Home Care for Colds and Flu

During cold and flu season, viruses are the most common culprits in upper respiratory infections. Because antibiotics target bacteria, they are not effective treatments. Sleep is often the best prescription, but certain home remedies can also reduce symptoms and speed recovery.


Garlic is not only good at fighting infections – it has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties – but it can also help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. At the first sign of cold or flu symptoms, such as nasal congestion, sore throat or cough, eat two fresh cloves per day. Chop them into pieces the size of a capsule or tablet, then swallow with water, or crush them and swallow with unsweetened applesauce. If you don’t chew the garlic, the aroma is unlikely to stay on your breath.

Salt Water Gargle

Gargling with salt water can soothe sore throats and prevent complications. Most upper respiratory infections are initiated by viruses, but bacteria in the mouth and throat can cause secondary infections when tissues are inflamed and especially susceptible. Salt water kills bacteria by osmosis (creating a hypertonic environment in which their cell walls rupture). Natural sea salt is preferable to regular table salt that has been refined by industrial processes using chemicals and heat to extract minerals.

To make a salty solution for gargling, add ½ teaspoon sea salt to ½ cup warm water. Taking small sips, gargle with the solution and allow it to coat the back of the throat, then spit it out. Repeat until all of the salt water has been used. Do this twice per day or more as needed.

Steam Inhalation

Steam inhalation can keep mucus membranes moist in the nose, mouth and throat, combating dryness that can cause pain and make these tissues more susceptible to infection. Incorporating essential oils offers additional therapeutic benefits, as they can kill viruses as well as bacteria and clear congestion. The best essential oils to use in steam inhalation for colds and flu are eucalyptus and tea tree oil, but thyme, rosemary, sage also work well. Use only pure essential oils from a reputable source. Perfume oils and essential oils of poor quality will not have the same therapeutic effects.

For a standard steam inhalation, bring four cups of water to a boil. Pour the water into a large bowl and place it on a surface where you can sit comfortably with your face about 6 inches above it. Add four to six drops of pure essential oil to the water, then drape a large towel over your head and the bowl to contain the vapors. Stay under the towel as long as you comfortably can or until the water cools.

Spicy Ginger Tonic

Frequent fluid consumption soothes and moistens sore throats and prevents dehydration during illness. Water and herbal teas are good choices, but this recipe for Spicy Ginger Tonic is particularly therapeutic, as the ginger, chili peppers and garlic will help the body fight infection:

2 inches fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
4 cups water
10 dried chili peppers
Juice of 1 lemon
2 cloves fresh garlic, crushed or grated
1 tablespoon honey

Add ginger, chili peppers and water to a saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the garlic and allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes. Strain, then add lemon juice and honey. Stir to combine. Add additional water if needed to dilute the spicy flavor. Sip the tonic slowly throughout the day. Cooled tonic can be stored in the fridge and consumed cold or reheated as needed. For best results, eat the strained garlic.

Green Soup

Sick individuals should eat only when hungry. Loss of appetite indicates that the body’s energy is better focused on fighting infection than digesting food. When hunger returns, choose foods that are easy to digest and contain immune-supportive ingredients like garlic and onions. This recipe for Green Soup is a good example:

2 medium zucchini
2 cups green beans
2 stalks celery
4 cloves garlic
1 small onion
1 handful chopped parsley
Seasoning: sea salt, ground peppercorn, cayenne pepper

Roughly chop the vegetables into large chunks of similar size and steam until tender. Add the steamed vegetables to a blender with the parsley, the water used for steaming, and enough cold water to cover all of the ingredients. Purée to desired the consistency. Transfer the soup to a pot on the stovetop and season to taste. Gently warm the soup over low heat before serving. Store extra soup in the fridge until ready to eat. Consume two or more bowls per day.

Botanical Medicines

Many herbal remedies exist for colds and flu. Some botanicals act as expectorants to help clear phlegm. Others have anti-spasmodic properties to quiet coughs. Certain herbs relieve head congestion or increase numbers of white blood cells that fight infection. A doctor trained to use these medicines can customize a formula unique to individual symptoms. Anyone seeking herbal remedies should discuss with their doctor all of the medicines she or he is taking, whether natural or pharmaceutical, because interactions can occur.

Doctor Visit

A visit to the doctor is in order if symptoms do not improve after one week, if the sick one is vomiting, or if fevers exceed 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Fevers can be a healing reaction because viruses and bacteria are less likely to survive at higher temperatures and enzymes that the body uses to fight infection become more effective. However, this does not apply to infants less than three months old, children or adults with immune deficiencies, and individuals undergoing cancer treatment. These people should not delay discussing fevers with their doctor.