It's never too early to prepare. The NHS has ordered in around 8 million doses of vaccine this year, so that's one option, although the most vulnerable (the elderly, those with chronic lung diseases) usually get first call. The younger and fitter may be better advised to work on their immune systems in a more general way - and if that fails treat the symptoms.
A multi-million pound industry has grown up around those familiar aches, coughs and night-sweats and the chances are that if you seek out a remedy without prior preparation, you'll collapse from choice dilemma. So here's a guide to the tried and tested - and weird and wonderful promises for the future.
TRIED AND TESTED
One of the best immune stimulants and cold cures on the market is echinacea. This herb was first used by American Indians to heal wounds, treat burns and act as an antidote to snake bites. It has been shown to increase the levels of white blood cells, the natural killer cells of the immune system and is most effective if you take at least 900mg of root extract daily. Revitonil is a new product that contains an extract of echinacea root as well as liquorice - a natural cough cure - and aniseed and eucalyptus, which help clear a blocked nose. Echinacea herbal lozenges will help cure a cold with sore throat. All are available from health food shops.
Historically, probably the best-known cold remedy is vitamin C. It helps the body fight infection but to be effective you need to start taking it at the first sign of symptoms - 1,000mg every two hours will boost your immune system and could shorten the duration of the cold by a day or more. Vitamin A is also good for building up resistance to respiratory infections. Take 50,000 IU per day, cutting back when symptoms subside. If you want to include more of both these vitamins in your diet eat plenty of green leafy vegetables, carrots, garlic, cayenne and of course oranges and lemons.
Quest Vitamins (tel: 0121 359 0056).
Zinc has shown very good results in clinical trials. It is an excellent immune system booster and contains enzymes that are vital for DNA repair and function. A recent US trial showed that a nasal gel called Zicam was effective in reducing the length of the common cold from three days to just over one - the active ingredient is zinc. More trials are underway. Zinc lozenges are highly effective if taken at the first sign of a cold. Boots has just launched a "Defend, Relieve and Recover" flu pack for pounds 10. It includes vitamin C, zinc and garlic to defend the immune system, plus maximum strength cold and flu tablets to relieve the worst symptoms and a high energy drink containing complex carbohydrates to boost your energy levels. Boots also does a Zinc and vitamin C drink - pounds 2.75 for 10 sachets.
Not for no reason is garlic achieving near cure-all status - it has been a folk remedy since ancient times. More than 1,000 studies over the last 20 years have shown its effectiveness in many areas of health, including against cancer. It can also stall the growth of the viruses that cause colds and flu. One clove a day, cooked, is recommended to keep the immune system healthy. If you're worried about the pong, try odourless supplements.
Reflexology can stimulate a sluggish immune system and yoga can help keep stress levels down - stress undermines immunity.
Homeopathic products - now widely available through chemists and health food stores - can also help. Take belladonna for the sort of flu that emerges quickly and features throbbing pains and a red, hot dry skin; arsenicum album for flus accompanied by exhaustion and anxious feelings; gelsemium for the normal flu symptoms of shivering, aching and general fatigue; and pulsatilla to shift stubborn catarrh or where there is lack of thirst of loss of smell.
Within Chinese medicine, there is a range of herbs that can protect against flu or ease symptoms. Cordyceps is an old Chinese herbal remedy that claims to improve the spirit and nourish the body. Traditionally served in China with stewed meat, it is a useful supplement when you have a heavy or persistent cough - it also helps with bronchitis, asthma and fatigue. Astragalus root has a long history as a good general tonic - Chinese athletes used it during the Olympics. It strengthens what the Chinese call the "defensive energy" - the immune system. The four-year-old fibrous roots are dug up in spring or autumn and then soaked and dried in the sun. They have a sweet taste and a slightly warming effect on the body. East West Herbs (tel: 0800 0928828).
Ayurvedic medicine is the traditional system of medicine practised in India and Sri Lanka. Samahan instant peyava is a concentrated water-soluble preparation of plants based on an ancient ayurvedic remedy known in Sri Lanka as Peyava. The powder is mixed into hot water and contains 14 different herbs, many of which you can probably find in your own kitchen. Cumin acts as a stimulant and black pepper digs out a stubborn cough and brings down fever. Nature's Gold (tel: 0171 736 1600).
ON THE WEB
The humble African potato is an unlikely contender for a breakthrough in cold and flu relief but a new product available on the internet with the unattractive name of Moducare claims to fix a faulty immune system. The active ingredient is beta sitosterol, a "plant fat" that is often processed out of many western foods - it has anti-inflammatory properties that help to reduce fever. www.naturalhealthconsult.com
An Amazonian herb, Camu, works as an anti-viral agent and contains 30 to 60 times more vitamin C than an orange. The Camu bush produces a purplish red fruit with a yellow pulp containing powerful phytochemicals, which health experts believe can protect against disease.
Olive leaf extract claims to eliminate a cold or flu within 36 hours. It is a powerful anti-viral and anti-bacterial herb that boosts the immune system. Its use dates back to the first half of the 19th century when it was used to treat malaria. It also acts as a detoxifier, which is particularly useful when the body is under stress. www.powerherbs.com
Exsula is described as a "complete and perfect food - so nutritionally powerful that it surpasses the effectiveness of hundreds of pounds a month in supplements". It sounds like the elixir of life, claiming to detoxify the body, improve energy and boost the immune system while giving you a more youthful appearance. It contains 150 natural ingredients including vitamins and minerals, royal jelly, echinacea, aloe vera, spirulina and Yukon bee pollen. www.greenlife.co.uk
Clinical studies have proven Sambucol to be effective in fighting several flu strains. Made from the black elderberry, which has long been used to stave off colds and flu, it was developed by an Israeli virologist to protect the immune systems of children. It has also been proven to enhance the immune system and help to prevent viral infection. www.naturesstore.co.uk
The Cold Flu Therapy Pack is an all-in-one herbal and homoepathic formula. It contains slippery elm lozenges, which help to soothe an inflamed throat, gelsemium and a cough and bronchial syrup. It costs $60.50 and the pack lasts for 10 days to three weeks. www.evesherbs.cnoffice.com
A flu jab is still the most reliable method of prevention and forms the cornerstone of conventional medicine's armoury. That said, it is still not 100 per cent effective and since flu consists of myriad viruses, each mutating at a furious speed, no one vaccine is effective for more than a year. It can also trigger minor side effects, such as mild fever and pains lasting up to two days.
The latest anti flu drug is Relenza, which is inhaled as a powder twice daily for five days. It reduces the severity of symptoms and cuts down the duration of the illness by up to two days. It must be taken within 48 hours of symptoms appearing. It costs around pounds 25-pounds 30 for each prescription - there has been controversy over whether it should be available on the NHS.
Tamiflu will be on the market next year. It acts in exactly the same way as Relenza but is produced in tablet form. It interferes with the production of an enzyme essential for the replication of flu viruses. Recent trials in the States have shown it to be 84 per cent effective in reducing symptoms.
Cold and flu viruses attack the immune system, so it is important to keep this healthy. The latest research shows that a poor diet and chronic stress can both damage immunity. Stress leads to excess production of stress hormones that actually stop the immune cells killing off viruses like flu, as well as depressing the immune system. It is important to de-stress routinely and if you can, take a more relaxed approach to life. White sugar and hydrogenated fats inhibit the ability of white blood cells to fight off viruses and bacteria. Experts advise to cut down on margarines and spreads which contain trans fatty acids. Cut out white sugar altogether.Reuse content