The Treatment of Colds and Flu with Chinese Medicine

 In Health Blog

By: Jason Blalack

With the first wave of cold and flu season hitting us already, with winter right around the corner, and the swine flu (H1N1) on everyone’s mind, we thought it would be appropriate to discuss what Chinese medicine can do for these situations.

Some questions we are often asked are:

  1. Can Chinese medicine treat colds and flus?
  2. Can Chinese medicine prevent colds and flus?
  3. What about the numerous products sold such as Cold Snap, Cold Quell etc?

Chinese Medicine’s Understanding of Colds and Flus

In some respects, Chinese medicine’s fundamental understanding is no different than Western medicine. For example, both systems agree that colds and flus occur from an external pathogen entering the body. However within a Chinese medicine paradigm, this etiology must be understood within the context of the individual’s constitution. Fundamentally, there must be some weakness (e.g. immune deficiency) for a pathogen to invade. Anything that weakens one’s resistance (overwork, not sleeping, eating poorly, etc.) can weaken one’s immune system and allow a pathogen to attack and enter, causing disease.

Furthermore, the patient’s constitution (underlying pattern) coupled with the nature of the pathogen that is attacking will determine what symptoms and how the cold and flu will present in that given individual. We all have seen two people get the “same cold” and have completely different symptoms. This occurs precisely because of this interaction. This is fundamental to Chinese medicine’s viewpoint and plays a crucial role not only in treatment but also in prevention of colds and flus.

Prevention of Colds and Flus

Because of the complexity of each individual, there is no one supplement that can be recommended for the prevention of colds and flus. There are many single herbs, e.g. such as Astragalus (huang qi), that are touted to have this effect, and to be “immune boosting.” This is not necessarily incorrect; however there are a few problems with this type of thinking that must be understood in the context of Chinese medicine theory.

  1. Chinese herbs are rarely given in isolation, as a single medicinals, but rather in synergistic combinations.
  2. more importantly, even if an herb is given in isolation, and is known to be a great “immune booster” it may be completely inappropriate for one person and extremely appropriate for another person. For example, many people will develop problems, and hence weaken their immune system, if Astragalus (huang qi) is given. Understanding this is the art and hallmark of Chinese medicine.

The ability to diagnose the individual and come up with a treatment strategy that fits that person’s underlying imbalance is paramount to boosting one’s immune system, rather than simply picking a medicinal that has a Western function of “boosting the immune system.” Consequently, any formula or treatment strategy that can address underlying imbalances (strengthen deficiencies and/or eliminate excess pathogens/toxins from the body) will in turn allow the body’s immune system to work optimally, thereby strengthening it. Therefore recommending any single herbs or strategies for the general population is not optimal, although it may help a certain percentage of people. In our clinic, we see quite a few patients with compromised immune systems (e.g. frequently getting sick, and lingering colds and flus) and we find that addressing the whole person’s constitution is essential in unraveling why these people frequently get sick. Consequently, such patients routinely report that they get sick less often and when they get sick it occurs for a shorter period of time.

Treatment of Colds and Flus

As noted above, Chinese medicine and Western medicine agree on some fundamental ideas on why colds and flus occur. However the treatment strategies are drastically different between the two. First and foremost Chinese medicine treats every cold and flu case differently. An experienced practitioner will rarely give a premade prepared formula (unless there is no other option). In general, Western medicine offers little for colds and flues except from symptomatic treatment such as decongestants etc (unless things get severe). They often say drink some water and get some rest; saying, “it will just run its course.” In contrast, Chinese medicine takes a very proactive role in eliminating the pathogen and resolving the disease process, drastically shortening the time one is sick. This is important because Chinese medicine believes that many chronic diseases (for example asthma) come from repeated colds or flus that are not resolve properly.

Chinese medicine, even when there is a bacterial infection, always employs strategies to push out the pathogen and not just “kill it.” This unique understanding (which dates back over 1800 years) drastically cuts down on lingering colds and flus or cold and flus that reemerge after having been seemingly resolved. This is accomplished through an individualized blend of medicinals that fit the exact symptoms that the patient is presenting with that pushes the pathogen out through the surface while at the same time paying attention to the patient’s underlying constitutional pattern.

Because of all this, we greatly enjoy treating colds and flus in children and adults. We find a great satisfaction in having a patient tell us that they are going down for the count, which usually leaves them sick for a week or two, and one or two days later be completely better. We feel that if one treats a cold or flu in the earliest stage, it can be prevented completely. Even if one has a cold and flu that has been going on for some time (e.g. a week or two) and has gotten very severe, Chinese medicine can many times successfully reverse the situation, avoiding antibiotics. However, when necessary, Chinese medicine works very well to complement a Western medical approach of antibiotics.

A Note on Antibiotics

Sometimes patients do need to take antibiotics during the course of a cold/flu. This may be especially true when one obtains a serious upper respiratory tract infection. Chinese medicine views this treatment approach as “killing the pathogen” and consequently if the pathogen is not fully eliminated, it can be pushed deeper into the body. We often see recurrent episodes (e.g. another upper respiratory tract infection or even a urinary tract infection) with this approach. However, if one combines this with Chinese medicine and uses a strategy that evicts the pathogen one can cut down on such instances.

Self Treatment for the Common Cold:

Of course for optimal treatment it is best to consult your Chinese medical practitioner at the first signs of a cold. If this is not possible, and you are a generally healthy individual, getting the initial stages of a common cold, there are a couple things you can do.

Signs and Symptoms include: mild headache, aversion to wind, mild chills, scratchy throat, and slight runny nose.

Self Treatment:

  1. Miso soup with lots of scallions.
  2. Ginger tea – bring 2 cups of water to a boil, add three slices of fresh ginger, and simmer for 15 minutes.

After drinking either one of these, one should bundle up, creating a mild sweat, and rest.

If your symptoms are much different than above, for example, you feel hot, thirsty, have a severe sore throat, severe headache, severe chills, etc. then this approach is inappropriate and you should seek additional treatment strategies.

For the more adventurous and “soda drinker” I include this modern Chinese folk remedy for fun.

If you feel more chilled, heat up some Coca-Cola with ginger. If you are feeling more on the warm side heat up some Coca-Cola with lemon. Then drink.

In Summary

It is our clinical experience that Chinese medicine can:

  1. Prevent colds and flus.
  2. Can treat early-stage colds and flus, shortening the recovery time.
  3. Even treat more serious presentations, eliminating the need for serious intervention (e.g. the need for antibiotics) as well as shortening recovery time.
  4. Strengthening the body’s immune system, thereby preventing a re-occurrence.

Also we do not recommend taking general over-the-counter Chinese medicine herbs formulas such as Cold Snap for the treatment or prevention of colds and flus, unless your Chinese medicine practitioner has specifically said that this formula is good for your constitution as well as the way the you normally get sick. Although such approaches sometimes may be successful, we have seen time and time again patients that get the pathogen driven in deeper and become sick much longer than they should have with such one-size-fits-all formulas.

We hope this short essay helps illustrate a little bit about how Chinese medicine thinks about colds and flus. If you have any questions regarding this topic please feel free to contact us via e-mail or at the clinic.

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About Us

Open Gate Acupuncture, located in Boulder Colorado, serves patients throughout the Boulder county region including Denver, Longmont, Gunbarrel, Lafayette, & Louisville.

Jason Blalack has been treating patients in Boulder for over 16 years, is an international lecturer on Chinese medicine and has an extensive collection of Chinese medicine articles published in professional journals worldwide. Jason specializes in autoimmune, digestive disorders, fertility, and emotional disorders.

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Showing 12 comments
  • Huang Qi

    posted by Lori Lynch at December 6, 2010 10:09 am:
    I am a massage therapist in Steamboat Springs, and I’m always interested in wholistic ideas and remedies to give to my clients. I was especially struck by your comment that “We all have seen two people get the “same cold” and have completely different symptoms”. That is an excellent way to introduce wholistic healing to someone who has been relying solely on western medicine for their treatment of a cold.
    I will also share the idea the a cold does not necessarily need to last a long time, or worsen with time, if one sees an acupuncturist, or uses some of your self-treatment options.
    I’ve heard it touted many times, especially for digestive issues. How is it that ginger works for cold and flu treatment? What a magical herb!

  • Huang Qi

    Hi Lori,
    Thanks for your comments, and for sharing your experience.
    Ginger is indeed an amazing herb. In the Chinese Materia Medica, it is classified as an herb that “releases the exterior” which means that it can help to dispel pathogens from the surface of the body and prevent them from lodging more deeply. Because of its warm nature, ginger is especially useful for the onset of a cold with chills (described in Chinese medicine as an “attack of wind-cold”), as described above.
    As you noted, ginger is also commonly used for digestive upset, and is often added to Chinese prescriptions strengthen and protect the stomach.
    Chinese herbs work synergistically, meaning that different properties of the same herb will be enhanced depending on how it is combined. For example, ginger has a different effect when used together with cinnamon, where it focuses on warming and strengthening the surface of the body, than with bamboo shavings, where it focuses more internally on the lungs and stomach.
    Best wishes,

  • Huang Qi

    posted by Kate at January 13, 2014 11:48 pm:
    Hi. What remedy would you recommend if the symptom of an onset of a cold is sore throat? I would get the wind-cold scratchy throat but my kids always start off with a sore throat. Thank you.

    • Huang Qi

      posted by Jason Blalack at January 14, 2014 7:08 am:
      It depends on what other signs and symptoms they are experiencing. Some people believe that when a “cold” starts with a sore throat then this is a sign of a lurking pathogen. What else is happening?

  • Huang Qi

    posted by Irene at January 30, 2014 11:14 am:
    I’m a little ……no a lot confused…..with all my reading and visiting TCM and acupuncture practitioners…….SUGAR is one item to completely avoid especially when sick …….
    But COKE !!!!! Now I am totally flabbergasted !!!!! ….. That stuff is terrible !!!!

  • Huang Qi

    posted by Jason Blalack at June 17, 2014 8:31 am:
    Thanks for taking a stand here. I personally don’t drink coke, but I also like to remain flexible and not be too rigid in my approach. This is an interesting modern Chinese folk remedy that is fun and works well for those that are so inclined. It is certainly not for everyone.

  • Brian55

    Hi Jason, I am a new herbalist in Phoenix AZ. I put together a presentation for new parents called Keeping your child healthy with Herbs, Herbal Formulas for Cold & Flu viruses. Thank you so much for all the information you share. In my studying I found statements from webmd & Mayo clinic stating “Nothing can cure a cold”, “If you catch a cold you can expect to be sick for 2 weeks”, the only way to get over the cold is to wait for your immunity to get rid of the virus”, Since we have no medicines that will slow down the cold viruses, we can’t do anything to speed up the process”. This is the view from western medicine. Chinese herbal medicine does have formulas that can assist our body’s immune system and other imbalances. I see improvements with clients all the time and they are amazed at how well they can feel so quickly.
    You did not mention Antiviral drugs, which have side effects like; nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, breathing problems. And for children, OTC cold and cough medications may cause serious and even life threatening side effects and the FDA warns against their use in children under 6 YO.
    Again, thanks for sharing. I look forward to learning more and more.

  • Casey

    In what Chinese Medical textbook is coca-cola listed as a medicinal remedy? Your article gives a great explanation of Chinese Medicine principals. However, seeing coca-cola as a remedy discredits the entire thing. I would suggest an edit.

    • Jason Blalack

      This is a folk remedy and included just for fun and to keep things light. I personally do not drink coca-cola and do not recommend it, but some do and for some reason, it seems to be helpful. -Jason

  • Lia

    My daughter, 10 months, continuously gets colds that starts out as continuous deep coughs and even when it is “done” she has congestion that stays and doesn’t go away since she is not old enough to blow her nose and spit away the mucus. The cycle then continues. What can I do to help her completely get over her colds? Thank you.

    • Jason Blalack

      Lia, I am sorry your daughter is suffering from this, but I would find a local practitioner that can evaluate her, I cannot make any recommendations on an internet message. Best to you both, -Jason

  • Dawn Satter

    Per my Westerm Med doctor I am trying to get rid of chronic Epstein Barr by using Astra Isatis. With Chinese herbs do you sometimes feel worse before you feel better? It was helping but the last two days I have been in bed again.

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