Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza) and Homeopathy
Homeopathic remedies may help treat (and possibly prevent) colds and flus.
- Flus: Research evidence for one popular flu remedy, Oscillococcinum, is very promising. Another remedy, L52, has also shown some promise for treatment of flu (see Research Evidence).
- Colds: Research evidence isn't strong for homeopathic cold treatments (see Research Evidence), but because homeopathic remedies are low-risk (see Side Effects and Warnings), they may be worth trying.
Homeopathy is a healing system that is available in the United States but is especially popular in Europe. In homeopathy, special remedies--made by diluting specific substances--are used to evoke a healing response in the body. In classical (constitutional) homeopathy, remedies are tailored to the unique symptoms as they are experienced by each patient. Both approaches may help with colds and flus.
Effect of Homeopathy on Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
Homeopathic remedies do not work in a direct or obvious way. Homeopathic theory has some relationship to ancient healing traditions, but in many ways stands uniquely on its own ground, unrelated to other approaches. The term "homeopathy" is formed from the combination of two Greek words: omio meaning “same” and pathos meaning "suffering." This reflects the homeopathic belief that a substance that causes certain symptoms in a healthy person can cure an ailing person of similar symptoms. This belief is the basis for how homeopathic remedies are formulated and recommended.
For example, Oscillococcinum is a widely available homeopathic treatment for flu. It is made from the tissue of ducks, which are known to carry flu. Duck tissue is extremely diluted to make Oscillococcinum. According to homeopathic theory, this high degree of dilution makes the remedy all the more potent in responding to the symptoms of flu.
Research Evidence on Homeopathy
#Research on Homeopathy for the Flu
Oscillococcinum is a widely available homeopathic treatment for flu. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving nearly 500 people found that participants who took Oscillococcinum improved faster than those taking only placebo.11 This study was performed during an influenza epidemic in 1989 in France.
Participants who received Oscillococcinum rather than placebo demonstrated a significantly greater percentage of early recovery rate (within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms). Overall, about 61.2% of participants in the Oscillococcinum treatment group gave it a favorable judgment, whereas only 49.3% in the placebo group rated their “treatment” favorably. This difference in positive perception by the treatment group was statistically significant. Furthermore, the treatment group used significantly fewer optional symptomatic medications (such as acetaminophen) than the control group. This suggests that their symptoms were less severe.
In a similar double-blind study performed in Germany, investigators gave 334 people with flu-like symptoms (within the last 24 hours) either Oscillococcinum or placebo 3 times daily for 3 days.12 Again, significant benefits were seen.
However, while these results are apparently very positive, the published reports are scant on detail, making the quality of these studies difficult to fully assess.
Another widely used flu treatment, called L52, is a liquid homeopathic formula consisting of 10 ingredients: Eupatorium perf., Aconite, Bryonia, Amica, Gelsemium, China, Belladonna, Drosera, Polygala and Eucalyptus. A large double-blind, placebo-controlled study (about 1,200 participants) evaluated the effectiveness of L52 for preventing flu, rather than treating it.13 No benefits were seen. However, L52 has shown some promise for treatment of flu.14
#Research on Homeopathy for the Common Cold
Scientific evidence for using homeopathic remedies to treat colds is mixed at best.
The homeopathic remedy Phytolacca was tested in two double-blind, placebo-controlled trials to evaluate its potential benefit for sore throat symptoms caused by colds.1,2 In these studies, involving a total of about 300 people, use of the remedy at a potency of D2 appeared to reduce the duration of symptoms. However, due to study design, these results are considered unreliable.
A small double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 60 adults and children found positive results with a homeopathic cough syrup as a treatment for a dry cough.3 The syrup contained Drosera, Arnica, Belladonna, Artemisia cina, Cossus cacti, Corallium rubrum, Cuprum Ferrosi phosphas, Uragoga ipecacuanha, and Solidago.
A study of 53 patients compared the homeopathic remedy Eupatorium perfoliatum D2 against aspirin as a treatment for the common cold and found them equally effective.4 Unfortunately, this was not a double-blind study; furthermore, aspirin itself has not been shown effective for the common cold.
A double-blind study compared aspirin against a combination homeopathic medicine that included Aconitum, Bryonia, Lachesis, Eupatorium, and Phosphorus.5 Again, the treatment proved to be as effective (or as ineffective) as aspirin, but in the absence of a placebo group the results are difficult to interpret.
A well designed, double-blind, placebo-controlled study enrolling 170 children with recurrent colds found no benefit with classical homeopathic treatment.4 All participants were evaluated by trained homeopathic practitioners and were prescribed remedies, but only about half of them actually received the remedy; the others received placebo treatment. The results failed to show any benefit with classical homeopathy versus placebo.
A double–blind, placebo-controlled study involving 994 children (ages 4 to 15 years old) evaluated treatment with Euphrasia 30c for the prevention of conjunctivitis (essentially, a cold in the eye).6 The investigators chose this remedy since it is frequently self-prescribed by people with conjunctivitis and often recommended by non-medical practitioners. However, no benefits were seen.
In a 12 week double-blind study, 251 children were given either placebo or one of three homeopathic remedies selected according to a standard Norwegian, simplified, constitutional , homeopathic protocol.7 The homeopathic remedies failed to prove more effective than placebo.
How to Use Homeopathy
In classical homeopathy, there are many possible homeopathic treatments for the colds and flus, to be chosen based on various specific details (called "symptom picture") of the person seeking treatment. For example:
Colds: if you are very restless and experience aches down to the bone in addition to other cold symptoms, you fit the symptom picture for Eupatorium. For this use, the remedy is generally recommended in a potency between 6c and 30c, which is a significantly more dilute dosage than the 2x potency used for some conditions. If you have primarily a sore throat and swollen tonsils (relieved by cold drinks, but not hot drinks) accompanied by shooting pain in the ears, aching joints, muscle soreness, restlessness, and prostration, then you more closely fit the homeopathic indication for Phytolacca.
Flus: if you are experiencing chills up and down your spine, and you feel tired and weak but not thirsty, then you might be given homeopathic Gelsemium. Further details of this remedy’s symptom picture include headache, runny nose or sore throat, and a desire to be left alone. However, different auxillary symptoms might indicate an alternate choice of remedy. For example, suppose you have the flu and are very thirsty, especially for cold drinks, and you feel better in a cool room than a warm room. Your other symptoms include pain with motion and irritability. These symptoms fit with the homeopathic treatment Bryonia.
In the US, over-the-counter homeopathic remedies are available in pharmacies and health food stores. Unlike herbs and supplements, manufacturers of homeopathic products are allowed to make strong healing claims on the labels, in part because one of the founders of the organization that became the Food and Drug Administration, Senator Royal Copeland, was a homeopathic physician. He made sure that homeopathic medicines were given a specially protected status.
Types of Professionals That Would Be Involved with This Treatment
Constitutional (or classical) homeopathy is a holistic art that looks at the symptom picture of a person, including psychological, emotional, physical, and hereditary information, and tries to choose an appropriate remedy. Recently, however, a simplified form of homeopathy has developed, disease-oriented (or symptomatic) homeopathy, in which remedies are given based solely on specific diseases. Both types of homeopathy have been studied scientifically, although disease-oriented homeopathy has received more attention for the simple reason that it is easier to study.
Homeopaths, sometimes called homeopathic physicians, practice homeopathy. Homeopathic support is also available from health professionals, such as naturopathic doctors, who use homeopathy as part of their broader medical practice.
Side Effects and Warnings
Homeopathic remedies are, by nature, completely nontoxic.
However, according to the principles of classical (or constitutional) homeopathy, versus disease-oriented (or symptomatic) homeopathy, these remedies can cause problems. On the way toward a cure, temporary exacerbation of symptoms are said to occur frequently. Such “homeopathic aggravations” are supposed to indicate a release of underlying problems, and are therefore seen as ultimately helpful, if temporarily unpleasant. However, there is no meaningful scientific evidence that such aggravations take place at any higher rate than could be accounted for by chance (and patient’s expectation).
- Mossinger P. Die behandlung der pharyngitis mit Phytolacca [in German; English abstract]. Allg Homoopathische Zeitung. 1971;218:111–121.
- Mossinger P. Untersuchung uber die behandlung der akuten pharyngitis mit Phytolacca D2 [in German; English abstract]. Allg Homoopathische Zeitung. 1977;221:177–183.
- Bordes LR, Dorfman P. Evaluation of the cough suppressant activity of Drosetux cough syrup: a double blind versus placebo study [translated from French]. Cahiers d'O R L. 1986;21:731–734.
- Gassinger CA, G Wunstel, Netter P. A contolled clinical trial for testing the efficacy of the homeopathic drug Eupatorium perfoliatum D2 in the treatment of common cold [in German; English abstract]. Arzeimittelforschung. 1981;31:732–736.
- Maiwald VL, Weinfurtner T, Mau J, and Connert WD. Therapy of common cold with a homeopathic combination preparation in comparison with acetylsalicylic acid. A controlled, randomized double-blind study [in German; English abstract]. Arzneimittel-Forschung. 1988;38:578–582.
- Mokkapatti R. An experimental double-blind study to evaluate the use of Euphrasia in preventing conjunctivitis. Br Homeopath J. 1992;81:22-24.
- Steinsbekk A, Bentzen N, Fonnebo V, et al. Self treatment with one of three self selected, ultramolecular homeopathic medicines for the prevention of upper respiratory tract infections in children. A double-blind randomized placebo controlled trial. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2005;59:447-55.
- Ferley JP, Zmirou D, D’Adhemar D, Balducci F. A controlled evaluation of a homeopathic preparation in the treatment of influenza-like symptoms. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 1989;27:329–335.
- Papp R, et al. Oscillococcinum in patients with influenza-like syndromes: a placebo-controlled double-blind evaluation. Br Hom J. 1989;87:69–76.
- Ferley JP, Poutignat N, Azzopardi Y, et al. Evaluation in the context of outpatient medicine of the activity of a homeopathic complex in the prevention of flu and flu symptoms [translated from French]. Immunol Med. 1987;20:22–28.
- Lecocq P. Therapeutic approaches for influenza syndromes [translated from French]. Cahiers Biotherap. 1985;87:65–73.9.