Chinese Herbs for Colds and Flu: Do they Really Work?

Chinese Herbs for Colds and FluCold and flu (influenza) are, probably, the most commonly occurring minor ailment worldwide – each of us would catch more than once in our lifetime. Taking the United States as an example, the people there catch at least a billion colds and spend billions of dollars on relevant supplements and medications each year. In order to relieve cold symptoms, people come up with many feasible home remedies and natural cures, among which herbs for colds are one of an important part. Similarly, ancient Chinese also gain wider experience during fighting this condition.

Does natural herb really work for colds and flu? If you have the same doubt, let the facts themselves tell you the answer next.

The common cold and seasonal flu

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) shares this same classification method as well – Shang Feng Gan Mao (literally “injured by wind pathogen” in English) and Shi Xing Gan Mao (literally “epidemic cold”). The former occurs all year round while the latter peaks in so-called typical flu seasons of late winter or early spring.

Like bronchitis and pneumonia, both of them are respiratory tract infection. However, it’s worth mentioning that they are caused by different factors. Now there are over 200 viruses found to be closely associated with a common cold while only two, either influenza A or B viruses, with seasonal flu. By the way, the swine influenza virus (SIV) strains are the subtypes of influenza A, known as H1N1, H1N2, H3N1, H3N2, and H2N3, and influenza C.

Common symptoms of a cold and flu include aversion to cold, fever, headache, cough, stuffy nose, sore throat, running nose, sneezing, or even whole body aches and pain. TCM believes that they are induced by attack of exogenous wind-cold pathogens, manifesting differently due to the individual differences in constitution, food, living style, and work and leisure, etc. Generally it is classified into two main categories based on the different pathogens – wind-cold and wind-heat.

Benefits of herbs for colds and flu

When it comes to natural remedies, the most popular options are Elderberry, Echinacea, Astragalus, Vitamin C, Zinc, and Vitamin A in the West. In contrast, TCM seldom uses single herb. Instead, usually it treats in the form of herbal recipe, which requires years, if not decades, to master this old technique by a TCM practitioner. And this type of herbal cures has its own edges over its western counterpart.

(1). Inhibiting effect on viruses associated with respiratory infections. In comparison, western medicine has less inhibitory action on influenza virus, parainfluenza virus, and herpes simplex viruses, etc;

(2). Extensive therapeutic effects – obvious inhibitory effect against usual bacteria, antiviral effect, suppresses inflammation, and aritipyretic effect. It can bring down a fever in a significant and safer way for consistent fever;

(3). Immune system boosters. This is a unique function, which is not available in other medications for flu and colds.

Common Chinese herbal remedies

Typically TCM divides this disease into a few patterns, accordingly employed different herbal therapies for the relief.

Wind-heat invading defensive Qi

Main symptoms and signs are fever or without fever in early stage, red throat, slight cough, small amounts of phlegm, mild sweating, red tongue, thin white or thin greasy coating, and floating rapid pulse.

The treating principle is dispelling wind and clearing heat. Basic herbs adopted include Jin Yin Hua (Lonicera), Lian Qiao (Forsythia), Sang Ye (Mulberry Leaf), Ju Hua (Chrysanthemum), Xing Ren (Apricot Seed), Zhe Bei Mu (Fritillaria Bulb), Jing Jie (Schizonepeta Stem), Niu Bang Zi (Arctium), Lu Gen (Reed Rhizome), Bo He (Mentha), and Gan Cao (Licorice).

Superficies tightened by wind-cold

Common symptoms include sensation of chill, fever or without fever in early stage, bodily pain, headache, clear and thin mucus in the nose, no sweating, pink tongue, and thin and moist coating.

The rule of treatment adopted is relieving superficies syndrome with pungent and warm natured drugs. Common herbs used are Ma Huang (Ephedra), Xing Ren, Gui Zhi (Cinnamon Twig), Ge Gen (Pueraria), Licorice, Qiang Huo (Notopterygium Root), and Zi Su Ye (Perilla Leaf).

Heat-toxicity blocking lung

Usual symptoms are high fever, viscous mucus, thirst with liking for fluids, sore throat, red eyes, redness of tongue with yellow or greasy coating, and rapid slippery pulse.

The therapeutic principle is clearing heat-toxicity in lung. Regular herbs utilized are Ma Huang, Xing Ren, Shi Gao (Gypsum), Zhi Mu (Anemarrhena Rhizome), Lu Gen, Niu Bang Zi, Zhe Bei Mu, Jin Yin Hua, Qing Hao (Wormwood), Bo He, Gua Lou (Trichosanthes Fruit), and Licorice.

Phlegm-heat obstructing lung

Principle symptoms cover high fever, coughing out phlegm, shortness of breath, rapid wheezing, or palpitation, restlessness, blue color of lips, dark red tongue, yellow or grey greasy coating, and rapid slippery pulse.

The therapeutic methods are clearing heat, purging lung, and removing toxicity and blood stasis. Primary herbs are Ma Huang, Sheng Shi Gao, Xing Ren, Zhi Mu, Gua Lou, Huang Qin (Scutellaria), Zhe Bei Mu, Da Huang (Rhubarb), Sang Bai Pi (Mulberry Root Bark), Dan Shen (Salvia Root), and Ma Bian Cao (Herba Verbenae).

Lingering pathogen due to deficient vital qi

Major symptoms includes short or shallow breathing or assisted ventilation, haziness of spirit-mind or even unconsciousness, pale or flushing complexion, spontaneous cold sweat or dry skin, deadly cold hand and foot, dry mouth and throat, dull tongue with white coating or redness of tongue with little saliva, and rapid faint string pulse or faint feeble pulse.

The method of treatment is strengthening and consolidating body resistance. For sufferers prone to qi deficiency and yang depletion, common herbs for colds and flu are Ren Shen (Ginseng), Zhi Fu Zi (Prepared Aconite Root), Gan Jiang (Dried Ginger Root), Zhi Gan Cao (Honey Fried Licorice Root), and Shan Zhu Yu (Asiatic Cornelian Cherry Fruit); for patients prone to qi deficiency and yin depletion, regular herbs are Hong Ren Shen (Red Ginseng), Mai Men Dong (Ophiopogon Tuber), Wu Wei Zi (Schisandra Fruit), Shan Zhu Yu, Sheng Di Huang (Rehmannia), and Zhi Gan Cao.

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