Cold & Flu Season: Treating Sniffles, Coughs, Sore Throats & Other Unpleasantries With Acupuncture & Chinese Herbs

by Rick DeTroye, LAc, MAcOM

Cold & Flu Season: Treating Sniffles, Coughs, Sore Throats & Other Unpleasantries With Acupuncture & Chinese Herbs,

There's a curious thing I've noticed about acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.  Many of us who use them for our health care discovered them because of their reputation for relieving pain.  That's definitely true for me.  In my case, I had chronic back pain due to a bulging disc and found that both acupuncture and Chinese herbs significantly reduced my discomfort, more so than any other method of treatment I had tried (and I had tried many).  What I wasn't aware of at the time was the wide variety of other ailments that could also be treated with acupuncture and Chinese herbs.  Fortunately, I saw a practitioner (thank you, Kyle Cline) who introduced me to the possibilities these methods offered for improving my overall health and for treating the many challenges my body would deal with in subsequent years.  One of the simplest, yet most helpful things I discovered was how effective these approaches are in treating the common cold and the flu.

During cold and flu season, I inevitably get phone calls from patients who are scheduled for an appointment, but have come down with one of the pesky bugs that are going around. They're often wondering whether they should come in for their treatment or not.  Sometimes they're feeling worse than lousy, can barely make it out of bed and would rather rest than muck their way through traffic for acupuncture.  I agree that there's a certain point of no return with colds & flu, when we know we need to rest and we realize that pushing our body to come in for a treatment will be more detrimental than doing nothing at all.  I always encourage people to stay home and rest in these cases.

However, many times the folks who call are in the early stages of getting sick. The major symptoms won't quite have taken hold and instead, they're dealing with a sore or scratchy throat, slight body aches, a mild headache, runny nose, and/or a fuzzy feeling in the head.  I always recommend that people come in if they're feeling like this because the best time to treat a cold or flu is at its earliest point of onset, i.e., when you first suspect that you're getting sick.  You want to nip it in the bud, so to speak, because once the bug has taken hold, there's usually no chance of loosening its grip and it's likely that you're in for the long haul.

In the earliest stages of colds and flu, herbs can be tremendously helpful, but you have to respond quickly with them.  In order to do this, I suggest that patients keep some sort of "early onset" cold and flu formula on hand.  There are a number of them out there, including Gan Mao Ling, Yin Qiao San (AKA Yin Qiao Jie Du Pian) and Seven Forests' Ilex 15.  I keep Ilex 15 on hand throughout the year and have bottles at home, at work, in my car and in my daypack.  That way, no matter where I am, I can take a few tablets at the very first signs of getting sick.  One trick to using these formulas successfully is to maintain adequate dosing: You have to use a large enough dose of the formula and take it frequently enough throughout the day to affect the cold/flu virus.  Since every body is different in size and constitution, the dosing that works for one person may not match the dosing that another person needs.  If in doubt about how much and how often to take one of these formulas, it's best to consult with a licensed acupuncturist (like me) who can provide you with that information.

In addition to proper dosing, another key to successfully using herbs is to take them long enough to ensure that the symptoms won't return.  I've seen people, including myself, take Ilex 15 for a day or two, start to feel better and stop taking the herbs, only to have a reoccurence of symptoms within a few days that is even more severe and more resistant to treatment.  One way to address this is to take the herbs for one to two days after the initial symptoms are gone.  So once the sore throat is gone, the head is not fuzzy, the aches and headaches have subsided, keep taking the formula for a couple of days, EVEN IF YOU FEEL 100% BETTER.

What about acupuncture?  Due to modern life's daily scheduling constraints, it won't always be possible for a person to get in for acupuncture at the first sign of symptoms.  However, If I have an open appointment and they can come in for it, I always recommend that a person get a treatment in the early stage of a cold or flu.  If it can't reverse the progression of an illness, a treatment can at least reduce its duration and severity, and help with the recovery.  Acupuncture strengthens the body's immunity by reducing sympathetic nervous response (i.e., stress), stimulating production of white blood cells, mobilizing the immune system's response to pathogens and strengthening the organs involved in the immune response.  When all of these functions are balanced and working optimally, the body is more capable of keeping invading viruses and bacteria in check.

For people who are prone to getting sick, I recommend that they come in prior to cold and flu season to begin strengthening their immune system. Immunity is a complex process that involves the nervous, digestive and respiratory systems.  Acupuncture is effective in improving the functions of all these systems, thereby bolstering the overall strength of the immune system.

There are times when, no matter what you do, you can't avoid getting sick. This happens for a couple of reasons.  In the first case, sometimes a person's immune system is weakened and doesn't have enough strength to fight the bug that's causing the illness.  Secondly, there are times when no matter how strong your immune system is, the bug is stronger.  In each of these cases, it's likely that a person will get sick, no matter how many herbs they take or Western medications they ingest.

So, let's say you do get sick.  Then what good is acupuncture or herbs?  Once again, the stronger the body is, the more likely it will move through an illness with minimal damage and complications.  The reverse of this happens when the immune system isn't strong enough to fight the initial infection and a secondary infection swoops in due to the vulnerability.  How many of us have had viral colds that very quickly morphed into bacterial sinus infections.  If our immunity had been stronger, would we have been able to fight off the cold and stay free of the secondary sinus infection?  Probably.  Two other scenarios which I often treat are a lingering cough after a chest cold and a cold or flu bug which the person "just can't seem to get over".  Both of these are instances in which acupuncture and/or Chinese herbs are extremely helpful and can promote a quick turnaround.

My introduction to the power of Chinese herbs in treating severe respiratory infections occured nearly 15 years ago.  My wife and I were in the midst of hunting for our first home, a stressful endeavor, to say the least.  I came down with an terribly sore throat that rapidly changed into a combination head and chest cold.  Fairly quickly, the infection settled in my lungs and I developed bronchitis with a barking, painful cough and lungs that literally crackled when I breathed.  The symptoms endured for a few days and I felt miserable.  Eventually, I went to see my friend, Kyle, who gave me the Chinese herbal formula Gua Lou Zhi Shi Tang/Trichosanthes & Zhi Shi Decoction.  Within hours of beginning the formula, my cough began to loosen, my chest was less painful and I could breath more easily.  After a couple of days, I was on the road to a rapid recovery.  If I'd had any doubts before that, I was now sold on the effectiveness of Chinese medicine.

It seems that cold and flu season is upon us.  I've seen folks with what I call "change of season" colds since early September and this past week I treated people with mild, lingering symptoms of scratchy throat, body aches and fatigue.  As the holidays take hold and November's rain and colder temperatures set in, many of us are bound to catch some sort of bug.  During times of stress (i.e., holidays) and seasonal change it's especially important to take care of ourselves by reducing stress, getting plenty of sleep, eating well, reducing sugar and, in general, supporting our bodies in ways that strengthen our immunity.  Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are two excellent ways of accomplishing that goal.  However, if the symptoms of colds or flu do make an appearance in your life, remember that early treatment and follow-up can help you move more quickly through your illness and back to feeling healthy.