Natural Home Remedies for the Cold and Flu Season

Ali Segersten Nov 14, 2012 26 comments

As soon as school starts back up in the fall my children inevitably get a little sniffle or a slight cough. It's a good thing to be exposed to viruses and bacteria. It makes the immune system stronger. But how your immune system reacts depends on a lot of factors. Certain foods, nutritional supplements, herbs, and other remedies may be very beneficial during times of acute illness because they help your body heal itself naturally. This post offers you tips for building a strong immune system as well as natural home remedies to treat ear infections, coughs, fevers, colds, and flus.

Prevention: Building a Strong Immune System

Nutrient deficiencies and chemical overload cause our immune system to misbehave or not function to its highest potential. We are exposed to colds and flus nearly every day. When your immune system is functioning properly it will immediately activate white cells and destroy the pathogens keeping you healthy. If you are run down, deficient in nutrients, eating foods that you are sensitive to, or chronically stressed then your immune system may become compromised.

Tips for Keeping Your Immune System Strong:

  • Do an Elimination Diet to determine which foods you are sensitive to and remove them from your diet. Food allergies and sensitivities constantly tie up your immune cells to deal with the food response instead of being fully able to tackle the offending virus or bacteria. 
  • Keep your diet as clean as possible: plenty of organic vegetables, greens, and fruits daily. Whole grains (not too many ground grains, i.e. flours), legumes, pastured/organic eggs & meats, wild fish, sea vegetables, and raw nuts & seeds. (Both of my books cover how to do this with delicious recipes)
  • Take a natural food-based Vitamin C supplement daily! I don't think there is another nutrient out there that acts as a "cure-all" other than Vitamin C. Your immune cells need Vitamin C to function properly and perform certain tasks. I like this brand and this one (this one contains corn). Use more when you feel a cold or flu coming on. It will likely decrease the duration of the illness. 
  • Take purified fish oil daily. EPA and DHA from fish oil are extremely important for proper immune function. My book, Nourishing Meals, covers this in greater detail. We like to use this supplement (in capsules) as well as this liquid fish oil (added to smoothies for the kids). 
  • Coenzyme Q10 is a supplement (also found in heart tissue) that is very important for mitochondrial function. Our bodies also produce it when we exercise! I give my children this supplement a few times a week. 
  • Selenium is a mineral that many people are often deficient in. Certain agricultural regions have soil that is deficient in selenium so the plants that grow there and the animals that eat them tend to be low in this key nutrient. If you live in the Northwest, then you should know that our soils are quite depleted of selenium. We take a supplement and also enjoy Brazil nuts (very high in selenium) occasionally. 
  • Make sure your levels of Vitamin D (25-OH D) are between 40-60ng/mL starting in the Fall (most adults need around 5000-6000IU per day to accomplish this). I add a few drops of this D3/K2 supplement into my children's smoothies a few times a week from about October through April. 
  • Zinc! If you don't think you are eating or absorbing enough zinc-rich foods (grass-fed beef, turkey, chicken, lamb, soaked pumpkin seeds) then it is best to take a daily supplement. For example, a chronic zinc deficiency can cause you to catch every cold and flu going around! If you have my book, Nourishing Meals, you will see the chapter devoted to raising healthy children and the section on key nutrients for proper development. You can read more there about the best food sources of zinc and what factors can contribute to a zinc deficiency.
  • Take a good Probiotic Supplement daily and add fermented foods into your family's diet to boost gut health. A healthy digestive system is able to absorb and utilize the nutrients you give it through food and supplements. 
  • Certain foods can be helpful to eat daily during cold and flu season. My children think oranges and pomegranates are treats! They would eat four pomegranates a day if we let them. I think this habit keeps them healthy and more resistant to catching a cold. Both pomegranates and oranges are full of vitamin C, flavonoids, and other antioxidants for keeping the immune system strong! Eat more mushrooms! They can increase natural killer cell activity that combats viral infections.
  • Drink green smoothies daily! They will help your body deal with all the toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis that alter our immune system function. Kale, collard greens, and other cruciferous vegetables increase phase 2 detoxification of toxins while ramping up our body’s production of antioxidants. The soluble fiber in the fruit (and more so in whole grains and beans) helps with the removal of these toxins from the body. Greens are also loaded with carotenoids or precursors to vitamin A—a key nutrient for proper immune function. 
  • Go to bed early! Sleep is a time to rest, digest, and repair. If you want your immune to be in great shape then give it time to rejuvenate.
  • Practice a daily yoga routine or light, brisk walking. 

Treating Illness: Natural Home Remedies

Although I believe antibiotics have their place, they are grossly overused. Most antibiotics kill off beneficial bacteria in the gut leaving you more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies, disease, food allergies, and gut dysbiosis. Most things can be treated naturally using the prevention tips above and the home remedies below. In fact, we've only needed to use antibiotics once with one of our five children in the last 10 years!


Ear Infections:

Ear infections can be prevented with good nutrition, and if your child does happen to get one, it can be easily treated with home remedies. Our first daughter is the only one of our five children who has ever had an ear infection (I actually don't know if she did have an actual infection, but I assume so since she was fussy and pulling on her ears a lot) and it only happened once when she was a toddler. We used garlic-mullein ear oil and an "onion ear muff" to treat it....and lots of breastfeeding!

Recently one of my four-year-old twins was complaining of an earache so I put two drops of the garlic-mullein oil in his ear before bed and by morning the pain was gone!

  • ELIMINATE ALL DAIRY! If your child has recurrent ear infections the first place to look is the diet. Does your child eat a lot of gluten and dairy? Remove ALL dairy products first. If the ear infections are still present, I would suggest removing all gluten-containing foods as well. Stick to an unprocessed, low-sugar, whole foods diet free of dairy and gluten. My bet is that you will see far fewer ear infections! If your child rarely gets ear infections but is experiencing one then it is usually best to remove dairy products until the infection heals. 
  • Garlic Mullein Ear Oil (an olive oil infusion). Only a few drops in each ear until the infection goes away. There are a number of good brands. Check your local health food store. The one we like is from Herb Pharm.
  • Onion Ear Muff: cut an onion in half and take out all but the outer two rings (as pictured). Place it on a cookie sheet and bake it at 350 degrees F until warm. Use a light dishtowel to hold it against the ear. The chemicals in the onion gas increase circulation to the ear and help to rid it of bacteria. 
  • Vitamin C: Have your child take 1 to 2 caps of Natural Vitamin C once or twice a day. If your child cannot swallow a capsule then you can mix 1/4 teaspoon of the powder in a glass of water, coconut water, or freshly squeezed organize juice (not pasteurized juice!). 
  • Homemade organic chicken soup with lots of fresh garlic, rosemary, oregano, and thyme. (See page 212 in The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook). Or try this Immune-Boosting Chicken Soup Recipe (which can also be found in my Nourishing Meals cookbook on page 185).
  • Green Smoothies with plenty of fresh ginger. 

Upper Respiratory Flus:

Aching muscles, joint pain, fatigue, chills, coughing, congestion....these are all signs of the flu. All you want to do is curl up in bed with a hot cup of tea and a good book, right? There are a few things you can do to shorten the duration and lessen the intensity of the influenza virus.
  • Food: Light meals like brown rice and steamed vegetables (topped with chopped raw garlic), fresh orange slices, pomegranates, freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice in water, lacto-fermented vegetables, cultured coconut water (Kevita), green smoothies, homemade immune-boosting chicken soup, or miso soup (we use South River's soy-free miso). I think a homemade chicken soup with a lot of vegetables, ginger, and chilies is one of the best medicines for the flu! In fact, I serve this to my children for breakfast and lunch when they have a cold! Also, it is important to keep difficult-to-digest foods like dairy, wheat (gluten), and soy out of the diet while sick. Keep all processed foods and sugar out of the diet as well. Sugar and refined carbohydrates use up your body's stores of vitamins and minerals to metabolize the sugars—the very same nutrients your immune system needs to function properly!
  • Supplements: Olive Leaf Extract—500mg 3 times a day; Berberine—200mg 3 times a day; N-acetylcysteine—500mg 2 to 4 times a day; Vitamin D—10,000IU's a day during acute illness. Vitamin K2 (needed when supplementing vitamin D above 4000IU per day)—use 15mg of MK4 OR 45mcg of MK7 daily; Selenium—(selenomethionine) 400mcg during illness; Vitamin C—minimum of 500mg every 4 hours with a larger dose at bedtime.
  • Herbs: Astragalus, Goldenseal, Echinacea, Andrographis, Licorice Root, St. John's Wort, Lemon Balm, and fresh Ginger. Elderberry syrup can also be very effective for an upper respiratory flu but you need to begin taking it when your symptoms first come on. 
  • Steam: Take a hot, steamy shower or sit in a steam room. You can also fill a large bowl with boiling hot water, add a few drops of tea tree oil, rosemary, or eucalyptus, and lean over the bowl with a towel draped over your head to breathe in the steam and antiviral essential oils. 
  • Diffuse Essential Oils: I diffuse pure essential oils in my home all day, every day during cold and flu season! I use something called On Gaurd, which is an anti-viral and anti-bacterial blend that helps to clean the air. Other great oils are lemon, douglas fir, and tea tree. You can learn more here and set up a wholesale account to order your own if you are interested. There are many different diffusers, but here is one I like (I have a number of them throughout my home)!
  • Rest, sleep, rest!
  • Netti Pot: this uses a saline solution to flush out the sinuses. It is best done a few times a day during acute illness. You can probably find a Netti Pot at your local health food store. 


Fevers are a good thing. They are a natural response of your immune system to fight infections. The chemicals your immune system uses are literally called pyrogens, meaning they heat up the body to burn out the invading organisms and accelerate the activity of your immune cells. Unless the fever is very high (generally somewhere above 105-106 degrees F), there generally isn't any reason to use over-the-counter drugs to bring it down. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, Sudafed, Benadryl, Robitussin, TheraFlu, Vick's Nyquil) is usually what most parents use as soon as their child gets a fever, but did you know that this drug actually depletes glutathione levels? Okay now, what does that mean? Glutathione is the body's primary antioxidant that's produced from three amino acids (cysteine, glutamic acid, & glycine) in the liver and elsewhere. When glutathione levels drop the body's immune cells cannot function properly.

  • Stay Hydrated! This is the most important thing to do if you or your child has a fever. Drink a few quarts of pure filtered water every day. If your infant or toddler has a fever then stick with breastmilk 24/ is the best source of nourishment and hydration! 
  • Try a natural electrolyte drink: Mix 1-quart coconut water with 1/8 teaspoon unrefined sea salt and the juice of 1 fresh lime. Serve 1/4 to 1/2 cup at a time, every 30 to 60 minutes, to help your child stay hydrated during a fever. 
  • Herbs: Tulsi (Holy Basil) tea is very effective with fevers and flus. My children love this tea! Ginger, cinnamon, yarrow, peppermint, and chamomile work very well too. 
  • Light meals if they are tolerated like miso soup, homemade chicken stock, or green smoothies. You can watch my video on How to Make Homemade Chicken Soup using a whole, organic chicken if you need more guidance! 
  • Rest, rest, rest!

Sore Throats:

My children have never had Strep Throat but they have had mild sore throats in the past. Here are some tips for treating it:
  • Soothing Teas: Licorice Root, Marshmallow Root (best extracted by cold infusion), Slippery Elm, and Mint. 
  • Salt Gargle: Make a mixture of 1 teaspoon of sea salt dissolved in 8 ounces (1 cup) of warm water. Use it to gargle every one to two hours.
  • Food: Again broth and soup are your best medicines. They nourish, hydrate, and sooth a sore throat. You can find all of the recipes on this blog tagged bone broth here
  • Supplements: Everything mentioned above. 
  • Essential Oils: Gargle with a few ounces of warm water with 1 to 2 drops myrrh essential oil added to it. You can also add a drop of myrrh and a drop of copaiba essential oil to a small glass of water and drink a few times a day. *Please make sure you order high-quality, therapeutic-grade essential oils for internal use. This is the brand we use
If you have more tips and tricks for treating colds and flus naturally, then please leave a comment below. Thank you! :)

Disclaimer: This post for educational purposes only and is not intended to treat or diagnose. Please see your healthcare practitioner for assistance. 


About the Author

Ali Segersten

Alissa Segersten holds a Bachelor's of Science in Nutrition from Bastyr University and a Master’s of Science in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine from the University of Western States. She is a Functional Nutritionist, the mother of five children, a whole foods cooking instructor, professional recipe developer, and cookbook author. She is passionate about helping others find a diet that will truly nourish them. Alissa is the author of two very popular gluten-free, whole foods cookbooks and guidebooks: The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook and Nourishing Meals. She is also the co-author of The Elimination Diet book. Alissa is the founder and owner of Nourishing Meals®.

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Thanks for the great tips one word of caution for raynauds syndrome sufferers. It is related to auto immune disorders so do not use echinoderm if you have raynauds( personal experience it makes symptoms worse
). Ginger and ginkgo are fine

I make fermented garlic. It ferments for three months, so I try to make sure I have some made before winter comes around. It works amazing for sore throats. It gives me immediate pain relief.

I never heard about doing an onion ear cuff. I have left one on the bedside table to draw stuff out of the air, and put them on my soles. They seem to work pretty well. I am very interested in trying the onion ear cuff next time one of us has ear pain.

I'm intrigued; what is water therapy?

Good read. Keeping stress away seems to help you build a strong immune system. Thanks for sharing.

How fitting you should post this now - I was the one who posted on facebook asking about a natural expectorant since I'm on the elimination. I did a little more searching and found several lists of herbs. Then I found Yogi Breathe Deep Tea, which has several of those herbs in it. It is also all organic and phase 1 friendly! I felt it working after one cup and most of my congestion is gone now. And it tastes good too. I think I might make it a permanent fixture in my cupboard!

We make the master tonic and have 2tbsp twice daily during flu season or when we start getting sick. It is amazing how it literally stops the sickness from progressing, gets us rid of it, and keeps us healthy even if others around us are sick.

You can find the recipe on my blog:

I have a question about green smoothies, which I have been drinking daily for now 3 years: I just found out that there are properties in leafy greens that can disrupt your thyroid and adrenal gland. What do you think about that? It freaked me out and now I am afraid of making the smoothies. I've read it several places now...

Coconut water!

I use similar home remedies for sore throat, salt-water gargle always work perfectly well. Water therapy also helps a lot if you have flu.

Could you comment on which, if any of
The recommendations are not ok to use for children?

Are all these remedies safe for a pregnant or nursing mum

Hello.. one question (or maybe two ;).. I bought some of the herbs loosely.. is ther a general recipie for making tea with loose herbs (like 1 tsp to cup of water) or does it depend on the herb? Also, you mentioned marshmallow root best done by cold infusion.. how do you do that?
You listed quite a few herbs.. do you use all of them or do you like some better than others?
Thank you!

Salt gargle is huge for us. I also like to make my own medicinal bone broths with reishi and goji berries. Works like a charm!

You read my mind with this post!!! Just last week I was huddled in bed whimpering and recovering from a stomach bug and searching your blog posts for "sick" and "flu"! Do you have any additional recommendations for nursing moms to stay hydrated when illness strikes? I defaulted to Gatorade and Popsicles but I know there's something better. I feel like my milk still hasn't recovered :(

Hi, I love your article - however would like to point out that you say that Omega-3 from Fish Oil and I am a firm believer that you strike "FREE RADICALS" at the source...oils which stimulate the production of these free radicals. You can get all the Omega-3 you need by eating plants, ie. vegetable and fruit. Also, regular doses of Vitamin C help stomp out these free radicals which lower your immune system.

Whenever I have a cold, I drink paco d'arco tea. I don't know why it works but it does.

Hi Ali...I use Ecchinacea tincture in a little water or oj. I also take every single morning 1 oz of a liquid that contains the B's, zinc,antioxidants like blueberry etc, ginger, alfalfa & lots of other great stuff which has worked wonders...hardly ever get the flu or a cold. I probably can't say on here who makes the product or name of it, but it's fantastic. I totally agree with green smoothies & especially Vit D3 which has wonderful health benefits! I just can't handle the thought of wet socks, although I'm sure it works! Stay well!

Thank you everyone for adding to the conversation! Great ideas that I didn't mention here.

Becky- I think you are right. We never use tap water, in fact I was surprised that this video suggested using it. We use filtered water that we warm on the stove and then dissolve the salt in. Thanks for commenting on this!

Thank you so much for this post! It is so helpful. Just one comment about the neti pot video--I thought it is dangerous to use water straight from the tap. Weren't there a couple of people who died recently because they got amoebas from doing that? I'm no expert, though. I've never used one.

Thanks Ali! Nice collection to refer to when the crud hits. Luckily we do a lot of these remedies, so it seems we don't get very sick or very often...I have to second the "cold wet socks" remedy as we call it. I have found it to greatly reduce congestion in one night alone. Oh yes a few drops of thyme oil in the bath for a cough works wonders! I also a big fan of mushroom miso gravy/ soup with lots of dried thyme...and your chicken soup is magic. I also make sure to have a stash of some homemade chicken broth in the frezer during the cold months :)

So incredibly helpful! Even tho I do so many of these preventative measures on your list, sometimes a virus will find me. You offer many healthy options. Going in the archives!

Thanks for the great round-up of home/natural remedies for this time of year!

Pretty awesome post! I especially like the recommendation for the elimination diet - most people would never think of freeing up their immune activity!

and of course apple cider vinegar, raw garlic and lots of fermented foods, including kefir. Simone.

Oil of oregano is also very good, and increase consumption of coconut oil.

Very, very helpful. Thank you for sharing this information!!

Great post on how to take care of ourselves!!
I also love doing warming socks which are great for any cold, flu, or fever and more.
1. place feet in warming bath because your feet need to be warm.
2. wet cotton socks in cold water
3. wringe out socks...squeeze out all the water u can.
4. place wet socks on feet.
5. place wool socks over cotton socks.
6. go to sleep.

when u wake up socks will be dry. do not remove till socks are dry. works great on all ages, infants too.

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