Cold prevention and treatment from the Chinese medical perspective
There are two major types of common colds, and in the Chinese medical language, two names: wind-cold and wind-heat. Wind, cold and heat are three common pathogens which can enter the body from the exterior. Chills, aversion to cold, stiffness (especially of the neck), headache, and white or clear-colored phlegm are signs of wind-cold. Sore throat, feeling warm and/or agitated (whether or not there is a fever), yellow or green-colored phlegm, and aversion to heat are some indications of wind-heat. A third type of cold, which usually occurs in the autumn, is wind dryness. There may be a combination of fever and chills with a dry throat and dry cough.
Prevention, the best approach
Cold enters the body through the bottoms of the feet and through the top of the thoracic spine. Wind enters at the back of the neck, just under the occiput. It is important to keep ones feet warm, and to wear a scarf on windy days. If you notice that your feet are cold, take a few minutes to soak them in hot water, and put on clean, dry socks. The times when we are most susceptible to catching colds are at the turns of the seasons, particularly when winter is turning to spring, and summer is turning to fall.
Some other factors that make us more susceptible to catching colds are lack of sleep, poor nutrition or a “damp” diet (continue for diet information), high emotional stress, overwork, air travel, over-consumption of alcohol, tobacco or marijuana, and exposure to others who are sick. Stress reduction techniques, adequate sleep, and a balanced diet cannot be overemphasized as effective preventive care. If you are working around others who are sick, frequent hand washing is also important. If you know that you are at risk for getting sick—taking a long flight for instance—you can do more than passively wait for a cold to hit; many treatments discussed below are also effective preventive measures.
Symptoms and cold care
We already know how to treat ourselves when we get sick: drink lots of fluid and get plenty of rest. Unfortunately, few of us take these maxims to heart. We ignore early symptoms of illness, and push on—going to work, hoping that what we ignore will go away. This approach has two drawbacks: we are exposing workmates to cold viruses when we are in our most contagious state, and we are prolonging our own illness.
It is helpful to become familiar with your earliest symptoms of a cold, and to take appropriate measures, depending on whether it is cold or heat. The earlier the treatment, the more effective it will be.
Wind-cold Usually, the original pathogen is wind-cold. The symptoms can be as subtle as a little extra phlegm in the morning and/or a slight stiffness in the neck. You may remember feeling chilled the previous day, or sneezing several times in a row, or perhaps only having very cold feet.
Acupuncture at this stage can be effective in stopping the cold in its tracks. If the cold has already invaded the body, acupuncture can help it run its course in a shorter period of time. In addition to needles, you may also receive cupping or guasha, both old home remedies for early stage colds. Your acupuncturist may also do warming therapy or show you helpful breathing/movement exercises.
Whether or not you are able to receive acupuncture, do watch your diet and give yourself plenty of time for extra rest. If there is no sweating, having one good sweat can help chase the pathogen out via the pores. (Continue for information on diet and sweating.)
If your nose or sinuses are affected, rinsing with warm saline helps clear the mucus and virus out and is a first-line defense.
Wind-heat If early care is insufficient, the cold may develop into heat. This usually takes one to two days, but some people are so warm internally, they will turn cold into heat in just a couple of hours. A feeling of being warm or flushed, a fever, and/or a painful, sore throat are the most definite signs of early wind-heat. If phlegm is present, it may have a yellow or greenish tinge. It is important to try to clear this heat from your body as early as possible. Pay attention to your appetite, and only eat if you are truly hungry. Otherwise, just focus on drinking as much fluid as you comfortably can: dilute juices, herbal teas, weak miso broth, and plenty of water (continue for diet information). A day of taking in only liquids can be very helpful in reducing your recovery time. Most important, give yourself permission to sleep and rest all you want.
At an early stage of wind-heat, acupuncture can still be very helpful in shortening your course of illness. If you suddenly feel flushed, you can immediately do guasha (continue to learn self-guasha).
Whether your symptoms are cold or heat, be sure to expel any phlegm that you may cough up. Researchers have determined that women tend to get more frequent and longer colds than men because women tend to swallow their phlegm, recycling the very pathogen that the body is trying to get rid of. And whether you are feeling chilled or warm, if you have a scratchy/itchy throat with a cough, use cough drops, spray, or syrup. Coughing can irritate your throat and either cause it to be sore or prolong its healing.
Allow any potential sneezes to express themselves fully. Keep your neck and head warm. You can drape a scarf over the top of your head when you go to sleep. If you are a little familiar with Chinese medicine, doing moxa at Stomach 36 daily for 10 minutes (or 5–7 rice cones) can help prevent illness during stressful times.
Chinese dietary therapy
At the earliest signs of a cold, it is very helpful to make some dietary adjustments. All dairy products (even nonfat), orange and tomato juices, beer, sugar and cold drinks are considered to be “damp” foods. They tend to cause mucus buildup, which easily turns to phlegm, and provides a friendly environment for viral and bacterial growth. Wheat, bananas, and oats also have damp properties. Although avoiding these foods can be challenging, it is extremely helpful for shortening the length of your illness. Fluids should be warm or room temperature.
Alcohol, marijuana, and sugar all temporarily weaken the immune system. It is best to stay away from these when you are feeling “on the edge” or even if you are just exposed to others who are sick.
Chinese-style chicken soup is most effective for preventing sickness—when one is feeling stressed or run-down. Add to your favorite chicken soup: shitake mushrooms (fresh or dried), astragalus (found in natural food or Chinese groceries, also known as huang qi), and a small amount of seaweed such a kelp or kombu. Garlic and ginger can also be added.
Steamed pears help to resolve phlegm and cough. Asian pears are particularly moistening for cases of dryness. Kelp and other seaweeds also help to resolve phlegm.
For wind-cold symptoms, ginger, cinnamon, garlic, cayenne pepper and onions are all warming foods with detoxifying properties. For wind-heat symptoms, peppermint tea is cooling, and also helps to release the pathogen. Avoid hot-spicy foods and use ginger and garlic with caution (the exception below, for causing a sweat). Ginger can help to kick out an early wind-cold, but it is warming and is therefore recommended only if there are no heat signs. Tea bags are not, generally, effective medicinally. Dried or fresh mint should be simmered only five minutes; ginger root should be simmered at least 15 minutes to make an effective tea. Your acupuncturist or herbalist can make specific recommendations for your condition.
If you have very early signs of a wind-heat or wind-cold, and are NOT sweating, it can be helpful to make yourself sweat. Make a strong cup of ginger tea while you run a hot bath. Drink the tea, then get in the tub. Stay in until you feel your entire body begin to sweat, then stay in just another five minutes. Dry off, bundle up and get into bed for a nap or long night’s sleep.
In other cultures, this is called coining, or scraping technique. Guasha in all its forms is a common home remedy world-wide. Guasha is quite effective at the earliest stage of a cold. It helps to have a friend, but you can do this to yourself in a pinch. First I will describe how I do guasha on a patient.
A Chinese soup spoon is the ideal tool for guasha, but a large coin can be used, or anything with a plastic or ceramic edge, that can easily fit in the hand. I have the patient sit comfortably, with their upper back exposed. Standing behind them, using the edge of the spoon, I begin stroking (or scraping) along the back of the neck, from an inch above the hairline down to the shoulders. I am using enough force to bring up some color, but not enough to be irritating or painful. I also stroke along the tops of the shoulders, and down the sides of the spine, to the level of the scapulae. Then I will move to the front of the neck and guasha down the promonent SCM muscle which is usually visible from behind the earlobe down to the collarbone. I periodically dip the spoon into a bowl of water to make it more comfortable for the patient. (Use cool water if they are warm, warm water if they are chilled.)
Particularly if the patient has a wind-heat, redness will appear along the guasha lines. Sometimes, with a lot of heat, areas may become purplish. This is normal. This discoloration may last a couple of days. The patient will usually feel an immediate sense of relief—of heat release.
You can do guasha to yourself. Hold the spoon by the handle, and reach with it bowl-down, to the appropriate areas. Recently, I was on a road trip when I suddenly felt my warning signs of neck stiffness and tightness in the throat. I simply used my fingernails to do self-guasha, and my symptoms disappeared.
Not every supplement is for everyone. Several common non-prescription cold medications, herbs, and supplements are suggested here. It may take some experimentation to find the ones you are comfortable with. Many natural food stores have an herbalist or naturopath on staff to answer questions.
Homeopathic cold remedies are commonly found in grocery stores and drug stores. Natural food stores, in addition to a knowledgeable staff, often offer reference books or software with information on the various remedies. With most homeopathic remedies, it is important to avoid drinking coffee concurrently (even decaf) and also to avoid strong aromatics, such as camphor, mint, and menthol.
Ascorbic acid (which many people consider to be Vitamin C) is popular as a treatment for colds, taken at high doses in early stages. Individual level of tolerance is considered to be just before the stools become loose. Buffered, time-release vitamin C is gentler on the stomach. I am a proponent of whole food nutrition, which includes the entire vitamin C complex. There is some evidence that calcium lactate or citrate will eliminate fever in early stage.
Echinacea and goldenseal are Western herbs, cooling in nature, which have anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. They can be taken individually, but can be more effective in combination. Goldenseal is particularly cool, and is recommended only when heat symptoms are present, such as yellow or green phlegm, sore throat or fever. Tinctures are more easily absorbed, more effective, and easier on the stomach than capsules. At early signs of illness, one teaspoon, 3 to 4 times a day is a common recommended dose, but check the label. Add tinctures to warm water or tea in order to evaporate the alcohol and soften the flavor. Some people take echinacea preventively, daily.
Zinc lozenges are currently another popular early-stage cold treatment, especially for sore throat. A recommended dose is one lozenge every couple of hours while symptoms are present. To avoid possible nausea, take care not to take any mineral (such as zinc) on an empty stomach.
Medicinal mushrooms have also become a favorite for building the immune system. Reishi-shitake combinations are available as tinctures. Medicinal mushrooms are also available in granular form. Several mushrooms have long been revered in Chinese medicine as strong qi tonics. In Western terms, they contain concentrated amounts of polysaccharides, which have been shown to boost t-cell populations. These are effective, but recommended more for long-term immune support, than for treatment.
“Airborne” is a popular formula which includes many of the ingredients mentioned here. I would recommend this more for prevention.
The two most common patent herbs for the treatment of early stage colds are “Yin Qiao” and “Gan Mao Ling.” Yin Qiao contains some very cooling herbs, such as forsythia and honeysuckle, and therefore should only be taken for wind-heat. You can take up to 12 per day. Spacing the pills out evenly throughout the day is gentler on the stomach. Sucking them will have stronger effect, especially with a sore throat. Watermelon Frost is an additional formula, which comes as a powder, and is sprayed directly into the throat, to cool the pain.
Gan Mao Ling is neutral in temperature, and can be taken for wind-cold, wind-heat, or preventively, two or three at a time, when you are feeling vulnerable. Any shop that carries a few Chinese patent formulas will usually carry these formulas. Since it is difficult to be certain of the ingredients in Chinese-manufactured formulas, you may prefer to buy brands that have been packaged in the U.S.
Could it be something more serious?
A general rule of thumb is that a viral infection should resolve in 7 to 10 days. If a sore throat persists for a week, or your illness persists for longer than 10 days, see your doctor for advice. Strep throat can now be confirmed or ruled out in just a few minutes.