Treating the Common Cold with Chinese Medicine

The common cold is a miserable thing. You feel sick, but not really sick enough to stay home from work. You think your runny nose is finally getting better, but then the whole thing sinks into your chest or you lose your voice. You’re achy, your throat hurts, and you can’t sleep.

What does Chinese medicine have to offer in the way of cold relief? Well, it’s true that there really is no cure for the common cold, but in the Chinese system of healing there are some ways to help shorten the duration of your cold and make you more comfortable while you tough it out.

Your cold has some distinctive characteristics that can help your acupuncturist determine how best to treat it. First of all, a common cold is considered an illness of the exterior of your body. That means that it’s fairly superficial in nature, compared to a deep-seated disease of, say your kidneys or heart. Your cold is also external because you caught it from some outside funkiness, like someone sneezing into your coffee or hanging out at a daycare center.

In Chinese medicine, your cold is considered a kind of pathogenic wind. Pathogens, or stuff that makes you sick, is a little like bad weather in your body. You can have pathogens in the form of heat, cold, damp, and in the case of your cold, you have wind hassling your exterior. Wind tends to affect your upper body with changeable symptoms that come and go, and those symptoms tend to move around–all characteristics of your average common cold.

So, to your acupuncturist, your cold is considered external wind. But there’s more, and this is where some diagnostic skills come into play. Your cold can be associated with symptoms of heat or cold. Heat symptoms include running a fairly high temperature, more fever than chills, a really sore throat, thirst, yellow phlegm when you cough or blow your nose, and painful or red eyes. Cold or cool symptoms include clear phlegm when coughing or blowing, more chills than fever, a mild sore throat, losing your voice, and achiness that tends to move around.

Acupuncture can be helpful in speeding your cold on its way. Your acupuncturist would choose points to clear the pathogen from the exterior of your body, points to warm or cool as needed, and points to resolve your specific symptoms.

In China, herbal formulas for wind plus cold generally start with a combination of ephedra and cinnamon twig, plus other herbs depending on your symptoms. However, in the United States, ephedra can no longer be used in herbal formulas, so your best bet is to talk with your practitioner, who can prescribe the right formula for your symptoms. A common formula for a cold that involves wind plus heat is Yin Qiao San, which helps fight off the cold and relieve the heat-related symptoms. Beyond treating wind plus heat or wind plus cold, you may also need some help if you have a cough, sinus congestion, and wheezing or congested lungs. There are herbal formulas for all of these situations, but you’ll need a little guidance from your practitioner of Chinese medicine.

There are also a few things you can do at home to help resolve your cold. When you feel like you’re coming down with something, or even the first day of your cold, you can try to sweat it out. At home, make a broth of grated ginger and scallions (you can add chicken or vegetable broth), drink it down, bundle up, go to bed and sweat.

If you can’t fight it off, and actually come down with a cold, there are some things you can do, too. If you have wind plus cold symptoms, you will want to warm things up and disperse the pathogen. Common household herbs like cinnamon, basil, cayenne pepper, fennel, mustard seed, as well as ginger and scallions are warming and help relieve your symptoms. If you’re unlucky enough to have a wind plus heat type of cold, the path to feeling better is cooling the heat and dispersing the warm pathogen. Some cooling herbs that you may have around the house that can help include mint and chrysanthemum flowers (as a tea). You can also find teas or powders at your local Asian grocery store that contain the herb Ban Lan Gen (you may have to ask). Ban Lan Gen has antibiotic and antiviral properties and also clears heat–a good choice, especially if you have wind heat kind of cold (but it can be used for either).

We all agree that having a cold is a miserable thing. However, with a little Chinese medicine, self care, and taking it easy, you can speed up your recovery time and minimize your symptoms.

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