Is there a cure for the common cold? Not yet, either here or in China. But Chinese medicine offers an effective way of treating the common cold, one that dramatically reduces its duration and severity.
If a cold is treated in its initial stage—when one is just starting to feel out-of-sorts—an acupuncture treatment and dose of herbs can stop the cold from progressing, and the person should feel fine in about a day, provided he or she has a normally functioning immune system. If, however, treatment isn't received right away, then the cold will have to pass through its normal stages. In this case, acupuncture and herbal medicine will support the immune system in such a way that the progression will occur with much less discomfort.
The term "common cold" is actually a misnomer. There are, in fact, different kinds of colds with different symptoms. In order to understand how Chinese medicine explains the common cold, we must realize it is a system of energy medicine. To the ancient Chinese, everything in the universe is a manifestation of energy, called qi. According to Chinese medicine, the symptoms of the common cold appear when there is a struggle between the "correct" qi of the body and "pathogenic" qi. The effect of pathogenic qi on the body was described metaphorically in terms derived from nature. Chinese medical books describe six types of pathogenic qi—wind, heat, cold, dampness, dryness and summer heat. The first three are most important for understanding the common cold. The clinical manifestations of the pathogenic factors mimic the actions of their counterparts in nature. Wind arises quickly and changes rapidly. It moves swiftly, blows intermittently, and sways the tops of trees. In the body, it creates symptoms that come on suddenly, change rapidly, move from place to place, and affect the top of the body first. Wind carries things in nature, such as leaves or dust, and in Chinese medicine, it is often the vehicle through which cold and heat invade the body.
When cold combines with wind, a person will have chills and fever, but the chills will predominate. There may be sneezing, cough, and runny nose with white, watery mucus. When heat combines with wind, there will also be chills and fever, but the fever will predominate. The throat will most likely be red and sore, and mucus will be thicker due to the drying action of heat. Often, a cold will start as a wind-cold invasion and then will transform into wind-heat within a couple of days, though it may also begin as wind-heat. If allowed to progress, both of these conditions may transform into another presentation, called phlegm-heat in the lungs, which is characterized by coughing and the copious production of thick yellow sputum. At other times, wind may combine with dampness and affect the stomach, causing a stomach flu with vomiting and diarrhea. Chinese medicine is very precise in its treatments and requires different herbal formulas and acupuncture point combinations for each condition or stage of infection.
Modern science has taught us that viruses are responsible for the common cold, though the strength of the immune system certainly must be considered as well. The discovery of viruses as causative agents in disease was a rather recent event in the history of science. Ancient systems of medicine, such as Ayurveda, Unani, Tibetan and Chinese medicine, had developed different concepts for explaining disease. In spite of the fact that these medical systems evolved before man developed a technology that allowed him to extend his senses into microscopic realms, their treatments of disease are often remarkably effective, a fact sometimes corroborated by modern science. Research has shown, for example, that acupuncture enhances the functioning of the immune system, increasing cellular and humoral immunity. Certain Chinese herbs from the clean toxin category have demonstrated an inhibitory effect on viral replication in vitro and appear to have a similar effect in the body, though the exact mechanism of their action is not well understood. Their effect extends to many viral diseases other than the common colds, such as Hepatitis A, herpes simplex, HIV, Epstein-Barr infection, and chicken pox. Other herbs, called "adaptogens," strengthen the immune system so that it is more difficult for a viral infection to become established. In the language of Chinese medicine, if the qi of the body is strong, it is much more difficult for pathogenic factors to get a foothold. Hence, Chinese medicine can be used preventively, which is particularly good news for those of us who catch colds frequently.