Your nose is running, your eyes are tearing and your throat is so sore, it hurts to cough. In other words, you feel miserable.
The good news is, you’ll recover – but it could take anything from a few days to two weeks, depending on whether you have the common cold or the flu.
Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) generally agree on the causes and symptoms of colds and flus. Both respiratory diseases are caused by viruses – albeit different ones – and caught by inhaling the infected air droplets of a sick person. Where a cold and flu differs are in the severity and duration of symptoms.
In a common cold, the upper respiratory tract – the nose and throat – is infected. Symptoms tend to be milder than for the flu and include a runny nose, sore throat, cough, tearing and sneezing. It is usually resolved within a week. The flu, meanwhile, is caused by a variety of the influenza virus, and attacks the respiratory system, which runs from the nose and throat to the bronchial tubes and lungs. Flu symptoms tend to develop more quickly, are usually more severe, and take longer to resolve.
TCM practitioners believe that the external pathogens that cause both the common cold and the flu are brought by the changing seasons, and generally fall in six groups: Wind, Heat, Dampness, Fire, Dryness and Cold. These pathogens – which can occur singly or together during a given season or in a given environment – battle with the protective Qi (also known as Zhengi or immunity) of the body. When a person’s protective Qi is weak, they are more vulnerable to the pathogen attacking, and more likely to fall sick. Battling the cold or flu effectively, therefore, involves strengthening protective Qi against these pathogens.
For both the common cold and flu, the most common pathogen patterns are Wind-Heat, Wind-Cold and Dampness.
A holistic view to treatment
The TCM approach is holistic – which means that in addition to traditional therapies, treatment will often include diet and lifestyle changes as well. In the case of the common cold or the flu, TCM recommends that you:
Fortify your Immune System
TCM believes that when your protective Qi is in balance, your body’s natural resistance against diseases and its healing ability are at their optimum. The rule of thumb is therefore to remove any excesses and replenish deficiencies so that Yin and Yang are in balance, and the health of the body maintained. Among the Chinese herbs widely used to reinforce Qi and fortify the immune system are Astragalus Root (Huangqi, 黄芪), Solomon’s Seal Rhizome (Huangjing, 黄精), Codonopsis Root (Dangshen, 党参), Ginseng (Renshen, 人参), Ganoderma Mushroom (Lingzhi. 灵芝) and Cordyceps (Dongcongxiacao, 冬虫夏草).
Get Adequate Rest
A proper work-rest balance is crucial for your body to recharge and maintain its internal harmony. Get sufficient rest to help keep your body’s function at its optimum.
Stress is a lifestyle factor that may trigger illness. Adequate physical exercise, rest, diet, acupuncture and Chinese herbs can all play a part in relieving stress.
Have a Proper Diet
Eating too much greasy, sweet, chilled or raw foods can lead to a stagnation of Qi, which in turn can cause illness, pain or severe imbalances in the body. Eat healthily to promote healthy digestion.
Moderate exercise can help promote a smooth flow of Qi and Blood. Workouts such as Tai chi are believed to be helpful in generating, storing and reinforcing Qi in the body.
Patterns of Disharmony
The symptoms that an individual displays reflect both the strength of his protective Qi and the nature of the attacking pathogen or pathogens. Two people with the same cold in the same household can therefore have different symptoms.1 Having said that, certain patterns of pathogens tend to be more frequent at specific times of the year.
- Wind-Heat Pattern
Cold and flu symptoms caused by Wind and Heat pathogens tend to be more prevalent during the spring and summer, and in areas with a tropical climate. Patients tend to have a high body temperature, a slight aversion to the wind, difficulty sweating, a sore throat and turbid nasal discharge with yellowish phlegm.
- Wind-Cold Pattern
Wind and Cold pathogens cause symptoms that are commonly seen during the winter months or in a cool or cold environment. They include a severe aversion to cold, a slight increase in body temperature, no sweating, a runny nose with clear nasal discharge, a cough with clear mucus, congestion in the chest area, sneezing, and an itchy throat.
- Dampness Pattern
Individuals with a cold or flu caused by Dampness pathogens will feel hot but have no significant increase in body temperature. Other symptoms include constant thirst with mild sweating, fatigue, lethargy and an occasional tightness in the chest area. While this information provides a general idea of the flu or cold you may have, it is always advisable to consult with a licensed TCM physician so your condition can be accurately diagnosed.
Beyond Treating Symptoms
Although Western and Chinese medicine agree on the causes and common symptoms of colds and flus, they differ on their treatment. Conventional treatment for both the common cold and flu currently targets symptoms. A doctor may, for example, prescribe antipyretics, antihistamines and antitussives to relieve fevers, runny noses and coughing, respectively. Sometimes, a doctor might prescribe antivirals, like Tamiflu.
In TCM, the goal of treatment is to strengthen the body’s protective Qi. This is done by removing any excesses and replenishing deficiencies that are affecting its yin-yang balance. In a Wind-Cold attack, for example, herbs and/or acupuncture can help eliminate Wind and dispel Cold, while simultaneously treating a runny nose or stiff neck.2
Physicians treat each case of the cold or flu individually. As such, therapies prescribed for two cases of the flu may differ according to the condition of the patients’ protective Qi and whether the symptoms indicate a predominance of Wind, Heat, Cold, or other pathogens.
TCM thus takes a more proactive role in treating colds and flus, looking beyond relieving symptoms to restoring the body’s protective Qi’s so its natural resistance and healing ability are back in form. A number of herbs — including Astragalus root, Solomon’s Seal rhizome and Cordyceps — are commonly used to reinforce Qi.
1 Blalack, J. (2010). The Treatment of Colds and Flu with Chinese Medicine. Retrieved from Chinese Herbs- Acupuncture, Functional Medicine Website: http://www.chinesemedicinedoc.com/the-treatment-of-colds-and-flu-with-chinese-medicine/
2 Swierzewski, S. J. (2015, September 8). Traditional Chinese Medicine Treatment for Colds & Flu. Retrieved from Remedy's Health Communities Website: http://www.healthcommunities.com/common-cold/alternative-medicine/tcm-treatments-colds-and-flu.shtml