The common cold comes in two main forms in traditional Chinese medicine, which could be interpreted as types of viruses – Wind Cold and Wind Heat. The symptoms are different in each case. But crucially the virus or pathogen, as it is known in Chinese Medicine, is seen as gradually penetrating the body from the outside to the inside, if a person’s immune system or Wei Qi is weak or the pathogen particularly strong. Occasionally, the pathogen can go straight to the interior without being slowed by the surface defences, for people with compromised immune systems. Prompt treatment is required to dislodge the pathogen and this is most successful when it lurks in the exterior.
Knowing the type of pathogen and where it lurks tells us how to deal with it.
These are the most common. This type of cold will be of sudden onset affecting the skin, nasal passages and lungs (stuffy head/runny nose) and can be accompanied by simultaneous fever and chills, joint and muscle pain, stiff neck and shoulders or headaches. This is the time to purge, usually if the person is strong enough by sweating. If this does not happen, then the pathogen becomes established in the interior and more chronic.
Purging Pathogens from the Exterior
Herbs and foods taken during this acute phase of the illness must be ones that open pores on the skin and are expansive and reach to towards the periphery of the body.
East much less food – if fevers predominate eat more fruit or vegetable juices (many of these are seen as cooling). Whereas if chills predominate eat vegetable soups with grains. At this stage avoid strongly inward foods such as ginseng, miso or animal products which can prolong the illness by causing the pathogen to go deeper into the body. Sweet foods and stimulating caffeinated drinks will prolong the illness too. Tonifying herbs, such as ginseng, are avoided at this stage because they are seen as feeding the pathogen, so making it stronger – which is not want you want! If you are taking these herbs, stop during the acute phase of the cold. These are best taken when you are well to strengthen your immunity.
Use sweating therapy – but this is not for the very weak and with symptoms such as nightsweating, red face, dry skin or emaciated. Such people will require warming and nourishing foods to build their immune system.
Sweating procedure – drink a cup or more of hot herbal tea (good herbs to use are fresh ginger root, peppermint, cayenne red pepper, chamomile, elder flowers, angelica – adding a good quality honey and lemon helps the taste, as does a few sprigs of thyme). Take a hot bath or shower, drink more tea, and then cover in blankets and sweat. You can also add fresh thyme to your bath or thyme essential oil mixed with an oil carrier or shampoo, which will evaporate in the steam. Try to breathe in for 15 minutes. Thyme is strong antiviral oil; but never apply neat to the skin as this can burn or irritate the skin. Do not sweat to the point of exhaustion, and change damp bedding (important in Chinese Medicine not linger in cool damp bedding!) and rest.
Chinese herbs and acupuncture
Chinese herbs and acupuncture used at this stage are aimed at “opening the pores or exterior to expel the Wind” which is carrying the pathogen. Consideration will be given to whether the cold is described as due to Wind Cold or Wind Heat depending on the symptoms. In the case of Heat a sore throat with unproductive cough or scanty, yellow-green mucus is generally seen with a strong thirst and fever more prominent. In the case of Wind Cold, we see more coughing with clear mucus and sinus congestion, and chills.
Chinese herbs will be altered by the practitioner as your symptoms change, as too will be your acupuncture prescription. Acupuncture needles are typically inserted in points along the lung and large intestine channels of the arms and across the upper chest. The most important acupuncture point in treating the common cold is Large Intestine 4 or Hegu “Joining Valley”, which is located in the web between the thumb and index finger. This point is very effective for this condition, since it suppresses pain and relieves exterior conditions. This point can be stimulated to cause a person to sweat.
Once the acute stage of the cold passes, you can then gradually introduce your usual foods to build your strength. By following these simply guidelines, the cold should be of shorter duration and not linger to precipitate more chronic symptoms.