$72,000 – A High Price to Pay for a Common Cold / Flu
Western medicine has little to offer in the treatment of colds and flu and antibiotics, as controversial as they are, are often the primary treatment available. In contrast, Chinese medicine is very effective at treating colds and flu, thereby avoiding the many complications that can accompany antibiotic treatment such as abdominal cramps, diarrhea, super-infections, antibiotic resistance, etc.
Below I present a brief summary of a medical case from my clinical practice in Boulder, Colorado highlighting the value of Chinese medicine’s treatment for common cold and flu where Western medicine failed. This case not only demonstrates the perils that can occur from unnecessary antibiotic use, but also illustrates a larger problem in modern health care. In addition, I hope that it helps educate people in some basic concepts of Chinese medicine as well as spark a much needed dialogue between Western and Chinese medicine practitioners. I have retained some of the basic Chinese medicine terminology and ideas, to inform those interested in this ancient and effective perspective.
The Case: A mid-30s male on June 6, 2011, visited my office complaining of fevers that had persisted for six weeks. They were more severe in the afternoons and he was taking Advil (ibuprofen), a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, to control them. He also had developed severe fatigue and eventually was unable to work and effectively perform activities of daily living.
At our first visit he reported that his symptoms began approximately six weeks ago, after he had been given an antibiotic, Augmentin, at urgent care for his cold / flu symptoms of 102° fever, chills, headache, sore throat, and sinus congestion. Unfortunately, he appeared to have severe side effects from the Augmentin, and after four days of vomiting and feeling generally worse, he was switched to a second antibiotic, a Z-Pak (Azithromycin). Two days later his condition worsened yet again, and his fevers climbed to 104°F.Antibiotics
Two weeks prior to seeing me he was finally hospitalized due to his persistent fevers and feeling very unwell. He was given multiple courses of antibiotics, lost 25 lbs. (he was not overweight), and accumulated $72,000 in hospital bills after all the conventional tests and treatments had been performed. After eight days he was discharged with a diagnosis of fevers of unknown origin. Within days his fevers once again started to spike and he started feeling very weak. This is when he decided to come see me for a Chinese medicine consult.
The Chinese Medicine Treatment & Results: After speaking at length with this patient, my treatment involved giving him one week of the modified raw herb version of a common formula called “Honeysuckle and Forsythia Powder (yin qiao san)”. This formula has been around for hundreds of years and has a proven track record for treating colds and flu. It has also been extensively researched with modern Western methods confirming its effectiveness.
After starting the herbs he immediately felt better. After one and a half days the patient was back at work and although his muscles were achy, they felt stronger. He continued taking the herbs and worked five full continuous days. When I saw him one week later, he was having no fevers and no longer needed the Advil; he felt almost 100%. He had no recurrence of the fevers when I followed-up with him eight weeks later.
About ten weeks later, he again developed a cold with a sore throat and went to urgent care. They surprisingly gave him the same antibiotic (Augmentin) that made him sick, similar to the first time. Within two days he was once again experiencing high fevers. After no effect from the antibiotics, he came back to me for a Chinese herbal consultation. I gave him a modified version of the previously given formula, which immediately cleared up the fevers.
From a Chinese medicine perspective my patient’s case history and the condition treated was not overly complex. In fact, two times I was able to quickly diagnose the person, and prescribe Chinese medicinals to effectively treat him (and might I add, for a very affordable price compared to the $72,000 he spent during his hospitalization).
In addition, Chinese medicine truly uses individualized and holistic treatments, even for a common cold. For example, a person that feels chilled will require a different treatment than one who feels warm. Thus 10 patients with a common cold may require 10 different herbal formulas.
Let me share with you the Chinese medicine perspective of this gentleman’s condition.
Antibiotics vs. Chinese Medicine’s approach
Nowadays, although many are leery of using antibiotics for colds and flu, their widespread use still persists. Chinese medicine though offers a valuable perspective on why they often cause complications.
According to Chinese medicine, when a disease is located in the superficial (exterior) regions of the body, as is common with colds and flu, the fundamental strategy should be to push the pathogen outward using light lifting medicines. Antibiotics though, are descending and heavy in nature and can actually drive a pathogen deeper into the body and lock in the pathogen (making it difficult to be expelled). The pathogen then brews, and can eventually transform into a more serious condition, and even cause a superinfection. In the above case, the antibiotics led to an increased fever and a worsening of his illness, leading to hospitalization.
Chinese medicine also pays special attention to the thermal nature (temperature) of the illness. If a condition is cold natured (e.g. the patient feels chilled) then warming medicines are used. If the condition is hot, then cold medicines are used. Antibiotics are considered cold natured. In the beginning of this case, the patient’s condition was cold in nature and applying a cold strategy (antibiotics) was incorrect. Cold plus cold congeals the pathogen, trapping it in the body, inhibiting it from being expelled. In addition overly cold strategies inherently can damage the digestion, for example, cause diarrhea. Of note, consider classic signs of a bacterial infection (where antibiotics are most effective), redness, heat, swelling, pain, and green or yellow phlegm. In Chinese medicine, this corresponds to a heat condition. He did not have this type of presentation.
In addition, Chinese medicine’s strategy is not to directly kill bacteria or viruses. Such “killing” strategies (even herbal ones), may render short-term symptomatic relief, giving the impression of success, but can damage the body and often lead to latent pathogens[i]. In contrast, Chinese medicine uses strategies to regulate and adjust the body’s internal terrain to stimulate the body’s natural immune power to eliminate the pathogen. This strengthening process is helpful in preventing recurrences or lingering (or resistant) pahogens.
Thus, an inappropriate treatment not only leads to poor results, but also can have long-term consequences by creating “latent pathogens.” These are pathogens or conditions that linger in the body for weeks and sometimes months to years. A person is often unaware of this internal process, but would however feel different symptoms, which often then get diagnosed as new diseases. The misery layers upon itself. This can cause catastrophic health problems and cost a patient enormously. Therefore, although antibiotics are sometimes of value, they often lead to lingering conditions or future reinfections because of their inability to push pathogens outward.
These philosophical differences in treatment are at the heart of why Chinese medicine can succeed so well in treating colds and flu (and many other diseases) when Western medicine fails. In addition, these unique clinical and ancient perspectives are something that, in my opinion, would be useful for Western medicine to consider. The art of effective medicine is in learning how to identify individual presentations, instead of merely treating “the disease”, and then matching appropriate treatment strategies to these presentations.[i] For further exploration on this topic see, Issues in Using Antiviral Medicinals in the Treatment and Prevention of the Common Cold and Flu (Gan Mao) (Blalack, 2011), https://www.chinesemedicinedoc.com/misc-chinese-medicine-articles/antivirals-treat-cold-and-flu/
posted by Tressa at May 16, 2012 4:23 pm:
Hi Jason, just not clear to me, are you saying he had a latent pathogen? I’m wondering then why you chose Yin Qiao San? Is it used for latent pathogens in a way I am not familiar with? I think of it more for wei level disease, and it would seem his disease was deeper (Qi level?)
posted by Jason Blalack at May 16, 2012 6:03 pm:
A lurking or latent pathogen is any pathogen (cold, heat, wind, phlegm etc) that lingerings in the body. It may linger anywhere in the body, such as muscle layer, wei level, qi level, blood level etc.
In addition, Yin Qiao San is not only used for wei level pathogens, but can be for deeper level problems, but this case had a lingering pathogen in the more superficial layers of the body. BTW, a pathogen can linger in the more superficial layers for years (sometimes).
posted by Tressa at May 16, 2012 6:36 pm:
posted by Bella at July 21, 2012 2:26 pm:
Seriously sounds like this man had a tick borne disease, such as lyme. Those are the symptoms, as well as the acute herxheimer reaction when antibiotics are used. I hope practitioners continue to learn about these devastating bacterial infections because abx just aren’t the answer. Chinese medicine holds a major key to healing.
posted by Jan Newmarch at December 12, 2013 2:00 am:
If it is a viral infection such as a common cold or flu, then antibiotics will have no effect on the infection. They only work against bacterial infections. I’m not disputing the efficacy of your remedy in ths case, but your first statement “antibiotics … are often the primary treatment available [for colds and flu]” is simply false.
posted by Jason Blalack at December 12, 2013 2:28 pm:
Hi Jan – I agree and did not mean to suggest that anyone should treat viruses with antibiotics. I guess my point is that Western medicine does not really have useful treatment options for colds and flus and many doctors still just doll out antibiotics, just to give “something”. Sometimes this is justified as the viral condition leading to a secondary bacterial infection, as was probably the case here. Sometimes though it is just so the patient has something to take. Whatever the reason I see many colds and flus still treated with antibiotics, but your point is well taken and my statement is a little strong / misleading.
Also though, I am using the term colds and flu (gan mao) from both a Western and Chinese medical perspective. The latter encompasses a wider range of conditions which does at times occur from bacterial infections, e.g. sinus infections that are bacterial in nature. Such conditions are not really a flu from a Western perspective but often fall under the category of Gan Mao (colds and flu) in CM.
Thanks for the comment. Further thoughts?