I often find my patients are curious to learn more about their health from a Chinese medicine perspective – our vocabulary of diagnostic terms can sound strange to the non-practitioner, I know. And you want to understand your diagnosis, and as a practitioner, I am happy to answer your questions. (Which often leads to more questions!) Given how many of us have been down and out with a cold or flu recently, I felt inspired to share with you some traditional Chinese medicine information on this topic. May we all feel better soon.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the common cold may manifest as different patterns depending upon your symptoms. The most common patterns are what we TCM practitioners call exterior Wind-Cold and exterior Wind-Heat. In both cases, prompt treatment brings the most effective results. Listed below are the common symptoms accompanied by each pattern and some things you can do to halt their progression.
Common Cold caused by Wind-Cold
This pattern typically exhibits the following symptoms: mild fever with chills (these are worse than the fever), inability to warm up (even under blankets), sneezing, nasal/sinus congestion or cough with clear or white mucus, stiff neck and shoulders, occipital headache (back of head), no noticeable sweating or thirst.
Diaphoretic (sweating) therapy is especially helpful in this condition, since it warms the body and pushes the pathogen out through the pores (we call this “releasing the exterior”). In the very early stages of this pattern, an effective remedy is miso soup with fresh ginger simmered with the white part of a few scallions. Cinnamon and garlic are also useful in bringing on a sweat. Acupuncture at this stage can be effective in stopping the illness before it progresses. This is also a good time to treat yourself to a neck and shoulder massage – many points that “release the exterior” are located in these areas. Wind-Cold, without proper treatment, tends to transform into Wind-Heat.
Common Cold caused by Wind-Heat
The Wind-Cold stage of an illness is usually brief and may go unnoticed before it transforms into Wind-Heat; an illness may also begin as Wind-Heat. This pattern typically exhibits the following symptoms: the primary symptom is a swollen and sore throat, fever that is worse than chills, body aches, sweating (can be mild, like a clammy feeling), thirst, and irritability. If there is a cough, it is usually dry or unproductive, with occasional expectoration of yellow phlegm.
Treatment of Wind-Heat beginning at the earliest possible stage of illness is most effective. Acupuncture can be very helpful in shortening the course of your illness. Peppermint tea can be comforting, as it will help quell heat and move pathogens towards the exterior. Steamed pears can help resolve cough and phlegm; Asian pears are especially effective for moistening a dry throat and irritated lungs. Chinese herbal medicine is especially effective at relieving symptoms at this stage – two formulas commonly prescribed (for thousands of years!) are Yin Qiao San and Gan Mao Ling. (I can provide these for you.) It is important to get adequate rest, good nutrition in the form of soups and other simple foods, and take leave from sources of stress.
When you feel what may be a cold or the “flu” coming on it is tempting, even intuitive, to take herbs like echinacea, ginseng and astragalus to boost your immunity, however herbs of this kind (“tonifying”) will trap pathogens in your interior, prolonging your illness and making you feel much worse. If your sore throat persists for more than seven days, please consult your Western doctor to rule out strep, or other serious infections.
Prevention, friends, is key. Take good care of yourself this cold and flu season by getting adequate rest, reducing stress, eating a balanced diet (lots of fermented foods and bone broth, please!), scheduling regular acupuncture sessions, and wearing your hat, scarf and furry boots.