At this time of year in the UK, flu vaccinations are given to more than 10 million people. At around £16 per vaccination this is a substantial cost to the NHS. If the vaccine were effective, this might be a worthy expenditure. Yet, Public Health England admit that the vaccine may be ineffective for many.
What is flu?
Flu, short for influenza are viruses of the respiratory system. Some forms of influenza are mild and some are severe. They are spread by inhalation or by contact via the hands or touching contaminated surfaces.
The flu virus replicates and changes its structure very quickly. This years strains of flu are not the same as last years’s. So, to the immune system the different strain looks like a new virus. Hence, each year the flu vaccine must be changed to prevent an infection.
Some people may catch the flu but don’t develop symptoms. Most infected people develop symptoms within two to three days. Symptoms usually begin with feeling chilly and aching muscles. As the infection progresses people usually have fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, dry cough and headache. Sometimes there will also be respiratory symptoms such as sore throat and runny nose. Some people may also have diarrhoea or nausea and vomiting.
Who should get the flu vaccination?
The flu vaccination is free on the NHS for those most at risk of flu. Which includes:
- children aged 2 to 8 years old
- pregnant women
- anyone living with a long term medical condition
- everyone aged 65 or over
- people with caring responsibilities
How effective is the vaccination?
The NHS encourages people in these at risk groups to have the vaccination every year. Yet, a recent report in the British Medical Journal says that last years UK flu vaccination program was ineffective, especially in the over-65s. In fact Public Health England admit that “It is increasingly recognised that the current generation of flu vaccines often work less well in the elderly.” They suggest that a generally weaker immune system in this age group makes the vaccine less effective.
The report also suggests that the flu vaccination is effective for children. So, it is possible that by vaccinating children, their grandparents will be less likely to catch the flu. But, it seems that for those over-65 the vaccine should not be relied upon to provide protection.
Though pharmaceutical antivirals do exist there is concern that the flu virus is becoming resistant to these medications. In much the same way as bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. So researchers are increasingly looking to plant based remedies to identify potential antivirals. Since many herbal medicines have traditional use in the treatment of influenza, there are more and more studies being done on herbal remedies.
From a herbalist perspective, there are several ways that herbal medicines can help. Such as by directly killing the virus. Or, by stimulating the body’s immune system to fight off the virus, or preventing it from replicating and spreading. Thirdly, some herbal remedies can be used through the flu season to prevent infection.
There are many herbal remedies that can treat respiratory infections including the flu. Taken at the first signs of the viral infection provides the best protection.
Possibly the most well known herbal remedy for respiratory infections is Echinacea. Some herbalists recommend Echinacea angustifolia in preference to other species of Echinacea. I recommend using a good quality product, at adequate dosage and take it at the first sign of a viral infection. Once the infection develops studies suggest that Echinacea is less effective at fighting it off.
It is a myth that Echinacea should only be taken for 7 to 10 days. This internet myth was based on poor research that was later disproved by better quality studies.
Though Echinacea is generally well tolerated some sources say that care should be taken by people with autoimmune conditions. Since we do know that Echinacea can stimulate the immune system, if you have an autoimmune condition I suggest caution using Echinacea, unless you are advised otherwise by your healthcare provider. In addition, Echinacea is not recommended if you are taking immune suppressing medication. It is recommended that children under 12 years should not be given Echinacea.
Elderberry has a tradition of use for treating colds and flu. This has been supported in clinical trials. This study shows that concentrated juice of elderberry was effective against influenza. Elderberry stimulates the immune system and prevents the virus from spreading.
Elderberry syrup is a folk remedy that can be made at home. Should you decide to prepare your own elderberry syrup make sure that only the berries are used. The leaves and twigs of the elderberry bush can cause stomach upset. The berries should also be cooked as part of making the remedy. Usually this involves simmering the washed elderberries in water. Herbs such as ginger or cinnamon are often added. Strain the liquid and make it into a syrup with sugar or honey. Store in the fridge for a homemade winter colds and flu remedy. The syrup can be taken as a preventative or during an illness.
Alternatively, proprietary formulas such as Sambucol are available. This study describes the use of Sambucol, a standardised elderberry extract, during an outbreak of flu in 1993. The Sambucol halved the number of days illness in the majority of people that used it, compared to placebo treatment.
Since elderberry stimulates the immune system it is not recommended to take it while you are taking immune suppressant medication.
Pomegranates are high in vitamin C. One fruit providing nearly half of the day’s requirement. They are also rich sources of anthocyanidins, the highly beneficial coloured compounds with notable antioxidant activity. Pomegranates have a wide range of uses from menopausal symptoms, to diarrhoea and mouth ulcers. They are also used in Cuban traditional medicine for treatment of respiratory diseases.
This study provides strong evidence of effectiveness against the flu virus. Researchers show pomegranate extract actively destroys the influenza virus. They suggest their results show that using pomegranate alongside Tamiflu antiviral medication may make Tamiflu more effective.
Pomegranate juice might lower blood pressure. So, care should be taken when taking pomegranate alongside prescription medications, as there is the potential for possible interactions. Pomegranate is not recommended alongside blood thinning medication such as warfarin.
You might also like my post Pomegranate – the super fruit with amazing health benefits.
Ginger is a pungent spice that has been used for thousands of years as medicine. It is a warming circulatory stimulant with anti-inflammatory properties. It warms the digestion, improves appetite and enhances immunity. Technically, the spice ginger is the rhizome rather than the root, but almost everyone calls it a root.
For colds and flu, ginger is my favourite remedy. Taken as fresh ginger juice, prepared as a hot tea.
I generally recommend, and use myself, a remedy based on herbalist Stephen Buhner’s recipe:
60ml juice of fresh ginger root
350ml hot water
1 tbsp raw honey
1tsp fresh lime juice
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
Drinking 4 to 6 cups per day will stop the infection in a few days.
Second best is the tincture of fresh ginger root. Dried ginger is far less effective than fresh ginger as an antiviral, though it is still medicinal in other ways.
As with some of the other herbs mentioned, caution is necessary if you are also taking prescription medications. Ginger in medicinal doses can interact with some medications from the doctor. Avoid using ginger if you are taking anticoagulants medication. Also be careful using ginger if you have a history of peptic ulcer or gallstones. Take no more than the equivalent of 2g of dried ginger per day during pregnancy.
Andrographis, a very bitter herbal remedy from India, used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine systems. This is a medicinal herb that stimulates the immune system. Clearing bacterial and viral infections, whilst also lowering a fever.
A meta-analysis provides evidence of its effectiveness for acute infections of adults and children. It can be taken as a preventative herbal treatment, but as a herb with cooling properties it should not be taken alone over a long period. So, it needs to be taken alongside a warming remedy such as ginger and, or astragalus. Or taken at a higher dose during an active infection.
Andrographis should not be taken during pregnancy. It is also not recommended to take andrographis alongside blood pressure lowering medication or blood thinning mediation. Also, andrographis can stimulate the the immune system, it is snot recommended to take andrographis alongside immunosuppressant medication.
Astragalus root is a popular Chinese tonic herb. It has been used for hundreds of years to increase vitality and to strengthen immunity. This is a safe and effective herb that can be used by adults and children. In fact, traditionally it is often used in cooking. Large pieces of dried root used in cooking liquids, being removed and discarded at the end of cooking.
Astragalus is used to prevent infections rather to treat active illness. Generally 1 tsp of tincture taken daily for prevention of viral infection.
Due to its ability to strengthen immunity and possibly increase interferon production. It is recommended that astragalus is not taken by people using immune suppression medication.
Finally, though not a herbal medicine, probiotics are worth considering. There is evidence that the microbiome has a large influence on the immune system. So, a probiotic supplement might be potentially helpful to help boost the microbiome and hence the immune system, especially in the over-65s. Given that it is weakened immunity that likely makes the flu vaccine less effective for the elderly.