liquiefy mucous secretions, making them easier to cough up to clear the chest.

And there's more.  Increasing research is linking ‘flu season’ to the natural drop in humidity in winter and suggest that lack of humidity inhibits the action of cilia lining the respiratory tract in catching and expelling viruses.  Viruses themselves also survive and spread far more quickly in low humidity.  In any case, a dry room is the last thing a sore throat needs.  

Vaporisers and humidifiers are also more practical than sitting in a steamy room with the shower on, unless you plan to sleep in there! These devices run all night, increasing lung-friendly humidity for up to 12 hours (and increasing your chances of getting some sleep, too).  
6. Saline – worth its salt
Unlike nasal decongestants, saline drops and sprays don’t lead to a rebound effect – a worsening of symptoms when the medication is discontinued – and most are safe and non-irritating even for children.
7. Eucalyptus oil, bush remedy supreme
When you think winter colds, you probably conjure up the smell of eucalyptus… and there’s a good reason.  Australia’s famous bush remedy is a natural expectorant, which means it loosens mucous congestion, as well as being a natural antibacterial and antiseptic.  It gives a refreshing blast to help clear the sinuses, and is useful added to steam inhalations, rubbed on the chest, added to the bath or shower, or on a handkerchief to inhale throughout the day.

Always read the label and use only as directed.  If symptoms persist, see your healthcare professional.

References & sources available on request.