The Truth About Home Remedies and the Flu
By Cara Martinez
The flu is notorious for nasty symptoms like a fever, sore throat, cough and runny nose. With a barrage of fatigue and piercing body aches, it’s no wonder parents look to home remedies like elderberry syrup to combat their child’s flu-related side effects.
But before you reach for an over-the-counter homeopathic medication or prepare your own home remedy, take caution. Two CHLA infectious disease specialists urge parents to understand the facts about home remedies and just how ineffective—and potentially life-threatening—they can be for children.
The truth about home remedies
The latest home remedy to make headlines is elderberry syrup, which is derived from the elderberry plant and can also commonly be found in “natural” over-the-counter supplements. It is marketed to treat, or lessen the effects of, cold and flu symptoms. However, the raw berries, bark and leaves are known to be poisonous.
Michael Smit, MD, MSPH, Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at CHLA, warns parents to take caution when considering elderberry syrup or any type of remedy.
“The word remedy is typically a red flag for doctors,” says Dr. Smit. “It’s not a medical term.”
The difference, Dr. Smit explains, is that remedies are not rigorously tested and studied like traditional medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
“With remedies, we often don’t know what’s inside of them,” Dr. Smit added. “And in the case of elderberry, some users have unknowingly ingested cyanide—a poisonous chemical that can be deadly.”
Dr. Smit suggests that over-the-counter supplements claiming to reduce flu symptoms can be especially dangerous for children.
“Supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so even some sold at the store may be reason for concern,” he says. “Children are especially vulnerable and a relatively small amount that wouldn’t affect an adult can have a profound effect on a child.”
The best ways to protect against the flu
When it comes to protecting you and your child from the flu, your best bet is a flu shot.
“Not only does the flu shot protect you against the flu virus, but it also lessens the severity of it if you do contract it,” says Dr. Smit.
That’s especially important for children younger than 5 years old, as Dr. Smit says they are more susceptible to severe flu side effects, complications and even death.
“Younger children, especially those with chronic illnesses like asthma or diabetes, can get sicker from the flu and can die more often,” says Dr. Smit, “making it increasingly more important to protect them with a flu shot.”
In addition to the flu shot, Dr. Smit recommends practicing good hand hygiene, which includes washing hands under water for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer. He also says to stay home if you’re sick.
“Avoid visiting places like the grocery store,” says Dr. Smit. “And please, stay home from work and school.”
Doctor-approved tips to combat flu symptoms
If you or your child do come down with the flu, and you are looking for more natural alternatives to alleviating side effects, Vikram Anand, MD, PhD, shares a few recommendations.
“Honey can make a sore throat feel better,” says Dr. Anand, an Attending Physician at CHLA. “Like everything, it should be used in moderation but may provide some relief.” Note that babies under age 1 should not be given honey.
Don’t want to take honey on its own? Dr. Anand suggests putting it into warm tea, which can also help soothe an aching throat. The same goes for chicken soup.
“There is a small amount of scientific evidence suggesting that feeding the flu is beneficial,” says Dr. Anand. “Chicken or noodle soups are a great thing to eat while you’re fighting the flu, not only because of its warmth, but because of the simple starches and carbohydrates it provides. Plus, it’s comforting.”
And, depending on a child’s age, Dr. Anand suggests Tylenol or ibuprofen can make those aches and pains feel a lot better—and potentially help a child sleep, which is crucial to fighting the flu.
“Sleep,” suggests Dr. Anand. “Lots and lots of sleep and staying hydrated should help you feel better sooner.”
When it comes to other compounds like zinc and vitamin C—or remedies made from plant-derived products like echinacea—Dr. Anand agrees with Dr. Smit that your first step should be consulting with your physician.
“Even vitamin C in large doses can be harmful to your child,” says Dr. Anand. “When your child has the flu, use your best judgment to make them feel better, and when in doubt, call your doctor.”
A note of warning: The flu can become a severe illness with symptoms you may not be able to handle at home. If more serious symptoms develop, you should seek medical attention immediately.