You wake up one morning with a scratchy throat and a slight pressure in one ear. You’re very tired, and your body feels stiff and sore all over. “Oh no,” you think, “I can’t afford to be sick right now!”
If you’re anything like me, this is a regular occurrence throughout the winter. And especially around the holidays, I've noticed that as soon as we stop work to prepare for a holiday, the cold creeps in. This not-quite-sick-yet state is actually something I personally find Chinese medicine seems to help reverse. In Chinese medical theory, symptoms of common cold are associated with patterns of disharmony that impact the Lung and Large Intestine channels and can ultimately impact the Lungs. This is consistent with the progression of the common cold in Western medicine, where it can create a window for opportunistic infections of the lungs such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
The goal in treating symptoms of common cold with Chinese medicine is to help the body push the pathogen out of the body quickly. Coughing, sneezing, sweating, and urinating are some of the main ways that acupuncturists aim to release pathogens from the body with acupuncture, cupping, gua sha, moxibustion, and nutritional advice.
So what does an acupuncturist do and recommend to push out a pathogen and relieve symptoms of common cold?
1) Open the “wind gate” and then keep it covered
“Wind is the spearhead of a thousand diseases.” This ancient saying in Chinese medicine refers to climactic factors that are considered to be causes of disease. Much in the same way that your guardian may have insisted you go out in a coat, hat, and scarf in the winter when you were a kid, Chinese medical practitioners recommend that you cover the nape of your neck and the back of your head, as there are points in these regions which are considered “points of entry” for wind, and which can conversely be used to release wind from the body.
When you’re coming down with something, you can massage along the base of your skull where your neck muscles meet the bone to stimulate these points. The red line is your midline, along your spine. The green lines are at the edge of the muscle that attaches to your skull and extends down your shoulders and back. The blue lines are mid-way between the center line and those muscle edges. Rather than pressing on the red line, focus your massage on the blue and green lines, right at the base of your skull (for most people, this is about 1.5 inches above their posterior hairline, where my fingers are in this picture).
Whether or not wind really is the cause of common cold, I’ve found that stimulating these points is associated with a less severe and quicker course of illness. Be sure to wear a scarf and hat to keep this region protected!
2) Treat symptoms using related acupuncture points
Sore Throat Pinch the corners of your thumb nail cuticles to help with sore throat.
Runny Nose and Congestion
If you’re not pregnant, pinch and massage the meaty portion of your hand between your thumb and forefinger.
If you are pregnant, avoid the point pictured just above!!
Instead, massage at the corners where the lines connecting your nose and mouth meet your nostrils. People who aren't pregnant can use this point, too, of course!
Headache Again, if you’re not pregnant, pinch and massage the meaty portion of your hand between your thumb and forefinger.
If you are pregnant, avoid the previously mentioned point. The points on the back of your neck should help the headache. You can also press the inside corners of your eyebrows.
Coughing and Sneezing Press the webs of your thumbs/index fingers together. Whichever index finger falls on top, keep the wrist under your finger straight and let the pad of your index finger fall on the thumb-side of your arm. Massage this point. Do the same with the other index finger winding up on top. (In the picture, my right index finger is on this point on my left arm). You'll feel a little crack between a bone and a tendon here.
3) Use nutrition to help you push the pathogen out.
Just like you already know to do when you’re sick, make sure you get plenty of fluids. Broths are a really great addition to your diet when you’re feeling sick.
In Chinese medicine theory, a little bit of spice and heat can help to open the channels and push out a pathogen. Make a broth with onions, garlic, scallions, ginger, and a little bit of chili pepper (cayenne pepper, or red pepper flakes, or chili garlic paste from your local Asian market). Sip this broth hot throughout the day. If you break a sweat, then you know it’s working well!
Interestingly, according to Chinese medical theory, once you feel symptoms of a cold, one should avoid very sour foods, such as lemons and pickles. This is because the sour flavor causes an astringent action, making the body hold onto fluids and as a result the pathogens within them. Oranges are considered sweet, however, so feel free to enjoy your oranges and orange juice!
If you can come in for acupuncture the same day or the next day, your acupuncturist can use Gua Sha, moxa, cupping, and needles to create a stronger treatment effect.
After taking action using these Chinese medicine tips or an acupuncture treatment for common cold, the symptoms may get worse for 24-48 hours as your body pushes the pathogen out. Get plenty of rest and drink lots of clear fluids to help kick your cold.
These tips aren’t meant to replace medical care, and I won't promise that they work 100% of the time. Sometimes, you just lack the resources to fight of a pathogen on a short course, or you don't catch it in time, and you need to either wait it out or get help. If you have trouble breathing or a very high fever, especially with a headache, go to urgent care immediately! And if you have a cough that lasts for more than a week or “colorful” secretions and/or sore sinuses, call your doctor right away.