Alternatives to Antibiotics

According to the Centers For Disease Control, 75 percent of all antibiotics prescribed by office-based physicians are used to treat upper respiratory infections. 90 percent of these colds and flu cases are caused by viruses. Because antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses, most of these prescriptions are unnecessary. Overuse of antibiotics not only compromise their effectiveness in time of true need, but they also have side effects – most commonly stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea – and they can create imbalances in healthy bacteria that help prevent infection. Fortunately, there are natural alternatives to antibiotics that can shorten the duration and severity of common colds and flu.

Food as Medicine

Garlic is one of the best home remedies for upper respiratory infections. Garlic has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. For colds and flu, chop or crush and swallow two fresh cloves each day until symptoms resolve. (If you don’t chew the garlic, its aroma is less likely to linger on your breath.)

When sick, eat only when you are hungry. Lack of appetite is a sign that your energy is better spent fighting the infection than digesting food. When hunger does strike, choose foods that are nutritious and easy for your body to break down, like steamed vegetables and vegetable soups. Chicken soup, the traditional prescription, is a good choice too, but hold the noodles. Whole grains like rice are better choices than refined grains like pasta.


Hydrotherapy, the therapeutic use of water, is inexpensive and easy to do at home. Add a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil to a steam inhalation to clear congestion in breathing passages and fight infection at the same time. Because eucalyptus essential oil has anti-bacterial actions, it can prevent secondary bacterial infections that may develop on top of viral illness.

A warm sea salt gargle can also prevent secondary bacterial infections and soothe sore throats. Add one half teaspoon of sea salt to one cup of warm water and gargle. Repeat until all of the solution is used. Like the eucalyptus steam treatment, sea salt gargles should be done two or more times per day.

Extra Nutrients

Vitamin A has been called the “anti-infective vitamin” for good reason. It is vital to immunity and maintains the integrity of mucosal surfaces, including respiratory passages in the nose, mouth and throat. Vitamin A protects the body against viral, bacterial and parasitic infections. Because it is a fat-soluble nutrient, it must be taken with food to be absorbed. Vitamin A is toxic in high doses and pregnant women should consult with their doctor before taking vitamin A.

Zinc is also essential for healthy immune function and works synergistically with vitamin A. It is best taken with food because it may cause nausea or stomach upset. Zinc lozenges can soothe sore throats, but for best results choose a product that does not contain sugar.

Botanical Medicine

Echinacea enhances immune function by increasing the number and activity of white blood cells. It has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory actions in the body. Echinacea is best taken at the start of symptoms and can work synergistically with other herbs, like astragalus, hyssop, osha and reishi mushrooms. Licorice root, marshmallow root and slippery elm bark can soothe sore throats and help expectorate phlegm.

Botanical medicines can be taken in the form of tea, capsules, tinctures (alcohol-based liquid herbal extracts) or glycerites (alcohol-free liquid extracts). Tinctures usually have a bitter flavor and can be added to water or juice. Glycerites have a sweete flavor and are best suited to children and others who wish to avoid alcohol or cannot tolerate it.

Botanical medicines should always be taken under the supervision of a doctor, especially in the case of pregnant women.

Friendly Fevers

The body responds to infections by raising the internal temperature to create an inhospitable environment for invading microorganisms, to inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses, and to support immune function. Fevers increase the production of white blood cells, their release into circulation and their ability to kill invading microorganisms. Fevers also increase production of antibodies, the proteins that bind to foreign substances, causing them to be destroyed.

Temperatures of 102F to 104F are common during colds and flu, and usually decrease over a period of days. There is no evidence that fevers as high as 106F cause brain damage (but high external temperatures can elevate internal temperatures to a dangerous degree). Fevers may be uncomfortable, causing fatigue and loss of appetite, but they rarely cause serious problems. The biggest concern is dehydration, so drink plenty of fluids when body temperatures rise. Suppressing a fever with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen can interfere with the body’s ability to heal and should be avoided unless directed by a doctor.

The Best Prescription

For upper respiratory infections, antibiotics are usually not necessary unless complications or secondary bacterial infections develop. The best prescription for colds and flu is extra sleep and plenty of fluids. Eat only when hungry, avoid suppressing fevers and use hydrotherapy, vitamin A, zinc, garlic and botanical medicines to ease symptoms and speed healing. Stay home from work and school to prevent spreading the infection, but if symptoms don’t clear within a week, a visit to your doctor is in order.