Flu treatments – do any of them work, or should I just get the vaccine?

So you’ve decided to forsake the flu vaccine because you buy into the easily-debunked myths of the anti-vaccine world. Then you catch the flu, which is considered a very dangerous disease despite some of the myths. Then, you send someone to go down to the local drug store to find one of those advertised flu treatments. It’s time to look at these common “flu treatments” and determine whether there is any scientific evidence supporting their usefulness.

I’ve written previously about various supplements and treatments for the common cold, and they mostly don’t work. Or the evidence is so weak that it’s a waste of money to use them.

These ineffective treatments exist for one reason – money. Common cold and flu treatments are a significant part of the estimated global US$278 billion supplement and nutraceutical industry. And the industry is largely unregulated, so they can make unsupported claims, and people buy them based on the woo.

Let me be frank – your best, and really, only choice to prevent the flu is getting the seasonal flu vaccine. It is the only method to boost your or your children’s immune system against the flu.

Although there’s some overlap between common cold and flu treatments, there are a large number of flu treatments that get sold over the counter, although one is sold by prescription. Are any effective? Let’s find out.

The flu kills

During the 2016-17 flu season, over 100 children died from the virus. Yet, only 60% of children were vaccinated, despite the fact influenza kills.

Not only do children die of the flu, but between 12,000 – 56,000 adults die every year from the flu in the USA. Some of those people are healthy young adults. In some years, the flu kills more people than many other things that we consider dangerous, like firearms and cars.

This is what the CDC says about flu complications:

Most people who get influenza will recover in several days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications as a result of the flu. A wide range of complications can be caused by influenza virus infection of the upper respiratory tract (nasal passages, throat) and lower respiratory tract (lungs). While anyone can get sick with flu and become severely ill, some people are more likely to experience severe flu illness. Young children, adults aged 65 years and older, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic medical conditions are among those groups of people who are at high risk of serious flu complications, possibly requiring hospitalization and sometimes resulting in death. For example, people with chronic lung disease are at higher risk of developing severe pneumonia.

Sinus and ear infections are examples of moderate complications from flu, while pneumonia is a serious flu complication that can result from either influenza virus infection alone or from co-infection of flu virus and bacteria. Other possible serious complications triggered by flu can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, and multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure). Flu virus infection of the respiratory tract can trigger an extreme inflammatory response in the body and can lead to sepsis, the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Flu also can make chronic medical problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic heart disease may experience a worsening of this condition triggered by flu.

And one form of the flu, the H1N1 subtype, is much more dangerous, attacking healthy young people more than those with other serious risk factors.

Without a doubt, the flu is a dangerous disease disease, but it is frequently ignored by most people, usually until they get sick. And don’t conflate the common cold with the flu – the common cold, though annoying, is not as debilitating as the flu.

Given the dangers of the flu, we really do need to examine flu treatments to see if they have any value whatsoever. But get vaccinated, because that can reduce your risk of flu by 50-70% depending on the type of flu and year.

But if you still want to avoid the vaccine, read on. I’ll talk about everything I could find.

Flu treatments that may or may not work

Well, there are only three – these are three FDA-approved antiviral drugs, which are recommended by CDC this season, to treat influenza:

Based on the best available evidence, especially for oseltamivir, which seems to indicate limited effectiveness combined with high cost, possible viral resistance, and side effects, it’s hard to justify recommending them for any patient except those individuals who are at high risk of complications to the flu.

Below are the CDC’s recommendation, who is more of an authority than I will ever be for drug recommendations, for the use of these drugs:

It’s very important that antiviral drugs are used early to treat hospitalized patients, people with severe flu illness, and people who are at high risk of serious flu complications based on their age or health. Other people also may be treated with antiviral drugs by their doctor. Most people who are otherwise healthy and get the flu do not need to be treated with antiviral drugs.

Flu treatments that probably do not work

  •  Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic preparation, derived from Muscovy duck liver and heart (yes, you read that right), that is claimed to treat the flu. Because of the dilution, there are simply no molecules of duck guts in the homeopathy potion. Based on this ridiculous figurative and literal quackery (get it), one would not be surprised by a Cochrane systematic review that concludes, “There is insufficient good evidence to enable robust conclusions to be made about Oscillococcinum® in the prevention or treatment of influenza and influenza-like illness.” 
  • Zinc, heavily promoted by the company that makes Zicam, is often used to treat colds, in which there is some limited, and very weak evidence in support of its use. There is some evidence that zinc supplementation for individuals who have a deficiency, extremely rare with a modern diet, can help resistance to some strains of flu. However, for those with no zinc deficiency, excess zinc has absolutely no effect.
  • Vitamin D may be deficient in some individuals, especially during the winter. However, vitamin D supplementation appears to have no effect on the prevention or treatment of the flu or its complications.
  • Garlic – there is some very weak evidence that garlic has a potential effect on the common cold, but that evidence is based on poorly designed clinical trials or in vivo preclinical studies. There is no clinical evidence that garlic has any effect on preventing or treating the flu.
  • Ginseng has been claimed to have some immune system benefits, but there’s no robust evidence that supports that. There is one primary research report (on the lower range of the hierarchy of biomedical science), that is unconfirmed by other research or clinical trials, which may indicate that ginseng has some effect on the flu virus. However, other than a highly biased and small clinical trial, there is no substantial evidence that ginseng has any effect on the flu.
  • Echinacea has a substantial marketing effort, based on hype and anecdotes, supporting its use as a supplement. Systematic reviews have shown us that it has no effect on colds. A highly biased, poorly designed study was published in a low impact factor journal appears to show that echinacea may have an effect on the treatment of flu. However, the evidence is unpersuasive, and there is no biological plausibility that echinacea has any effect on the flu.
  • Elderberry – another herbal product that is claimed to have some effect on the prevention or treatment of the flu. However, a review of the research on elderberry treatment finds that there is only weak and limited evidence that it has an effect on the flu. However, more vigorous clinical trials are necessary to support a hypothesis that the fruit has any effect on the flu – this does not mean it will, it just means more evidence is required before you waste your money on this supplement.
  • Vitamin C –  simply put, there are no clinical trials, vigorous or otherwise, that have ever ever established that vitamin C has any effect on the course or treatment of the flu. Except in cases where an individual is deficient in vitamin C, very rare in today’s world, vitamin C supplementation has no effects on much of anything.
  • Orthomolecular medicine is a form of alternative medicine (so, not real medicine supported by robust clinical evidence) that pushes the use of megadoses of vitamins and other micronutrients to combat all sorts of maladies. Generally, our physiology manages the amount of vitamins pretty efficiently, so extra vitamins simply get passed in the urine or stored for future use. There’s no magical process whereby extra vitamins “boost” your immune system.  Not only do we lack any clinical data supporting the use of megavitamin therapy in the treatment of flu, there is evidence that megavitamins can actually cause increased risks from the complications of flu.
  • Wheatgrass is one of the current food fads, in which there are dozens of claims at what it can do for health. In fact, there is no evidence that it can do anything for any disease, let alone the flu.

Scott Gavura at Science Based Medicine wrote about a few more flu treatments, some of which made me chuckle, that are also making the rounds of the wooniverse. No, he didn’t find any that worked either.

Conclusion

You might think I’m being rather harsh about all of these flu treatments. But the problem is that for any real drugs to get real indications to prevent or treat flu, they have to undergo a difficult and challenging process of research and development, clinical trials and FDA review. Very few proposed pharmaceuticals that treat actual diseases get approved by drug governing bodies.

These supplements make unproven claims about their ability to treat or prevent the flu based on unrepeated animal or cell culture studies, or very weak, biased clinical trials published in very low ranked journals. They don’t even meet the minimum standards of evidence based medicine.

On the other hand, actual medications that have gone through the clinical trial process (albeit, there are some significant criticisms of the clinical trials for these drugs) to determine if they have an effect on the flu. And they only show modest, at best, effectiveness in treating the flu.

The best choice we have is to reduce our risk for contracting the disease. And we do that with vaccines.

Citations

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!