The entire world’s focus seems to be on one thing right now: the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. This laser focus is definitely merited, given the global scale of the pandemic, the relatively high fatality rate for certain groups, and the rapid spread. With this attention, there’s been a lot of conversation about how to kill the virus, and a run on chemical-laden products like hand sanitizer. But what about natural virus killers, like antiviral herbs? And will the things that kill bacteria also kill viruses? Will using antibacterial products weaken my immune system in the long run so I can’t fight the virus if I’m exposed? We know you have a lot of these questions. In this guide to natural antivirals, we explain the difference between bacterial and viral infections and explore natural antiviral options, from antiviral herbs to ozone therapy and more.
The Difference Between Bacterial and Viral Infections
When you don’t feel well or get sick for a few days, the culprit is likely either a bacterial infection or a viral infection. As the names suggest, bacterial infections are caused by bad bacteria (as opposed to good bacteria, like probiotics), while viral infections are caused by viruses. But what does that mean? What’s the actual difference between bacterial and viral infections when it comes to your health?
Bacteria are tiny, single-celled microorganisms that live basically everywhere, including in your body (hello, gut microbiome!). Most bacteria cause no harm, and the good kind we just referenced, called probiotics, can even help protect you from disease. They do this by acting as your bodyguards against bad bacteria and improving your gut diversity, which keeps your gut safe and your immune system strong. But some bacteria, called pathogenic bacteria, can cause infections in humans. Examples of bacterial infections include strep throat, UTIs, and Lyme disease.
Viruses are even smaller than bacteria, and a bit scarier. While bacteria can live anywhere on the planet, viruses are parasitic, meaning they need living cells or tissue in order to grow. Once a virus makes its way into your body, it will take over your healthy cells and use them to multiply. Some viruses even kill host cells as part of this process! Examples of viral infections include the common cold, the flu, chicken pox, and measles, and COVID-19.
What Kills Viruses?
One of the important differences between bacterial and viral infections is the way they’re treated. With a bacterial infection, you’re likely to be prescribed antibiotics. These can be extremely effective, but can also have a number of concerning side effects (read about them in our antibiotic guide).
Antibiotics also do nothing against viruses. Furthermore, because they damage your gut and therefore your immune system, taking them while fighting a virus can cause you to weaken, or even lose, your fight. That’s why it’s so essential to confirm your infection is bacterial — which your doctor can do by taking a culture — before you agree to take antibiotics. As a very recent study showed, children who were given antibiotics for pneumonia showed no improvement from the medication, almost certainly because their pneumonia was viral, not bacterial.
Similarly, antibacterial soap is ineffective against viruses. About 75% of liquid soaps and 30% of bar soaps contain antibacterial compounds, which are meant to kill bacteria, not viruses. But you know what does kill viruses? Just regular old soap and water. See, a virus is a nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the fatty bilayer, and because soap dissolves fat, it causes the entire virus to fall apart and die. So the soap actually physically breaks the viruses, deactivating it — no antibacterial compounds required!
When there’s not soap and water around, hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol can be an effective way to kill viruses. But remember, the ingredients should be alcohol, water, and maybe some essential oils or aloe vera, not a bunch of other chemical junk. Also, it’s important to note that according to the CDC, hand sanitizer kills most, but not all, of the microbes on your hands. It is certainly not research, but the actress Kristen Bell posted an interesting image showing the difference under a UV light of microbes after hand washing vs. using hand sanitizer.
Are there antiviral drugs? Yes, antiviral drugs can prevent or limit infection only when given before or shortly after exposure, before symptoms or illness occurs. A key difference is that antiviral drugs are effective only when administered within a certain time frame before or after exposure. They do not destroy their target virus; instead they inhibit their development. Antiviral drugs become less effective with time and use, and have many side effects.
Natural Antivirals: How Can You Prevent and Kill Viruses Naturally?
Okay, so now you might be wondering, how can you kill viruses without harming your gut microbiome and your immune system (get our free Gut Health Guide here!) or experiencing serious side effects? Natural antivirals. Viruses are tricky little organisms, and can come in all sorts of different shapes and forms, which makes treating them difficult. Luckily, there are some natural virus killers that you can incorporate into your life to help protect you against viruses.
Note that some of the items below are relatively new, and there are still questions about their effectiveness and risks. Still, there’s promising evidence that they can help. Without further ado, here’s a rundown on your natural antiviral options:
- Antiviral herbs: We’ll go into this more in the section below, but antiviral herbs are one of the oldest and most beneficial natural virus killers.
- Certain foods: As we discussed in our guide to immune-boosting foods, certain foods have antiviral properties, including onion, garlic, and mushrooms.
- Infrared sauna: These are saunas that use infrared lamps, which have light waves to warm your body from within rather than warming the air around you. Some say that bringing the body to an increased temperature not only kills off viruses and pathogens, but also increases white blood cell production, thus boosting your immune system. Similar to how your body creates a fever when it is naturally trying to kill off a virus! There isn’t a lot of research into this currently, but when used correctly (ie, staying hydrated, eating beforehand, and checking in with your doctor) there are no known negative side effects, so it’s worth a try! While going out for an infrared sauna right now might not be an option, our friends at HigherDOSE have an infrared sauna blanket you can buy to get the same benefits at home. Use code WELLBE100 to get $100 off!
- UV light: Research has shown that small amounts of human-safe UV light can kill airborne viruses. Since most of us won’t be blasting our homes with UV lights, a more practical application is buying a UV sanitizer, which you can use to kill viruses that may be on the surfaces of objects.
- Colloidal silver: Colloidal silver, aka tiny particles of silver suspended in liquid, has long been touted as a natural virus killer when applied directly to the skin. Studies suggest that it can kill viral compounds, but if you use too much silver, there’s a risk of developing agyria, a condition where you — literally — turn silver (well, blue-gray. But still.)
- Ozone is a naturally occurring energy-rich molecule embodying unique physio-chemical and biological properties. With viruses, ozone therapy damages the viral DNA and upsets the reproductive cycle by oxidizing our viral-invaded cells and eliminating them from our bodies, which are then replaced with healthy cells. There have been some promising studies examining how ozone can inactivate viruses and stimulate the immune system to speed up healing. It’s important to note that ozone cannot be inhaled so it must be properly administered, and can have side effects including viral die off, which often makes people feel worse before they feel better.
Antiviral Herbs & Antiviral Supplements: What Works?
When it comes to natural antivirals, antiviral herbs and supplements are the two most popular and easy to use options. Here’s our rundown on which antiviral herbs and antiviral supplements actually work to kill viruses naturally:
- Basil: Yes, your favorite Italian cuisine ingredient is also an antiviral herb! One study found that sweet basil (the most common variety of basil) exhibits potent effects against multiple kinds of viruses, while another found that basil supplements significantly increased levels of cells that help your body fight off viral infections.
- Elderberry/Sambucus: Sambucas is actually a family of plants, and the most common form of sambucas is the elderberry, which happens to be a powerful antiviral herbal treatment. Studies have found that elderberry juice stimulates immune response and kills influenza (aka the flu virus), and it may also be protective against herpes and HIV/AIDS, both viruses. What’s more — and particularly relevant given the symptoms of COVID-19 — studies show that it substantially reduces upper respiratory tract symptoms caused by viral infections.
- Echinacea: One of the most well-known antiviral herbs, you’ll usually find echinacea in capsule form. Studies have suggested that it’s effective at fighting off certain viruses, including the flu and herpes, while other research shows it gives your immune system a boost.
- Fennel: Fennel is a licorice-flavored bulb, but it’s also a powerful antiviral herb. It has a strong inhibitive effect against herpes and various respiratory viruses, and may also boost immune function and reduce inflammation.
- Oregano: Yay! Another common, easy antiviral herb option. A test-tube study showed that oregano could reduce viral activity in just 15 minutes (!!), while other studies found that oregano oil is effective against various other kinds of viruses, including one that causes respiratory infections.
- Pau D’Arco: Pau d’arco is the bark from an Amazon tree, which is believed to treat a wide range of viruses. It inhibits virus replication by damaging DNA and RNA (genetic material) inside the viral protein, which prevents virus cells from entering human cells and replicating.
- Peppermint: In one study, peppermint leaf extract both reduced inflammation and significantly reduced viral activity for a respiratory virus. Peppermint tea also contains compounds that have natural antiviral and anti-inflammatory compounds.
- St. John’s Wort: Another recognized name among antiviral herbs, St. John’s Wort contains the chemicals hypericin and pseudohypericin, which fight off viruses that imitate healthy human cells.
Clearly, you have a lot of different options when it comes to antiviral herbs! In terms of taking them, you usually have a few options. With some antiviral herbs, like oregano and basil, you can add them to your food as you usually would. With other antiviral herbs, or if you want a more potent dose of basil or oregano, you can opt for supplements, teas, or liquid extracts.
(BTW, if you want more in-depth information and actionable advice on how to improve your gut health — and thus improve your ability to fight off viruses — check out the FREE WellBe Gut Health Guide!)
The Best Defense Against Viruses: A Healthy Immune System
At the end of the day, the thing that kills viruses is your immune system. Natural antivirals like copper, UV light, and antiviral herbs can definitely provide a helping hand, and sometimes a major one. But ultimately, your overall health and the strength or your immune system will be what determines whether or not a virus you are exposed to makes you sick, and how long that sickness will last.
To that end, the best thing you can do now to protect yourself against the novel coronavirus — and against future viruses in general — is to take steps to keep your immune system strong. That means eating immune-boosting foods, getting enough good quality sleep, reducing stress, and, above all, keeping your gut health in check (since 70% of your immune system lives in your gut!).
Conclusion: What you Need to Know About Natural Virus Killers
There’s a lot of confusion in the world about the difference between bacterial and viral infections, and how both are treated. This confusion has been brought to light by the novel coronavirus COVID-19, and exacerbated by the fact that there’s often not a clear-cut or guaranteed way to treat or prevent viruses. Here’s everything you need to know about viruses and how to combat them naturally:
- The difference between bacterial and viral infections is that the former is caused by bacteria and killed by antibiotics, while the latter is caused by a virus and doesn’t have a set course of treatment.
- Bacteria are tiny microorganisms that live all over the planet, including inside our bodies. Many bacteria are good and helpful, but some, called pathogenic bacteria, can cause bacterial infections.
- Viruses are even tinier microorganisms, and they can only live and multiply in living tissue. They are parasitic, and use human cells to grow (and sometimes even kill host cells!).
- Antibiotics are effective at killing bacteria, but they do nothing against viruses and cause harm to your body when used unnecessarily. Similarly, antibacterial soap doesn’t kill viruses and simply contributes to the issue of antibiotic resistance. Regular soap and water (and good hand-washing hygiene!!) are all it takes.
- There are a number of natural antivirals that can help protect you against a viral infection. These include certain foods, colloidal silver, infrared saunas, ozone therapy and UV light.
- Antiviral herbs and antiviral supplements are the most powerful and potent natural antivirals. Effective antiviral herbs include basil, echinacea, elderberry, fennel, oregano, Pau d’arco, peppermint, and St. John’s Wort.
- Ultimately, the best defense against a virus is a strong immune system!
Have you benefited from natural virus killers? Which ones? Share your experience in the comments below!