Any pregnant woman can attest: having a cold while pregnant is awful. You already can’t breathe normally, but yeah sure, let’s add a stuffy nose and a cough to the mix!
Of course you don’t have to be pregnant to be miserable with a cold and you certainly don’t have to be pregnant to be familiar with them. According to the CDC an adult will average 2-3 colds per year, each lasting an average of 7-10 days. Since the cold is caused by a virus you can’t take anything for it either – it’s just a matter of rest, fluids and waiting.
What if I told you that you could cut that in half? And that if you acted quickly enough you could even nip the disease in the bud before it even got annoying. And that all it would take is a trip to the grocery store?
Basics of colds and flus
The common cold is usually caused by a rhinovirus, though other viruses can also be at fault. Flus are caused by the virus influenza. It’s important to point out that antibiotics with never work for a virus – they are meant for URIs (upper respiratory infections) caused by or complicated by bacteria.
Adults get 2-3 colds per year and children tend to get even more of them. Each cold usually lasts about 7-10 days and according to this study result in 8.7 lost work hours per cold – a total productivity loss of $25 billion!
Cold and flu season is typically considered to be the winter and spring, but if you’ve ever had a “summer cold” you know that you can catch a cold at any point.
Symptoms usually include a “sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, headaches and body aches” according to the CDC. It should be noted that if you have a fever and fatigue you may have the flu and not a cold. There is a pretty useful comparison table here. Basically, if you have sneezing, stuffy nose and a sore throat you likely have a cold. If you have a fever, you’re really achy and tired and you have a headache you likely have the flu.
It’s important to involve your doctor if you have a compromised immune system or your child under three months has a fever. Colds and flus can be complicated by other conditions. Most will resolve on their own, but if symptoms persist past 10 days consider giving your primary care practitioner a call.
Colds and flus from a TCM perspective
Traditional Chinese Medicine doesn’t differentiate between colds and flus the same way Western medicine does. Instead, we divide symptoms into categories as opposed to trying to narrow down on the exact cause (influenza versus a rhinovirus.) For the purposes of this blog post I’m going to focus on the two most common categories I see in clinic but please note that there are a few more than I’m going to cover here.
The first category is what we refer to as wind cold. “Wind” we can understand as being the metaphorical category for things we contract from the outside. “Cold” describes the type of symptoms we’re seeing. (This will make more sense once I can compare the symptoms to wind heat.)
The symptoms for wind cold are:
- Feeling of not wanting to be cold, layering up abnormally
- Slight fever
- Joint pain
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Scratchy throat
- Cough with thin white phlegm
- “Choking cough”, possibly with white phlegm
The second category is wind heat and the symptoms are:
- Slightly chilled but not as bad as with wind cold
- Stronger fever
- Cough, possibly with yellow phlegm
- dry, sore or swollen throat
- Stuffy nose with yellow mucus
- Frequent coughing with heavy breathing
So here we see the differences between “cold” and “heat” rely mainly on three things:
- how cold you’re feeling
- how strong your fever is
- the color of your mucus
It can get a bit more complicated than this – nobody fits perfectly into a “pattern” diagnosis. You can present as mainly wind cold with some wind heat symptoms. Or have wind heat with symptoms of an underlying condition popping up. This is why it’s important to talk to an acupuncturist to get an appropriate diagnosis.
Looking for some TCM TLC?
The “Concoction” for the Common Cold
First off, I would like to point out I didn’t name this. I just call it “the soup” as in “would you like me to make you the soup, sweetie?” when my husband is sick. My husband is the one who calls it “the concoction” and he swears it is the cure for the common cold.
It’s a very customizable recipe that starts with four basic ingredients:
1 Green onion (cong bai)
1 clove Garlic (da suan)
1-2 thin slices Fresh ginger (sheng jiang), with peel
Broth (1 to 1.5 cups)
What you choose to put in after this and the broth you choose will depend on your TCM diagnosis and whether you’re leaning more towards heat or cold. If you stick with these four basics you have an excellent broth for wind cold. This is because green onion, garlic and ginger are all warm according to TCM food therapy. It’s interesting to note from the Western perspective that onion and garlic, both from the allium family, have antimicrobial and antiviral properties.
I tend to use chicken broth. Chicken is also warming and helps with overall energy and nourishing the body. If you are vegetarian or you are showing more signs of wind heat than wind cold vegetable broth would be an excellent option.
Possible additions include:
- Shredded and cooked chicken
- Potato or other veggies
Egg is a nice option to add for some protein that won’t change the “temperature” of the soup, meaning it would be good for either wind cold or wind heat.
Chicken would warm it up making it excellent for wind cold. Tofu would cool it down making it more appropriate for wind heat. The same goes for potato or other veggies you add – they would cool the soup down.
It can be a confusing concept at first but once you get the balancing act down it becomes more simple to choose the ingredients based off what you need.
All told it looks like this:
Three Herb Broth
This basic three herb broth is based in Chinese herbal medicine to help support you through your cold or flu recovery
- 1 Green onion (cong bai)
- 1 clove Garlic (da suan)
- 1-2 thin slices Fresh ginger (sheng jiang), with peel
- 1-1.5 cups Broth, chicken or vegetable (1 to 1.5 cups)
- water or additional broth, the more ingredients you add, the more broth you’ll need
- Cooked and shredded chicken, Egg or Tofu (optional)
- Potato or veggies (optional)
Prepare herbs. Slice or mince the garlic or ginger depending on your taste. I tend to slice them. I also tend to eat the garlic so I don’t mind. When cutting the green onion make sure to use the whole thing – the white bulb and the roots are actually the most important part. Divide the green onion into two piles – one with the bottom half of the green onion and one with the top. If you are not going to want to eat the herbs put the bottom half of the green onion, the ginger and the garlic in a tea ball or a tied off coffee filter.
Bring your broth to a boil. If you are choosing to add vegetables do it now and cook them until they are tender. If you are choosing to add egg, beat 1 egg in a cup and set aside.
Once your veggies are tender, add your tofu prepared how you like (I admit, I’ve never cooked with tofu so preparation here is up to you) or your shredded chicken.
Add your herbs and simmer. You only need to do this for 5 minutes. Overcooking the herbs destroys the volatile oils that are antiviral/antimicrobial.
If you are adding egg, stir into mixture and let simmer for 1 minute.
Serve in a mug or soup bowl and top with remaining green onion.
Some final notes
The soup is fairly bland. It’s meant to be – the only flavors are coming from the herbs and foods we put in for a reason. Remember that any changes you make to it alter its purpose. But bland food when you can’t taste anything is usually fine anyway.
If you need more than one serving then multiply the recipe by how many servings you need. Since I’m only making this once or twice I tend to make it only “as needed” but if you have a sick family or are packing some along for work it may be helpful to make more.
Remember that if your pattern diagnosis is off this may not be as handy a recipe as it could be. This is why it’s important to talk to an acupuncturist or a TCM herbalist first.
And finally, colds and flus are usually harmless. But they can become serious. If your cold or flu lasts longer than ten days, you have a fever over 100.4 or the symptoms seem abnormally severe call your primary care provider. If you’re caring for a family member under 3 months of age and they have a fever call their pediatrician.
Take care of yourselves and I hope this blog helps you through the upcoming cold and flu season.
Need a little help with your cold or flu?
Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Resources and Links
Impact of the common cold on productivity
Comparison of a cold and the flu
Garlic: a review of potential therapeutic effects
Check out this blog post for answers to some frequently asked acupuncture questions
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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