Prevention and Treatment Of Colds & Flu

Over the centuries, traditional medical practitioners have used herbs to ward off infections and relieve cold and flu symptoms. But which of these herbs are most effective? Most appropriate? Most safe? Which are used to prevent colds and flu and which relieve symptoms? Hopefully, I’ll answer some of these questions from a Chinese medicine perspective and provide some general guidelines for prevention and relief of cold and flu symptoms.

Preventing Common Colds & Flu

In Chinese medicine, prevention of colds and flu is addressed by tonifying the organ system (the physical and energetic aspects of the organ) most affected by what are called in the medicine, “external wind attacks” (e.g., wind cold attack or wind heat attack). In the case of colds and flu, that would be the Lungs. Additionally, those organ systems that help build a person’s defense against external attacks will be strengthened. That would include those organs that contribute to building the immune system including the Lungs, Spleen and Kidneys (perhaps, even the Liver). Lastly, if a person has pre-existing conditions that are exacerbated by contracting a cold or flu, such as asthma or other respiratory diseases, correcting imbalances in those areas will also be addressed.

The best time to start preventive measures is long before the cold/flu season. For most people, that would be in early fall. However, it’s never too late to start a prevention program. For some people it would be advisable to start a prevention program in August. Such cases would be those with respiratory diseases, compromised immune systems, and those who have a history of easily contracting colds or flu.

What would be a prevention program? That depends on the individual. Chinese medicine treats each person individually with a program specifically tailored to that person’s needs. For example, a person who tends to get colds that include a cough with a great deal of phlegm probably has an underlying Lung deficiency and damp condition. A prevention program would include strengthening the Lungs, transforming phlegm and tonifying the Spleen (in Chinese medicine, the Spleen is responsible for the transformation of fluids in the body). This would be different from the person whose asthma (trouble breathing in) is exacerbated during a cold. This person’s Lungs and Kidneys would be strengthened.

What would a prevention program include? The best approach is a holistic one. That would include herbal therapy and/or acupuncture, dietary changes and lifestyle changes geared specifically to correcting the individual’s imbalances.

But what happens if you missed the chance to get on a holistic prevention program? There are still measures an individual can follow on his/her own. Most, but not all of the following, are from Chinese medicine.

  1. Keep out of drafts.
  2. Keep the back of the neck protected from cold, wind, and drafts.
  3. Keep from getting chilled.
  4. Get adequate rest and relaxation.
  5. Keep away from sick people.
  6. Wash hands frequently.
  7. Regularly disinfect places such as doorknobs, phones, kitchen counters and cutting boards.
  8. Refrain from foods and substances that weaken the immune system (or weaken an individual’s imbalances) such as alcohol, refined sugar, dairy products, processed foods, greasy foods, raw foods (particularly in restaurants), fast foods. Also, reduce intake of salt.
  9. Strengthen the immune system with herbs. These may include ginseng, andrographis, astragalus, cordyseps. Herbs are very effective and powerful in preventing disease. However, certain herbs may be harmful for certain individuals. It would be advisable to consult with a qualified practitioner before taking any of these herbs on a regular basis even though they can easily be purchased in health food stores. Also, you will need the advice of a practitioner on the effective and safe dosage to use. Some herbs act on the body very differently in different dosages. For instance, astragalus affects blood pressure: it will either lower it or raise it, depending on dosage. Also, there are different types of ginseng, some of which may not be safe for the individual. For instance, red panax ginseng may be harmful to those with high blood pressure. Also, there is no single herbal formula that can be used safely by everyone. A well-known Chinese herbal formula , Yin Qiao San, is frequently recommended by health food stores for preventing cold. However, this formula can be very effective at the very onset of a cold ONLY if cold symptoms include signs of heat (such as sore throat, colored sputum or nasal discharge). It can make a person worse if the symptoms are of a cold nature (such as runny, clear nasal discharge). Additionally, Yin Qiao San is NOT to be used for more than 3 days, thus making it not an advisable formula for prevention.
  10. Use a saline solution a few times a week to irrigate the sinus passages.

Treatment Of Colds & Flu

If symptoms of a cold are just starting, here are some suggestions you can follow without the need of a practitioner: Use a saline solution to irrigate the sinus passages if the nose is beginning to run or get stuffy.

  1. Use the solution to gargle with if a sore throat is starting.
  2. Eat miso soup with lots of green onions in it. Be sure, however, to reduce salt intake with other foods since salt can drive a pathogen down into the interior.
  3. Stop using herbs and supplements that fortify the body otherwise you will be also fortifying the pathogen.
  4. Take a hot bath that causes you to sweat. Drink some warming, hot tea before and after the bath. Wrap up in blankets immediately after the bath to continue the sweating and keep from getting a chill. When sweating stops, replace with dry clothes.
  5. Get rest; keep away from sick people; wash your hands frequently; don’t eat raw, cold, greasy, or processed foods; don’t drink alcohol; keep out of drafts. Reduce intake of sugar and salt.

If you have the tendency to get colds easily, have a compromised immune system or can’t do the above suggestions, consult a Chinese medicine practitioner for an appropriate herbal formula for your set of symptoms. Each person presents with a different set of symptoms and must be treated accordingly. As there is no one single pattern for the common cold (some examples of different patterns includes: wind cold attack, wind heat attack with phlegm obstructing the lungs, wind attack with underlying spleen deficiency, etc), there is no single herbal formula for the treatment of a cold. Each person is different. Using the wrong formula may be harmful. Additionally, cold symptoms change quickly and the formula must be modified or changed quickly to be effective and prevent the pathogen from going into the interior and causing complications.

If symptoms of a cold or flu have taken hold, best is to consult a practitioner of Oriental medicine for the most appropriate treatment for the fastest relief and avoidance of complications. The practitioner will be able to determine the nature of the condition: external (pathogen is still on the surface), internal (pathogen has gone deeper into the body) or combination of external and internal. For each situation, a different treatment will be designed, taking into account the overall constitution of the individual.

Other suggestions include:

  1. Eat much less, and use a more simple, liquid-based diet such as vegetable or grain soup if chills predominate over the fever. If the fever predominates, fruit or vegetable juices (room temperature) or fresh fruits are a better alternative.
  2. Use the sweating therapy described above unless there is severe weakness or lack of yin fluids (dryness, fast and thin pulse, fresh red cheeks or tongue, and/or night sweats). If the sweating is ineffective, drink teas of either fresh ginger root or cinnamon twig (not bark) and eat grain and vegetable-leek soup.
  3. Include the following foods in the diet: cabbage with hearts, green peppers with their insides, parsley, carrots, broccoli, turnips, kuzu (especially if there is stiff or painful upper back or neck). If chills predominate; parsnips, horseradish, scallions, garlic. If fever predominates; lemon juice, grapefruit, most fruits. If there are strong signs of heat or a great deal of mucus or phlegm, consult a Chinese health practitioner for specific guidelines.

Colds and flu are generally self-limiting (meaning they will resolve on their own without complications) for most people. However, they are uncomfortable and cause us to lose productive time. Chinese medicine is very effective in helping us get through the illness quickly and preventing the cold or flu into developing into more serious or more uncomfortable conditions.