Common Cold and Chinese Medicine

By Christina Morris, L.Ac.

As the weather changes from summer to winter and the temperatures become cooler, we may begin to notice a change in our own health. Runny nose, cough, sore throat, watery eyes, headache, and sneezing are all common signs often associated with a cold. It is important to be very conscious of these signs and to take precautionary actions which prevent or reduce the chance of getting sick, alleviate symptoms, shorten the course of the cold and to prevent resulting complications. While there is no cure for the common cold, Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and herbs, can be effective in preventing and in reducing a cold’s duration and severity.

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. Symptoms usually last 3 to10 days, if the immune system functions normally. This ailment is more common in children, adolescent boys and women. The common cold can be contagious for 2 to 3 days after the onset symptoms. There are a variety of viruses, more than 200, which can cause a cold. Antibiotics are ineffective in the treatment of viruses but are often prescribed to help fight bacterial infections that may arise due to complications. Antibiotics should be avoided if possible but may be necessary in some situations. They can have negative affects on the body such as killing the healthy bacteria found in the intestines.

Traditional Chinese medicine can be an effective form of treatment for common colds. It is most effective at the beginning stages when the symptoms are first noticed. Chinese medicine is an ancient form of medical practice that dates back over 2,500 years ago, vastly predating the discovery of microscopes, the use of lab tests, and the knowledge of viruses and bacteria. This ancient form of medicine developed a system of diagnosing and treating a multitude of ailments, and is still an effective form of medicine. Chinese medicine understands the common cold as a result of an external pathogen (known as a virus in western medicine) that enters the body. This external pathogen enters the body if the wei qi (also known as defensive qi or immune system) is weakened. Chinese medicine believes that external influences, such as wind, can weaken the body’s wei qi thereby allowing an external pathogen to enter. Initial symptoms may include sneezing, neck soreness, cough, headache, watery eyes, chills, and running nose. If this external pathogen is not expelled, more internal symptoms will develop such as sore throat, yellow mucous in the nasal passages or throat, fever, and body aches. The common cold like many other ailments seem to follow a certain pattern as the pathogen moves internally. Occasionally, a common cold can move further inwards and create more serious illnesses. Chinese medicine and its understanding of disease patterns can offer an effective form of treatment: Research shows that acupuncture enhances the functioning of the immune system and certain Chinese herbs demonstrate antiviral properties.

Some of the common herbs in Chinese medicine that are used in various formulas for the treatment of a cold include: cong bai or scallion, gui zhi or cinnamon twig, zi su ye or perilla leaf, fang feng or siler, and sheng jiang which is fresh ginger. There are many other Chinese herbs that are effective in the prevention and treatment of the common cold and should be prescribed by your acupuncturist or Chinese herbalist on an individual basis. What about preventative measures? It is important to eat a healthy diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of water, have adequate rest, remember to exercise and limit stressors in your life. Wear a scarf to cover your neck and hat to cover your ears when you go outside on those cold and windy days. Vitamin C and Zinc can be effective in helping the body’s immune system to fight off viruses. Oscillococcinum from Boiron can be a wonderful preventative with the first signs of a cold and can be found at your local health food store. This homeopathic preparation is excellent to have in the medicine cabinet- just in case. Garlic, echinacea and goldenseal have also shown to have favorable results in boosting the immune system.