Drug-Free Cures for Colds, Sore Throats and the Flu

On Thursday I wrote about some of the problems associated with the flu vaccine, this year and other years. Sometimes there’s not much that can be done to prevent getting sick, so the challenge is getting through it with as little misery as possible. For information on how to treat the miserable symptoms produced by viruses so your body can heal faster, I called Jamison Starbuck, ND, a naturopathic physician, practicing in Missoula, Montana.

Viruses are the tiniest life form in existence — smaller, even, than a single cell. However their impact is huge as they are responsible for various infectious illnesses or diseases, from the common cold to chicken pox to much deadlier ones including HIV.

Natural medications are great at helping the body gear up to fight viruses, says Dr. Starbuck. They work by revving up the white blood cells of the immune system to target the bad guys causing the symptoms, boosting antibody production to encourage it to stop replicating. And, like pharmaceuticals, natural medicines can ease symptoms.


Echinacea is high on Dr. Starbuck’s list for treating viruses. This common immune booster comes in tea, capsules and tincture. Dr. Starbuck recommends the tincture because it is generally more potent and has superior bio-availability. (Test the tincture for freshness by putting a drop on your tongue — it should create a slightly numbing feel. If not, get another bottle. A good choice is Eclectic Institute’s Specific Echinacea.)

Dr. Starbuck most often prescribes Echinacea tincture to be taken by her patients at the first sign of sickness as follows: Place about 30 drops into an ounce of water… take every four hours away from meals. It’s a good idea to drink additional water as well.

Dr. Starbuck often uses Echinacea in combination with other herbs, too. She advises Ligusticum porteri (also named Osha root) to soothe congested tissue and stimulate circulation, again usually prescribing its tincture form. You can find “do it yourself” anti-viral herbal formulas prepared with one or several immune-strengthening herbs in natural stores such as Whole Foods Market — Dr. Starbuck likes the herbal mix Throat Mist for sore throats, by Wise Woman Herbals (www.wisewomanherbals.com). Take these herbs at the first sign of sickness. The sooner you catch the virus, the easier it is to beat back — as always, under the oversight of a physician trained in natural healing.

Vitamin C does more than any other vitamin to boost immune function. Vitamin A is helpful in moistening mucus membranes in the upper respiratory tract. Note: Too much vitamin A can be toxic so Dr. Starbuck advises her patients to get beta carotene, the water soluble, precursor molecule of vitamin A, by eating foods that are high in it rather than taking vitamin A in supplement form. One way is to drink fresh carrot juice (two ounces, twice a day), or blended with fresh orange juice for a combined A/C hit. Oranges, tangerines and, in fact, orange-colored produce of any kind (including pumpkin and sweet potatoes) is helpful. You can continue vitamin therapy for two to three weeks.


Fever is the body’s natural weapon for killing viruses, so it’s best to let it do its work. However if a fever becomes too uncomfortable for you or your child (adults get fevers far less often) or if it is sudden, higher than is typical for you when you get sick and causes bright red cheeks, it may require treatment. Be sure to alert your physician to the fever, as an intense one may require suppression and even hospitalization. Dr. Starbuck says that she often prescribes just one dose of the homeopathic substance Belladonna — typically two pellets of 30C strength — which frequently takes care of a high fever. However, for fevers that are low grade, persistent and dragging you down, she may prescribe the homeopathic substance Gelsemium sempervirens, also 30C strength, two pellets at one time.


For a runny nose and cold, Dr. Starbuck prescribes ginger or usnea, herbs that dry out the mucus and provide antiseptic properties. She also directs her patients as follows: Vaporizing or steam will help thin out mucus and keep it flowing — use a humidifier or simply a bowl or pan of just-boiled water to which you can add one or two drops of eucalyptus or lavender essential oil or several peppermint tea bags. Drape a towel over your head and stand over the water, to breathe in its steam, taking care to avoid burning, of course. For patients suffering from a sore throat that feels hot and dry, Dr. Starbuck prescribes slippery elm, licorice or marshmallow root, all moistening herbs. Also helpful for an inflamed throat is a cool mist humidifier.

Saline solutions, including nasal sprays, can help break up mucus. For a more exotic approach, Dr. Starbuck often prescribes treatment with the neti pot, used in the practice of ancient ayurvedic medicine. When Mehmet Oz, MD, discussed how to use one on The Oprah Winfrey Show last year, these were boosted nearly into the “trendy” category as the must-have saline irrigation system. The neti pot resembles a teapot to be filled with four ounces of saline solution and poured into one nostril, thereby forcing mucus out of the other. Dr. Starbuck often directs her patients to add a quarter teaspoon of combined Echinacea and eyebright tincture to the saline packet mix.


When fighting a virus, it is good to give your digestive tract a break. Avoid proteins and fats, which are hard to digest, as well as dairy products, which create mucus. Warm up by eating hot foods — preferably soups, steamed vegetables and the like and of course, drink lots of fluids. Get plenty of sleep and don’t forego exercise even now, says Dr. Starbuck. Though a hard workout will only stress your already over-stressed body, do get outside twice a day for a 15-minute relaxed walk in sunlight and fresh air.

You can protect others from your virus by washing your hands throughout the day and always after you blow your nose. Don’t go to work when you are feeling sick, since you’ll expose your colleagues and prolong your misery. Dr. Starbuck points out that illness will disappear faster if you take care of yourself — instead of being sick a week or longer, you can feel better in three to five days with rest and proper natural care.