I began writing this post a couple of weeks ago, feeling pretty smug and self-righteous that I hadn’t caught the cold that everyone around me was sporting. Most people I knew weren’t flat out sick, but as their cold progressed, it dropped down and became a chest thing, and they were dealing with a big loopy cough that lasted a good four to six weeks.
Then over the holidays, I caught a cold, or what I would describe as a shadow of a cold. I wasn’t really sick, but felt a little under the weather. I got The Cough, but only for about a week. So yep, I caught a cold, and now I’m not feeling quite as smug. However, I believe that what I had didn’t blossom into a full-fledged cold/flu event because of the precautions I took.
There is never a good time to catch a cold—it won’t kill you, but you’re miserable nonetheless. Not only do you feel bad, but it takes all of your attention just dealing with it. It’s hard to concentrate on much else when your nose is running, your body aches, your throat feels like sandpaper, and you have a cough that sounds like fog horn.
The reality is that you’re exposed to viruses and bacteria on a daily basis that can give you a whopper of a cold or the flu. And yet, unless you’re really unlucky or your immune system isn’t doing its job, you don’t get every bug that’s going around. Most of the time, you catch a cold or the flu when your energy is low, you’re stressed out, or when you’re overwhelmed. I believe that most people can feel when they’re about to get a cold, and in many cases have a day or so to fight it off.
In Chinese theory, your immune system works something like a protective bubble, or barrier. When you get sick, it’s either because that protective bubble is weak or the pathogen was particularly strong. Either way, dealing with the common cold in Chinese medicine is all about keeping your external bubble strong enough to ward off invaders from the outside.
In Chinese medicine, the strategy for avoiding a cold is to keep your protective barrier strong by keeping your energy strong. If you are fighting off a cold however, the strategy changes to one of keeping the cold from going deeper and making you really sick. If you do that successfully, you may be able to rebound with just a scratchy throat instead of getting the full-blown, coughing, hacking, runny nose event.
The good news is that there are ways to up your chances of staying healthy in the face of the common cold. Here are some of my best strategies for fighting off a cold if you feel one coming on, as well as some things you can do to feel a little better if you happen to get one.
-The classic Chinese remedy to fight off a cold is to have some broth with chopped scallions and grated ginger, then go to bed and sweat it out. (A hot shower or sauna will also do the trick) Both scallions and ginger are hot herbs, that help fight off a cold in the very early stages. Furthermore, this remedy is seriously delicious!
-If you’re beginning to feel a cold coming on, rest. It sounds simple, but your body is using energy to fight this thing off, so give it a hand. In addition, your body heals when you rest, so if you think you can power through and avoid getting the cold, in most cases you’ll lose.
-Think about using Chinese herbs. There are a number of formulas that can be effective, depending on what you have going on. One classic, Yin Chiao, is based on an ancient formula and is good for treating symptoms that involve a very sore throat and high fever. However, there are others are better for drying up phlegm, resolving congested sinuses, and dealing with a cough. My best advice is to work with a practitioner who is credentialed in Chinese herbs to prescribe the best combination for your particular symptoms.
-Try zinc. The research on zinc suggests that it can shorten the duration of your cold by a day or two. I have found zinc to be effective in fighting off a cold if you take it soon enough—within the first 24 hours of feeling symptoms. Zinc has anti-viral properties, so at the first blush of a slimy sore throat, I start taking a little zinc, and in most cases can avoid a full-blown cold. A few precautions with zinc: it can upset your stomach, so take it with food and never more than about 25 mg at a time. Furthermore, zinc can mess with your sense of smell, so avoid nasal preparations containing zinc.
-Drink tea. Pushing tea is a good strategy whether you have a cold or are fighting one off. Warm liquids help soothe your throat and loosen phlegm so it can drain. A couple of good choices are Throat Coat by Traditional Medicinals and Breathe Deep, made by Yogi. Both brands include a good combination of herbs to soothe a sore throat, help open your sinuses, and strengthen your lungs.
-Ditch the cough. I recommend Loquat and Fritillary cough syrup that can be found at most Asian groceries, herbal pharmacies, or through your acupuncture practitioner. It calms your cough and has herbs to dry up the phlegm that’s causing it. However, in a pinch, if I don’t have any cough syrup, I will use lemon juice and honey in hot water or tea.
Over the course of my most recent cold, I took zinc, lots of Chinese herbs, did the ginger and scallion thing, drank my fair share of tea, and took Loquat and Fritillary cough syrup. What I ended up with was sort of a cold, where I wasn’t actually sick, but was constantly on the verge of being there for about a week. I credit Chinese medicine for keeping me on this side of being really miserable.