About Lynn

lynn jaffeeLynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of the book, Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health, a clear and concise explanation of Chinese medicine for the lay person. She is co-author of the book, The BodyWise Woman, a personal health manual for physically active women and girls. Read more about Lynn...

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Chinese Medicine for the Common Cold

Ah choo!  It’s not a Chinese phrase, but it may mean that you’re coming down with a cold.  We’ve all had them.  You’re miserable, but not sick enough to stay home from work.  You think your runny nose is finally getting better, but then the whole thing sinks into your chest or you lose your voice.  You’re achy, your throat hurts, and you can’t sleep.  Life really bites when you have a cold.

So what does Chinese medicine have to offer in the way of cold relief?  Well, it really is true that there is no cure for the common cold.  But the Chinese do have some tools up their sleeve in the way of shortening the duration if you get a cold.

Your cold has some characteristics that help us acupuncturist determine how best to treat it.  First, a common cold is considered an illness of the exterior of your body.  This means that it’s fairly superficial compared to a deep-seated disease of, say, your kidneys or heart.  Your cold is also external because you caught it from some outside funkiness, like someone sneezing into your coffee or driving past a daycare center.

In Chinese medicine, your cold is considered a kind of wind.  Pathogens, or stuff that makes you sick, is a little like bad weather in your body.  You can have heat, cold, damp, and in the case of your cold, you have wind.  Wind tends to affect your upper body, with changeable symptoms that come and go, and those symptoms tend to move around—all characteristics of your average common cold.

So your cold is considered external wind.  But there’s more.  Here’s where some diagnostic skills come into play.  Your cold can be associated with symptoms of warmth or cold.  Warm symptoms include running a fairly high temperature, more fever than chills, a really sore throat, thirst, yellow phlegm when you cough or blow your nose, and painful or red eyes.  Cold or cool symptoms include clear phlegm when coughing or blowing, more chills than fever, a mild sore throat, losing your voice, and achiness that tends to move around.

Whether your cold is one of wind plus heat or wind plus cold, here are some things you can do using Chinese medicine to speed up your recovery:

  • Your first order of business is to sweat it out.  You can do this yourself on the first day or so if you catch it in time.  At home, make a broth of grated ginger and scallions (you can add chicken or vegetable broth), drink it down, bundle up, and go to bed and sweat. 
  • If your cold is the wind plus cold variety, you will want to warm things up and disperse the cold pathogen.  Common household herbs like cinnamon, basil, cayenne pepper, fennel, mustard seed, as well as ginger and scallions are warming and help relieve your symptoms and speed the duration of your cold.
  • In China, herbal formulas for wind and cold generally start with a combination of ephedra and cinnamon twig, plus other herbs depending on your symptoms.  However, in the United States, ephedra can no longer be used in herbal formulas, so your best bet is to talk to a practitioner who can prescribe the right formula for your symptoms.
  • If you’re unlucky enough to have a wind plus heat type of cold, the path to feeling better is cooling the heat and dispersing the warm pathogen.  Some cooling herbs that you may have around the house that can help include mint and chrysanthemum (probably as a tea).  The classic herbal formula for a wind heat kind of cold is called Yin Qiao San. 
  • You can also find teas or powders at your local Asian grocery store that contain the herb Ban Lan Gen (you may have to ask).  Ban Lan Gen has antibiotic and antiviral properties and also clears heat—a good choice, especially if you have a wind heat kind of cold (but it can be used for either).
  • Beyond treating wind heat or wind cold, you may also need some help if you have a cough, sinus congestion, and wheezing or congested lungs.  There are herbal formulas for all of these situations, but you’ll need a little guidance from your acupuncturist or practitioner of Chinese medicine.
  • Acupuncture can also be helpful in speeding a cold on its way.  Your practitioner would needle points to clear the pathogen from the exterior of your body, points to warm or cool as needed, and points to resolve your specific symptoms.

2 comments to Chinese Medicine for the Common Cold

  • Amanda

    This is a great article on Chinese Medicine and colds.

    I agree that Yin Qiao San is a great formula for wind heat. I take it at the first sign of a tickling or sore throat. This usually stops me from getting sick at all.

    Before Chinese Medicine, I got sick every other month or so. Since getting acupuncture and herbs, I have only been fully ill once in the last year.

    Another great formula is Cold Snap, it is more for wind cold and can be found at most natural grocery stores. This formula also helped me adapt to the altitude of Colorado when I moved here.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Lynn Jaffee

    Thanks, Amanda. Yes, Yin Qiao is best for wind heat and a wicked sore throat. Can you tell me who makes Cold Snap?