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How Traditional Chinese Treated a Cold

Modern people treat a minor cold by taking Panadol cold caplets.  Treating more serious colds involves the use of antibiotics, antihistamines, or expectorants. Panadol is a pain reliever containing paracetamol, commonly used as the first-line of treatment for colds and readily available in drug stores. In cases of a bacterial infection, antibiotics are added in, while antihistamines are prescribed for mucus or phlegm. Patients who suffer a viral infection, but haven’t developed severe complications rely heavily on analgesics to relieve their symptoms. The above are modern basic steps for treating a cold. Complications from the common cold are numerous and should be treated properly. The modern treatment of a cold is completely different from that in ancient times. A cold was referred to as a “wind-injury” by the ancient

Modern people treat a minor cold by taking Panadol cold caplets.  Treating more serious colds involves the use of antibiotics, antihistamines, or expectorants.

Panadol is a pain reliever containing paracetamol, commonly used as the first-line of treatment for colds and readily available in drug stores. In cases of a bacterial infection, antibiotics are added in, while antihistamines are prescribed for mucus or phlegm. Patients who suffer a viral infection, but haven’t developed severe complications rely heavily on analgesics to relieve their symptoms. The above are modern basic steps for treating a cold.

Complications from the common cold are numerous and should be treated properly. The modern treatment of a cold is completely different from that in ancient times. A cold was referred to as a “wind-injury” by the ancient Chinese. Traditional Chinese medicine views the common cold as an invasion of wind. Wind, which belongs to the element wood (based on the five essential elements that make up the universe: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) is considered the leading culprit of all diseases. Wind, characterized by being moveable and changeable, tends to move upward. That is, the upper respiratory system is less resistant to bacterial infection and easily develops symptoms, like a stuffy nose, a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, or phlegm. However, sometimes cold symptoms may progress quickly and should then be carefully dealt with to prevent a patient developing complications, like chronic pharyngitis, chronic coughing, or even a kidney infection and enteritis.

Cold Colds and Heat Colds

Ancient Chinese divided colds into cold colds and heat colds. In traditional Chinese medicine, there are six climatic evils that lead to an illness: wind, cold, summer heat, dampness, dryness, and fire. Wind often combines with heat, “wind-heat,” or with cold “wind-cold” depending on the weather, and such winds trigger symptoms of colds. Cold colds caused by “wind-cold” produce sneezing, a runny nose, coughing with thin liquid in the throat. In this case, firstuse  foods, like ginger, brown sugar, scallions, and fermented soybeans, to fight the cold and coughs. Extracts of cinnamon twigs and Ephedra sinica have long been used to drive away colds also.

Cold symptoms, however, may vary greatly. Most colds begin as a wind-cold invasion and may progress into wind-heat, but the development of symptoms is associated with one’s physical constitution. An individual’s constitution is influenced by congenital and acquired factors and thereby differs from person to person.

Traditional Chinese medicine classifies the human body into cold and hot types. For a person with a hot physical constitution, an invasion of wind-cold will develop into wind-heat, while for a person with a cold physical constitution, an invasion of wind-cold will remain wind-cold. The transformation of wind-cold to wind-heat may take a few minutes or several hours. The main manifestations of wind-heat are a sore throat, thirst, coughing with thin or sticky sputum. To disperse exterior pathogens and release the exterior syndrome, doctors will prescribe superficies-releasing medicinal herbs, like the Japanese Honeysuckle, Weeping Forsythia, Peppermint, Great Burdock Achene, Bamboo leaves, or Reed Rhizome.

A cold a with summer-heat-damp syndrome is common in the summertime. Such a common cold is caused by an invasion of wind-cold, when one lies on the icy ground or has too much icy food. Its manifestations are sneezing, nasal congestion and sometimes a little coughing. In the summer, excess amounts of icy food, like watermelons or pears, will lead to abdominal bloating, poor digestion, a thick and white tongue coating,which are symptoms caused by the climatic ills of summer heat and dampness. Xiangru Decoction is a typical formula for patients with both exterior symptoms and summer dampness in their bodies. Ingredients of the decoction are Xiangru, magnolia bark, and hyacinth bean. Also named “summer ephedra” with its effect similar to and its power weaker than ephedra, the herb Xiangru, or Herba Elsholtziae in English, is used as a treatment for a common cold in the summer.

Magnolia bark and hyacinth bean help with digestive disturbances. Magnolia bark, a highly aromatic herbal material obtained from Magnolia officinalis, is mainly used for the stagnation of qi, while hyacinth bean, the seed of the plant Lablab purpureus, strengthens the spleen-stomach and eliminates dampness. The formula points out one fact: A summer cold can be easily cured by dispersing pathogenic wind-cold and strengthening the digestive system. There are also some other formulas effective in removing internal heat and poison and thereby relieving the symptoms.

Apart from cold colds and heat colds, there are also colds caused by wind-cold ills and wind-heat ills. For instance, a patient with a runny and stuffy nose coughs with clear phlegm, but suffers from a sore throat, thirst, and feels restless. It is a cold affected by exterior cold and interior heat.

Symptomatic Treatment

Gua sha (scraping), a traditional Chinese medical treatment in which skin is scraped to produce light bruising, is also used for treating a cold. Under the influence of summer heat, one feels dizziness, a headache, exhaustion, numbness in the neck and shoulders. To release and disperse summer heat and pathogens, the easiest way is to give some scraping to the neck and shoulders, since there are numerous meridians around the neck and shoulders. More serious and purple bruises may be left on the skin of a patient affected by more interior heat, so as to disperse the invasion of heat and  relieve  the cold symptoms.

If a patient suffers a lasting cold with pathogenic causes remaining inside and symptoms of sneezing, a runny nose, and coughing with clear phlegm, these are manifestations of weaker wei qi and weaker spleen, lungs and kidneys. Wei qi (protective qi), is a kind of qi regulated by the lungs and flows between the skin and muscles to guard against invasions of climatic ills. In this case, some herbal tonics should be prescribed to help restore the patient’s health. Shen Su Yin (Ginseng & Perilla Combination) is an effective formula in this case to alleviate invasions of climatic ills and to strengthen one’s immune system. Ingredients of the formula are,ginseng root, balloon flower root, and licorice root.

An invasion of wind can be highly pathogenic, causing a high fever in a human body. Even without manifestations of sneezing, a runny nose, or a sore throat, a patient may soon have a hard time breathing and develop complications. This is a virus which can be spread quickly to a whole village or the community along a whole street, causing a high death rate. Such a virus may develop various symptoms, but the most direct method is to relieve the symptoms with the use of anti-viral herbs. With their efficacy to disperse heat and counteract poison, anti-viral herbs are as following: Indigowoad Leaf, Indigowoad Root, Japanese Honysuckle Flower Bud, Weeping Forsythia Fruit, Mongolian Dandelion Herb, and Baikal Skullcap Root.

A Balancing Approach

The ancient Chinese took a balanced approach to curing a cold. That is, in case of an invasion of heat, remove the heat; in case of an invasion of cold, disperse the cold; in case of weaker flow of energy, strengthen the flow of energy. Thhe human body then will be in a balanced state so as to recover from a cold more quickly.

Modern treatment is a far cry from ancient treatments. Modern treatments are symptom-oriented. Antibiotics are apparently effective in fighting against infections caused by bacteria, but a cold is mostly caused by viruses. A bacterial inflammation is a syndrome or a set of complications that will usually lead to a comparatively serious flu or viral infection with a lasting high fever or resistant syndromes. Antibiotics are useless in such a case since there is no attack from bacteria. Instead, viruses are the troublemaker that weakens the human immune system. Traditional Chinese medicine thinks an imbalance between cold and heat, between yin and yang will lead to serious ailments.

For a lasting high fever, Mongolian Dandelion Herb and Houttuynia Cordata aid in removing heat and counteracting poison, particularly useful for a high fever caused by viral pneumonia. For a lasting coughwith little phlegm, almonds and Loquat leaves can be used for regulating the lungs and alleviating coughing.

Traditional Chinese medicine adopts a more comprehensive and health-enhancing approach to treating a cold. Such a traditional focus on the balance between a human body and the environment remains an inspiration for modern people.


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