The common cold and flu are both viruses that most of us just consider part of life in the fall & winter. According to the CDC, colds are more likely to have a runny/stuffy nose and are milder than the flu. In either case, there is not much other than symptom control with medications. Though doctors will often prescribe antivirals if a patient comes in with flu-like symptoms.
While western medicine sees it as an either/or situation, Chinese medicine actually divides colds/flu into several smaller categories. Each pattern is then addressed slightly differently. It is based on presentation, and not on strength of the cold or flu virus. As such, Chinese medicine has several herbal formulas that can help speed the recovery of the body by supporting the underlying functions.
Types of Colds
As with most things in Chinese medicine, the pattern names for each type of cold or flu are based on ancient language and how they described what they saw 5000 years ago. Most cold or flu patterns have “wind” in the name, as it is something that begins outside the body.
The main patterns are:
- Wind Cold
- Wind Heat
- Wind Damp
- Wind Dry
Depending on which type of cold or flu presentation someone has, different formulas are recommended. While the symptoms can vary, all may or may not be present in individual patients.
All the formula suggestions in this article are named by their Golden Flower brand counterpart. The traditional Chinese name they correspond with is also listed when different. These should be purchased directly from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner as they are not available for purchase without a license.
If you want to know more about the different types of herbal medicine, follow this link.
As a quick (& required) disclaimer, the following information is intended as a reference guide only. It is in no way medical advice. If you intend to use herbal therapy, please make sure to work with a TCM trained practitioner before utilizing these formulas.
This pattern is one of two most commonly identified for cold & flu season. The symptoms include: stiff/achy neck, low fever, congestion or nasal discharge that is clear/watery, an acute cough with clear/white sputum, a hoarse voice, and skin sensitivity. Patients may experience chills. Headaches at the top of the head that get worse with wind or cold are common.
The patient’s tongue may appear normal or be moist with a thin white coat. The pulse would be considered “floating and weak or tight.”
- Cinnamon Twig Formula (Gui Zhi Tang) – this is especially useful in those who are chronically deficient (overworked). Many of these patients will sweat with the cold but not feel better afterword.
- Neck Formula (Bai Zhi Ge Gen Wan) – this is useful in cases where the patient does not sweat with the cold presentation.
- Gan Mao Ling – while technically for wind-heat, the formula is effective at the initial onset of any wind presentation (the first day or at exposure).
For early intervention of cold or flu symptoms, Gan Mao Ling Formula is very effective. But, if you don’t have that on hand, then a very strong cup or two of chamomile tea will be effective (it should be strong enough to cause a light sweat and sleepiness).
Once the cold has taken hold, the biggest differentiation between Cinnamon Twig Formula and Neck Formula is whether there is sweat or no sweat.
This pattern is the second of the most commonly identified in patients during cold & flu season. Symptoms include: a fever, sore throat, thirst, yellow nasal discharge or cough with yellow sputum, and may have mild chills. Patterns with acute swollen lymph nodes are typically due to wind-heat. Headaches in these patients usually get better with cold (such as icepacks). Sometimes this pattern comes with light sensitivity, and itchiness or tearing.
The patients tongue is likely to be red at the tip and with a thin yellow coat. The pulse would be considered “floating and rapid.”
- Gan Mao Ling – while technically for wind-heat, the formula is effective at the initial onset of any cold or flu symptoms (the first day or at exposure).
- Yin Chiao Formula (Honeysuckle & Forsythia) – this is for the onset of a cold with a sore throat or fever. It is also effective in viral infections that include skin lesions, such as chicken pox.
- Andrographis Formula (Chuan Xin Lian Kang Yan Pian) – used for more severe presentations known as “heat-toxin,” particularly in viruses affecting the throat, lymph, or liver.
More severe presentations, beyond a simple cold or flu, use stronger formulas (make sure to consult your TCM trained herbalist for these):
- Pu Ji Formula (Pu Ji Xiao Du Yin) – this formula is used for severe symptoms include pain & swelling in the face, neck, and throat.
- Viola Clear Fire Formula (Di Ding Qing Huo Pian) – this formula is used for long-term viruses such as Epstein-Barr, herpes, or HIV.
For the common cold with a sore throat we think of, Yin Chiao formula is going to be sufficient. But, if you are considering going to the doctor and/or notice lymph swelling in your throat, Andrographis is the better bet.
This pattern is also fairly uncommon as a cold or flu condition, and usually occurs when there is an underlying deficiency or after a prolonged experience of wind-heat. Symptoms usually present as a dry cough and possibly a mild fever with few other symptoms.
The tongue may be red and dry or shiny. The pulse is often “thin & rapid.”
- Eight Immortals Formula (Ba Xian Chang Shou Wan) – great for underlying deficiencies to moisten the lungs.
- Lily Preserve Metal Formula(Bai He Gu Jin Tang) – used when there is dry or blood streaked sputum.
In mild and acute cases of a cold or flu, a simple at home solution is to eat pears. Pears are very good at moistening the throat and lungs, and will often benefit these patients without needing further intervention.
In chronic cases, however, it is best to work with a trained TCM herbalist to identify the root cause and fix it at the source.
This pattern is rare as an acute occurrence of cold or flu, and usually either companies a heat/cold presentation or occurs when an underlying deficiency is already impacting the patient. Often, these patients will feel weighted down, and may experience a headache in which they feel their head is tightly bound. Dampness also commonly present when there is joint pain. Sometimes these patients will have stomach pains and/or diarrhea as well.
This patient’s tongue may have a sticky coating, and the pulse will often feel “slippery” to palpation.
- Neck Formula (Bai Zhi Ge Gen Wan) – useful when there is no chronic underlying condition of dampness.
While it is possible to have an acute case of wind-damp during cold & flu season, it is unlikely. For this reason, it is highly recommended that the people with these symptoms seek out a trained herbalist to work with and truly take care of the issue.
Chinese Herbal formulas are a great tool to help resolve cold or flu symptoms quickly. But the best solution is prevention.
For someone that frequently catches colds or gets the flu, then fortifying the body’s natural defenses can be tremendously helpful. While there are many potential causes that lead to this, Jade Windscreen Formula (Yu Ping Feng San) is commonly prescribed during cold & flu to boost the immune system.
There are also come great supplements available for immunity boosting, and we love the Designs for health brand!
This article is meant as a general overview and guide to understanding the basics of using TCM herbal formulas to fight cold & flu. It is a great resource for someone already working with a practitioner as a reminder for which formula to use when.
As a reminder, NONE of the information in this article is intended as medical advice or diagnosis. Taking any formula without practitioner supervision is done at the individual’s own risk.
CDC. (2020, August 31). Cold Versus Flu. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/coldflu.htm
Liu, Z., & Liu, L. (2009). Essentials of Chinese Medicine. Dordrecht: Springer.
Scott, J., Monda, L., & Heuertz, J. (2017). CLINICAL GUIDE TO COMMONLY USED CHINESE HERBAL FORMULAS [PDF]. Placitas: Herbal Medicine Press.