Sneezes, Sniffles, and Sore Throats

Upper respiratory infections are among the most common illnesses in the United States. They're highly contagious and are spread by both airborne particles and particles passed through physical contact (touching an infected person or an object he's touched). Colds or flu can precipitate other problems, such as bronchitis or sinusitis (inflammation in the bronchial passages or sinuses).

Colds are caused by viruses — experts have identified at least 200 different kinds — most of which cause sneezing, scratchy throat, and runny nose.

Influenza, or the flu, is a more severe upper respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus (there are three types, commonly known as A, B, and C, of which A and B are the most serious). Flu symptoms are more intense than those of a cold and typically include fever and muscle aches.

Strep throat is caused, as you might have guessed, by Streptococcus (strep) bacteria. It's characterized by sudden and acute throat pain and sometimes fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting. In most cases, your throat will be bright red and the lymph nodes in your neck will be swollen and tender.

Hand washing is the best way to avoid catching many kinds of infections (cold and flu viruses can live up to three hours on your skin and just as long on hard surfaces like telephones and stair railings). Try using soap or liquid cleanser made with rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): It has proven antiviral and antibacterial powers.

Treatment Options

Strep infections are always treated with antibiotics like penicillin. To relieve throat pain, most conventional doctors recommend over-the-counter (OTC) sprays or lozenges made with topical anesthetics like benzocaine, which can cause irritation or allergic reactions in some people.

To prevent the flu, experts recommend an annual flu shot (or Flumist, a nasal spray). Some doctors also prescribe antiviral drugs like zanamivir (Relenza) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu), which can prevent an infection or lessen its severity and duration if taken within forty-eight hours of onset. These drugs can produce side effects like abdominal pain, diarrhea, and nausea.

Most people treat colds and flu with OTC pain relievers, decongestants, antihistamines, and cough medicines. These drugs can cause a long list of side effects, including irregular heartbeat, drowsiness, and stomach pain (see Chapter 13). Here are some herbal options:

Andrographis ( Andrographis paniculata )

Andrographis is used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to treat upper respiratory tract infections (it's an antibacterial and antioxidant). Studies show that it can relieve the symptoms of sore throats and helps to prevent colds.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

Astragalus is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a tonic for the immune system. Studies show that it's an antiviral, antibacterial, and immunomodulator that helps prevent infections.

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)

Echinacea is a powerful antiviral and immune system stimulant, and has been shown in several studies to reduce the severity and duration of cold and flu symptoms.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)

Elderberry has both antiviral and immune-boosting effects, making it a great remedy for colds and flu. Research shows it can fight several viruses at once-and improve your symptoms in just a few days.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger inhibits the bacteria and viruses responsible for upper respiratory infections and also relieves sore throats and the aches of the flu.

Isatis (Isatis tinctoria)

Constituents of this Chinese herb have antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, analgesic, and antipyretic (fever reducing) activity.

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