Traditional Chinese Medicine for the Cold & Flu Season

Winter is upon us and it appears that cold and flu season is in full swing. Taking good care of yourself at this time is important to ensure that your immune system stays strong and flexible.

During this season, I find myself treating many patients experiencing symptoms of the cold or flu. The main goal, of course, is to get them feeling well again so they can return to their their daily lives full of energy and resilience.

Following are some of the ways that I can support you with Traditional Chinese Medicine as we head into these colder months.

Understanding Cold and Flu from a TCM Perspective

Patients often ask me how I can help them when they have the flu. To begin with, let’s talk about how Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) looks at viral infections. The terms that we use to diagnose a virus are much different than what your western medical doctor uses.

Honestly, we are both saying the same thing but just using different terminology. If you’re a person who has never studied Chinese medicine, the language that your acupuncturist uses can be confusing at the least, or even seem downright archaic.

Wind Invasion


When diagnosing a flu or cold, we use the concept of having a “Wind” or a “Wind Invasion.”

A “Wind Invasion” in TCM is a description of how a virus comes from the outside, enters the body through an opening in the mucosal membrane, and then manifests changeable symptoms in the body that move from one location to another.

This is exactly how the wind behaves on a blustery day. It violently rustles the trees, blowing the leaves everywhere. As the wind increases or decreases it seems to be able to enter in and around even the tightest places moving from one location to another.

Similarly, when we have influenza, our symptoms may start with neck achiness and fatigue, then change to chills and a runny nose. A few days later you’re feeling feverish and have a sore throat. The earlier symptoms have been phased out as new symptoms manifest.

Wind-Heat and Wind-Cold

TCM doesn’t just stop there; when we diagnose someone with having “wind” we further specify his or her sickness as Wind-Heat or a Wind-Cold. As you might have thought, Wind-Heat is characterized by feeling more feverish than chilled. A fever can come on very quickly along with a sore throat, yellow or green nasal discharge, irritability and a flushed red face. You might even feel dry and want to drink a lot of cold water.

A Wind-Cold is also a cold or flu, but you’re having more chills than fever – feeling cold and achy, especially in the back of your neck, upper back, and sometimes low back and hips. This is accompanied by sniffles, clear mucous, and a raspy throat. You want to curl up, find a way to get warm and sleep.

Due to the changeability of a Wind Invasion, one can easily transform into the other. For example, a Wind-Cold can change into a Wind-Heat.

How We Treat Cold and Flu

Now that you understand how TCM looks at viral infections, let’s dive into how we help you feel better.

Balancing Qi

From a TCM perspective, acupuncture works by balancing and harmonizing qi (pronounced “chee”), or vital, life force energy. All pain, stress and disease occur when qi has been blocked and/or depleted in the body. By placing ultra-thin needles in specific points and meridians (pathways along the body that correspond with the nervous system) the stagnation and disharmony of the qi can be resolved.

A 2002, 2011, and 2012 study of acupuncture have shown that it stimulates the production of natural killer (NK) cells. NK cells are special white blood cells that inhibit viruses.

Relaxing the Mind and Body

It also helps relax the mind and body through the release of neurochemicals such as endorphins. Once relaxation occurs, our immune system’s ability to overcome infection and inflammation is optimized. When inflammation is decreased, the ability to breathe deeply is gradually restored and mucus production is reduced. As a result, oxygen intake improves.

This is important because the transport of oxygen through the lungs, heart, and blood is essential for cellular function, which is crucial for a robust immune system.

Therefore, whether you have a Wind-Cold or a Wind-Heat, coming in for an acupuncture treatment will greatly improve your chances for a quick recovery. Chinese herbal medicine is also very helpful in recovering from a Wind-Cold or Wind-Heat and is the best way to increase the effectiveness of a treatment when coupled with acupuncture.

Yin Qiao Wan, Gui Zhi Wan, Yu Ping Feng Wan and Gan Mao Ling

Yin Qiao Wan

If you have at least some familiarity with herbal medicine and supplements, you have probably heard of Yin Qiao Wan. The misunderstanding that I often hear about Yin Qiao Wan is that it is for any flu or cold. In fact, Yin Qiao is a formula designed specifically for a Wind-Heat in the first few days of feeling sick before a fever and other heat symptoms become stronger. If taken appropriately, it will relieve your sore throat, cool you down, and help “push” out that virus.

Gui Zhi Wan

If you have a Wind-Cold, are especially feeling achy (in your neck and shoulders) and a little depleted, Gui Zhi Wan might be a good option for you. This gently warming formula will help you break into a sweat and release the heaviness and discomfort you feel, especially if you take the formula and go wrap yourself up in blankets. It is also a great immune booster and will help you recover quicker.

Yu Pin Feng Wan

If you’re feeling run down and have been catching every cold and flu that comes around, but aren’t currently ill, then Yu Ping Feng Wan also known as Jade Screen Formula is a good choice. It addresses what is known as Wei Qi Deficiency – when your immune system is weakened from stress, environmental factors or from having just gotten over a sickness. This formula will assist in building your immunity and protecting you from catching the next bug. It can be taken for the entire flu season to give your immune system a boost so that flus and colds just pass you by.

Gan Mao Ling

And lastly, you can never go wrong with Gan Mao Ling, or Common Cold Effective Remedy. This formula is for the early stages of a Wind-Cold or a Wind-Heat with symptoms of a sore throat, chills and fever, runny nose, nasal congestion, cough and headache.

These herbal formulas are just a few of the many formulas from the Chinese Herbal Pharmacopeia that I offer to my patients during flu season.

Cupping and Gua Sha in Treating Symptoms

Besides acupuncture and herbal medicine, I often incorporate cupping and gua sha when treating a Wind Invasion. When cupping, a vacuum is formed inside glass cups which are then placed on the upper back and shoulders. This relieves the stagnation and tension caused by viral symptoms by bringing fresh blood into the area and helping to pull out or “release” the Wind-Cold or Wind-Heat from the body.

A study in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine stated that cupping can significantly lower the number of lymphocytes (white blood cells) in the local blood of the area where it is performed. Combining this with an increase in the number of neutrophils (immune system’s first line of attack), the result is reduced pain and discomfort. It is especially effective at treating cough, fever and body aches.

Gua sha is a technique where a soup spoon shaped ceramic, stone or wood tool is gently scraped over the surface of the skin. In treating a Wind-Cold or Wind-Heat, I focus gua sha treatments on the upper back, and back of the neck to open the area to “release” the viral infection. Like cupping, gua sha creates a flush of new blood and oxygen to relieve stagnation and tension.

Cupping and gua sha are also used for treating pain, scar tissue and injuries.

What You Can Do at Home

Taking care of yourself at home is always important. Too often, we try to ignore our symptoms and continue to work and play with the same amount of determination as usual. Dosing yourself with Vitamin C, eating bone broth-based soups, and making sure you’re practicing good sleep habits are all essential to wellness during the flu season.

Below are some wonderful home remedies to try including power drinks and food for flus and colds.

Ginger Tea (a delicious drink for flu season)

Ginger is a spicy, warming herb that focuses on the digestive system and the lungs. It is especially suited for when you’re feeling cold overall or have chills. Ginger is also effective in helping to relieve nausea and vomiting, or a cough with clear or white phlegm.
To make a cup of tea, cut 3-4 slices of fresh ginger and boil in 1-2 cups of water for 15-20 minutes. Strain and let cool a little before drinking. Enjoy!

Ginger and Onion Tea aka “Cong Chi Tang”

This is a simple and very effective home remedy if you catch a cold in the initial stages on the first day. It will help clear your head, warm you up, and kick out that cold!
To make this tea use 3 pieces of fresh ginger (with skin on) and 3 fresh scallions or green onion stalks. Place them in a pot with 2 cups of water and cook for 20 minutes Strain the liquid and drink warm.

Want to make this into a light soup? Just add some vegetables, such as carrots, celery and greens. It is a great way to get nutrients when your appetite is low.

When Should I Make an Appointment If I’m Ill?

And as soon as you begin feeling “under the weather,” call and make an appointment with your local acupuncturist. Don’t wait! I am always here to give effective treatments to support your wellness during the flu season and throughout the year. If you are looking for acupuncture or an acupuncturist in Denver feel free to contact me here.

Be well!

Looking for a Denver acupuncture clinic to help you with all of your general health, mental health, chronic pain, fertility, gynecological, facial acupuncture, or digestive needs?

Contact Wellnest Acupuncture + Holistic Medicine at 720.618.0770 or book an appointment online.

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