It’s that time of year when we are bombarded by treatments for cold and flu season. The quackery includes things like “immune-boosting” miracle supplements to junk that “cures” every single virus known to medical science.
This article will attempt to debunk the myths of treatments for cold and flu such as “boosting the immune system,” magical supplements, and other nonsense involved with the world of cold and flu pseudoscience.
Of course, the best way to prevent the flu is to get the vaccine. And since the vaccine is free (at least in the USA), it’s infinitely cheaper than fake, useless cold and flu treatments.
- 0.1 Immune boosting – the myth of flu and cold treatments
- 0.2 Flu and cold treatment myths – top 12 hits
- 0.3 Science-based flu treatments for cold and flu
- 0.4 Citations
- 1 Don’t miss each new article!
Immune boosting – the myth of flu and cold treatments
One of the most fundamental facets of the cold and flu quack treatments has got to be the “boosting the immune system” myth. The quack treatment crowd tends to oversimplify the immune system – they do this because the immune system is so complicated, they need to simplify it so that they can sell their worthless products. And, doing this is a fundamental aspect of pseudoscience.
Moreover, these woomeisters try to make it seem your immune system is a pathetic, weak, useless function without their expensive, miracle, magical pseudoscience.
In fact, the immune system is a huge, complex, interrelated structure that contains an almost infinite variety of biomolecules (especially antibodies), cells, tissues, and organs, generally working in efficient harmony. And the immune system is pretty resilient. If the immune system was such a weakling, we would all be dead from pathogens before we made it to our 5th year of life. And there is a reason, why we make it past your 5th year of life, but I’ll get to that.
If these quacks were actually correct, humans would have died out a few hundred thousand years ago, and birds would be ruling the planet. Birds are cool (and are the only living dinosaurs), but they probably wouldn’t have invented Facebook.
So, if someone says “this thing is critical to boosting immunity so that you will never get the flu or COVID-19,” your first question must be “which of the millions of different parts of our immune system is boosted?” They almost never are able to answer that question.
Your second question should probably be “do you have peer-reviewed extraordinary evidence that supports that extraordinary claim?”
And is there any biologically plausible method to boost or enhance all of this system or even a small part of it? In general, the immune system is an on/off type of network. It’s either working perfectly well, or it isn’t, and we know the precise conditions that might cause the immune system to start working less perfectly.
- There are some chronic conditions, such as stress and malnutrition (I’m not talking about not enough oranges, but a large, long-term calorie and micronutrient deficit), that can reduce the performance of your immune system.
- There are a few chronic diseases that can have an impact on the quality of the immune response, diabetes being one of the more prevalent, but there are many others.
- Some people are born with impaired immune systems. Some may acquire an immune deficiency as a result of certain diseases (HIV/AIDS is the best known). Some medical treatments, like chemotherapy or immunosuppressive therapies, can weaken or destroy the immune system. One of the tropes of the immune system pseudoscience is that an infection weakens the immune system; in fact, the sick feeling you have from a cold or other disease can be a part of the immune response.
- Short-term acute conditions, such as lack of rest and exercise or a poor diet, can temporarily depress the immune system, but that is usually easily reversed.
Almost everyone, short of those with chronic conditions mentioned above, has a well-functioning and highly effective immune system – there is no way to make it better. And there is little evidence that a normally functioning immune system can be “boosted.” And by evidence, I mean high-quality randomized clinical or epidemiological studies published in high-quality peer-reviewed journals.
On the other hand, if you really could boost your immune system, is that even a good idea? How can you even fine-tune a “boost” without figuring out the exact amount necessary to get the desired effect?
In fact, there are reasons why we shouldn’t have a too powerful immune system. For example, overactive immune systems are responsible for allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema. And there’s a type of runaway immune response known as a “cytokine storm” which may be responsible for the high mortality in severe flu pandemics.
Inflammation is normally a healthy response to injury or pathogen invasion, but in some autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, it can be painful and debilitating.
In addition, an overactive immune system can become misdirected and start attacking the cells of the host body. This immune system error can cause autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and Type 1 diabetes.
So, no, it really is not a good idea to boost your immune system, even if you could (and you can’t). After you ask one of the flu treatment “boosting immunity” quacks whether they actually have any evidence supporting their nonsense, you should ask how they prevent the serious consequences of a boosted immune system.
Don’t hold your breath – that might be bad for your immune system.
One more thing – there is a scientifically supported method to boost your immune system. That would be a vaccine. Actually, vaccines don’t “boost” the immune system generally, it induces a very specific response to one antigen, like the influenza virus or SARS-CoV-2. Because science-based medicine is very specific!
Flu and cold treatment myths – top 12 hits
Although I don’t want to bore the reader by debunking every single bit of flu and cold treatments quackery on the internet, I thought I’d give you the top 12 with the published science that supports debunking. Because that’s why you’re here, to see the evidence.
OK, this one is partially true, for a couple of reasons. First, mothers who breastfeed have a significantly lower risk of some cancers. That’s a good thing.
However, the pseudoscience-pushers claim that “you get exposed to something your body starts making antibodies to help protect the baby.” That is not even close to being true.
As I wrote before, breastfeeding helps in passive immunity, preventing certain pathogens from entering the baby through the digestive tract. This is obviously important.
However, it does not confer immunity to pathogens that enter through wounds or the respiratory system, like influenza. The mother does transfer antibodies to the baby in utero, but that lasts for just a few weeks or months until the baby can produce antibodies from its own adaptive immune system.
Any antibodies in the mother’s milk do not pass from the digestive tract into the bloodstream of the baby to cause it to develop an immune response. That’s not how it works.
Fish oil supplements
Although there is some weak evidence that fish oil may have some effect on cardiovascular health, a systematic review (the pinnacle of the hierarchy of scientific research) showed no change to the immune system function as a result of fish oil supplements.
Of course, given how complicated the immune system is, I would reject any claims that fish oil (or any supplement) has on the immune system unless it was in a large, published clinical trial.
Once again, this claim has some evidence supporting it, but not in the way they think. There is some research (another systematic review) that some probiotics may have some effect on the innate immune system of the gut.
This doesn’t mean that it has an effect on the adaptive immune system, which protects us from airborne pathogens like the flu. Or measles.
I’m not sold on the whole gut biome claims that seem to be overhyped, but if you have excess money for these supplements, they might not help, and they won’t do much harm. But they’re going to do nothing for immune system boosting against the flu.
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 homeopathic pill.
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.”
Homeopathy is pseudoscientific quackery, and it is useless as a flu treatment.
Echinacea has received a substantial marketing effort, based on hype and anecdotes, supporting its use as a supplement to treat colds and flu. In fact, echinacea got its reputation based on a misinterpretation of a Native American claim — it’s the wrong plant!
As for scientific evidence, a systematic review has shown us that it has no effect as a treatment for a cold or flu.
A highly biased, poorly designed study was published in a low impact-factor journal that appears to show that echinacea may have an effect on the treatment of the flu. However, the evidence is unpersuasive, and there is no biological plausibility that echinacea has any effect on the flu. This is why we shouldn’t cherry-pick evidence and only accept the highest quality evidence — echinacea is not effective in treating the cold or flu.
Unless you want to keep away mythical vampires, this claim again lacks any supporting scientific evidence. There is no robust epidemiological or clinical evidence that garlic has any effect on preventing or treating the flu. And a systematic review found no evidence that it improved outcomes with another viral disease, the common cold.
Once again, there is no evidence that ginger is effective as a flu treatment.
A new entrant into the area of cold and flu treatments quackery is elderberry. But 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.
Let’s not fall for the argument from ignorance and claim it “may” have an effect. The evidence is unconvincing, and other than non-clinical opinion articles published in alternative medicine journals, we just don’t have robust evidence that elderberry is an effective flu treatment.
Zinc is heavily promoted by the company that makes Zicam, which is often used to treat colds, for 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.
Furthermore, a recent review has shown that there is no beneficial effect of zinc on COVID-19 outcomes.
There is an ongoing trope that we are all deficient in vitamin D which has something to do with the immune system, according to the woomeisters.
In fact, vitamin D may be deficient in some individuals, especially during the winter. However, does that have much to do with our immunity to colds or flu?
Well, a recent meta-review found that “no association was observed between VDD and immunogenic response to influenza vaccination.” Another review of the literature concluded that “the survey of the literature data generates some controversies and doubts about the possible role of vitamin D in the prevention of influenza virus.”
In summary, if one is deficient in vitamin D, that is something that should be corrected, easily done with supplements. But is there any evidence that taking large doses will “boost your immune system,” making it an effective treatment for flu? There is some weak evidence, but it’s more about having appropriate levels of vitamin D rather than taking more will have more of an effect.
Simply, there are no robust epidemiological or clinical trials that have ever established that vitamin C has anything beyond a statistically and clinically insignificant 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.
And again, there is no evidence that vitamin C has an effect on the course and outcomes of COVID-19.
Again, the pseudoscience crowd likes to overstate the value of diet in our overall health. Sure, there is some good evidence that a Mediterranean diet may lower the risk of all cancers and cardiovascular diseases. But is it critical to immune system boosting? No evidence.
Here’s an adage that maybe we should all follow – eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
Science-based flu treatments for cold and flu
There are real, science-based treatments for the influenza virus. Anti-viral drugs, especially amantadine, rimantadine, zanamivir (Relenza), and oseltamivir (Tamiflu) have been shown to be effective in reducing the course and improving outcomes from influenza. They weren’t developed by magic, but by targeting very specific properties of the flu virus. This is why an antiviral against one disease may be totally ineffective against another, such as COVID-19.
Just because we do have effective, evidence-based treatments for the flu, it doesn’t mean that they are a better choice than prevention by the flu vaccine. These treatments are expensive, they might have significant adverse effects for some, and they have to be taken almost as soon as symptoms first appear.
But the flu and cold treatments quackery will continue to take your money by selling you supplements and pseudoscientific treatments that will do nothing for the flu or colds. And to remind everyone, the flu is not some trivial disease, it is deadly.
Until the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 hit, the flu was one of the most deadly infectious diseases – somewhere between 24-62,000 Americans died from it during the 2019-20 flu season. Worldwide, it kills between 290,000 to 650,000 people annually. Ironically, these numbers have dropped significantly because of mitigation efforts for the much more deadly COVID-19.
Let’s sum this up in the fewest possible words – the flu vaccine prevents the flu, so fake (or even real) treatments might be unnecessary.
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