During the SARS epidemic “health workers (took) herbal formulas to boost their immune system and combat the virus. Equally, patients treated with Chinese herbal formulas were achieving a much higher success rate compared to the Western medical approach of using the antiviral ribavirin combined with steroids.(Reuters, April 21, 2003)

As this quote shows Chinese Herbal Medicine has been highly effective at treating epidemic diseases such as SARS and the same holds true for other diseases that are simpler such as the common cold and flu. In fact, Chinese Herbal Medicine is not the only form of herbal medicine that has demonstrated effectiveness in treating these diseases and many other traditions of herbal medicine throughout the world also contain efficacious herbs. There is a certain sense of irony as each year fear over a flu pandemic grows, and yet there have been effective herbal treatments for this and other infectious diseases.

One of the most important qualities of herbal medicine that makes it highly effective in treating these diseases is the differing diagnostic criteria compared to Western Medicine. For example, in western medicine to treat influenza the same treatments are always used. First, one must provide an influenza vaccination to prevent influenza, and if a person contracts the virus and is in a vulnerable state then treat the symptoms. Unfortunately, as recent history demonstrates the efficacy of these treatments is not always that great because there is limited ability to treat the virus itself. Herbal medicine on the other hand treats illness according to each person’s unique set of symptoms and therefore different herbs are used at different stages of disease. There are always going to be similarities and differences in each disease presentation, but whereas western medicine may diagnose the same illness in two people and therefore prescribe the same treatment, herbal medicine may view the same disease as having two differing diagnoses.

When we are discussing colds and flus in Chinese Medicine there are two main criteria for diagnoses, cold and heat. In Chinese Medicine humans and nature are inseparable parts of the same whole and under the same influences. Therefore, out in nature there are many influences upon the environment such as cold, wind, heat, humidity and dryness and these influences can also affect your body. For example, if you have contracted the flu and you have chills, very achey muscles, possibly a headache, some nausea, a runny and congested nose with clear mucus then these symptoms are most likely due to cold. Cold causes things to contract and be tight and aching so those are the main symptoms experienced and one must use warming herbs to disperse the cold.. On the other hand if you have a severe sore throat, a headache, nausea and a fever this is most likely due to heat and “light and fluffy” herbs that float to the upper body and release the cold through the surface are used. While there are many different formulas and herbs that could be used I will focus on a few that have been shown to be highly effective.

The first group of herbs I will discuss are ones that are better at treating what in Chinese Medicine is known as heat. The most common symptoms seen with this pattern of diseases usually includes sore throat, fever and cough with colored mucus and is most often treated with a formula in Chinese Medicine called Yin Qiao San. Within this formula are 10 herbs, some of which I will discuss later, but the main herbs for which the formula is named after are Jin Yin Hua(Honeysuckle) and Lian Qiao(forsythia). The overall formula inhibits viruses and enhances the immune systems ability to attack against pathogens. It is anti-pyretic, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergy and enhances the phagocytic ability of macrophages. The main herbs in this formula, Jin Yin Hua and Lian Qiao have these effects and more. They are also effective at relieving cough and Lian Qiao is highly effective against the influenza virus. Two other herbs within this formula Jing Jie and Mint both contain high quantities of menthol or menthol like chemicals which have effects at alleviating pain, inhibiting bacteria, decreasing inflammation and reducing fever. Mint, in its various forms has been an herb highly valued in Western Herbal medicine for many centuries. In the Bible it is described as being used as a tithe to the Pharisees. The form used in Chinese Medicine differs slightly to that used in Western Herbal medicine but both have similar constituents and activities. Two other herbs which are being used more for there powerful anti-viral and anti-bacterial effects are ban lan gen(isatis) and Huang Qin(Scute). Ban Lan Gen’s effectiveness has been demonstrated in numerous studies to be effective at treating many different infectious diseases from bacterial endotoxins to lyme disease and influenza. Huang Qin has also been shown to be highly effective at treating many forms of infection as well as being anti-inflammatory and slightly sedative. In fact, the form of scute used in western medicine differs from that of Chinese version and is used primarily as a sedative.

Several western herbs are worth mentioning here as well, namely goldenseal, chamomile, olive leaf, oregano and thyme. Goldenseal contains a highly antiseptic ingredient called berberine. Along with thyme, the essential oil of oregano and olive leaf these herbs are extremely effective at treating bacteria and viruses. Chamomile is an herb that is used for many differing complaints from digestive upset, to nervousness and irritability but also contains constituents which have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects that would help in treating colds and flus. A Chinese herb, Ju Hua(Chrysanthemum) has similar effects to chamomile and is traditionally used for similar complaints.

As mentioned before however, there are differing symptoms a person may have when they contract a common cold or flu. When these infections take hold it is possible one may not have a sore throat, but instead have muscle aches, more chills than fever, clear mucus and possibly a headache. These symptoms are associated with a different pattern in Chinese Medicine and while the aforementioned herbs may help there are different herbs that are used more effectively. The herbs used in this situation tend to be “warmer” according to Chinese Medcine. These are herbs such as Ma Huang(ephedra), Gui Zhi(cinnamon) and Sheng Jiang(ginger). In western medicine herbs such as thyme, garlic, the already mentioned ginger and oregano fall in this category. Interestingly, all these herbs demonstrate anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory effects. However, these herbs also have differing effects on increasing superficial circulation, inducing sweat and relieving pain which assists in relieving the aching feeling and enhancing the immune systems abilities to fight infection. Some of these herbs such as ma huang are highly effective at dilating the bronchioles in cases of respiratory inflammation, reducing fever, and assisting the immune system as well. Overall, depending on what symptoms and what area of the body is more affected one can use differing herbs.

Often these herbs are combined with other herbs to further enhance the immune system’s ability to fight off infection during a cold or more importantly to prevent an infection from taking hold in the first place. One main formula for this purpose in Chinese Medicine is Yu Ping Feng San or the Jade Windscreen. There are only three herbs in this formula one of which has become extremely popular in both western and Chinese herbal medicine, Huang Qi(Astragalus). This herb is used in enhancing the immune function not only in respect to preventing colds and flus, but is commonly used in China during cancer treatment to prevent the damaging effects on the immune system. Echinacea is a common herb in Western herbal medicine that is used for a similar purpose. It has been shown to have marked effects on increasing the white blood cells function of fighting infections.

Overall, the most important thing to keep in mind when treating and/or preventing the common cold and flu is to treat the symptoms as they are presenting in you. For example, you may be a person that always gets a sore throat when you get sick or you may be different and instead always get achey joints and chills. Depending on who you are different herbs may be more effective. When in doubt seek a qualified herbal practitioner in order to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment.