Traditional Chinese Medicine Remedies for Colds and Flu

You may think that the last stage of the common cold is recovery but it is actually determination: "I will never get sick again and feel this miserable!" Despite our best efforts, many of us will continue to suffer periodically from the common cold.

Most people are actually unaware of the the very first symptoms of a cold (i.e., before the pathogen moves deeper into the body). In ancient times, Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners would likely have used a formula like Ma Huang Tang at the very early stages of illness. However the main ingredient (Ma Huang - ephedra) is now essentially unavailable because of abuses of the medicinal by the general public (who are largely uninformed about appropriate dosing and contraindications). Fortunately, TCM includes many other formulas - some used for centuries, others developed more recently based on laboratory analysis - that are quite effective for colds and flu.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine offer an effective, safe alternative for treating colds and flu. They stop the cold from progressing further (if caught early-on), minimize the intensity and duration of symptoms, and help the body prevent recurrent infection.

Chinese medicine holds that the common cold and influenza are mainly due to the invasion of exogenous wind and wind-borne pathogens. Signs and symptoms are initially sub-categorized as “wind-cold” or “wind-heat.” These terms are often referred to as “invasions” against which the body’s qi mounts a defensive action. But it is more accurate to use the terms to describe the body’s reactions to wind invasions. For example, wind-cold represents a distinct collection of symptoms that routinely manifest when one is exposed to cold weather or cold surroundings at a time when the body’s defensive qi (wei qi) is insufficient to mount a defense, not unlike the antibodies our bodies use to ward-off intruding antigens. Wind-cold pattern tends to exhibit more pronounced chills (but possibly fever), absence of sweating, headache & general body aches, and perhaps a scratchy throat. Wind-heat, on the other hand, presents with a more apparent fever or heat sensations, mild sweating, sore-throat, possibly a cough, perhaps a distending headache, and possibly constipation

For any cold, bed rest and increased fluid intake are generally suggested to make the patient more comfortable. Rest should not be ignored or under-appreciated. In fact, it permits the body to refresh and repair on a cellular level. It also supports containment of the virus or bacterium.

HealthPoint carries very popular traditional and relatively more modern TCM herbal formulas for cold and flu symptoms (read more). We also have excellent versions of TCM herbal formulas for childhood cold and flu. These are specially formulated for children and pleasant-tasting and very safe tincture (liquid) formulations.  Two of these, "Cold Quell," and "Cold Away" are extremely popular with our patients. The first of these is a more broad-based formula and also contains herbs to improve the body's immune function once the cold symptoms have abated. The second contains several herbs whose properties and functions are quite cold and is therefore more suited for wind-heat phase symptoms.

There are many old, classical herbal formulas in TCM for treatment of common cold and influenza. Most utilize the flower, leaves, and bud parts of plants (they are lighter and tend to go upward to the head and nasal passages to treat the symptoms), including many that have anti-microbial actions. They are exceptionally safe, very effective, and have been used in China, Japan, and throughout Asia for centuries and continue to commonly used today.  Descriptions for several follow:

YIN QIAO SAN (Honeysuckle - Forsythia Powder)

As a practical matter, people often present at clinic when the cold virus has progressed more deeply into the body, in which case Yin Qiao San is one of several excellent formulas. This formula was initially published in the Wen Bing Tiao Bian (文炳条鞭 - Systematic Differentiation of Warm Diseases) by Dr. Wu Ju Tong in the year 1798. Yin Qiao San disperses wind-heat, clears heat (treats fever), and relieves toxicity. It treats upper burner (chest / respiratory) disorders without injuring the stomach. It lessens sore throat, and relieves thirst.

Yin Qiao San also can be taken as a preventative as follows:

  • Keep a dozen tablets in your car, purse, or pocket during cold and flu season. Take promptly.Begin taking tablets a half hour before entering airports, airplanes, terminals, or crowded public facilities.

  • For cold prevention, take three tablets every four hours when exposed to cold or flu.

  • For children: Use one table for each 25 lbs. of body weight. Open the capsule and mix with food (e.g., applesauce).
Left: A pre-packaged bulk form of Yin Qiao San. Many people prefer their tablet or capsule form. HealthPoint carries all forms: capsules, caplets, pills, and powdered granules.

GAN MAO LING WAN (Common Cold Effective Remedy Pills)
I once was meeting with a senior manager of a Twin Cities health plan who swore by Gan Mao Ling Wan (she had been introduced to it by a friend years ago). She could not speak too highly about this formula and how it cleared her symptoms during cold season.
Gan Mao Ling formulas are commonly used by Chinese people as a preventative against wind-heat throat issues (pharyntitis/sore-throat, laryngitis/hoarseness, etc.). Gan Mao Ling Wan clears heat, resolves toxins, dispels wind, relieves body aches, and cools lung heat to relieve cough. It can be used alone or combined with Yin Qiao at the onset of cold or flu. It may also be combined with Zong Gan Ling (see below) for stronger relief of cold or flu symptoms. Use when cough or sinus congestion is present at the onset of a cold or flu. Unlike Yin Qiao San, Gan Mao Ling Wan does not contain many herbs that boost immunity and, therefore, one does not benefit from long-term use once symptoms have resolved. Because Gan Mao contains several cold or cool herbs, it is not advised for very cold or shivering patients.
 [IMAGE]  [IMAGE] Gan Mao Ling, shown in a box of single dose packets (left) and as 500 mg caplets (right).


Cold Quell is contemporary modification of a classical old formula called Xiao Chai Hu Tang. It was formulated by one of our main suppliers and has been used nicely by many of our patients with great success. A number of our patients ask for it by name.

Cold Quell is for common cold and epidemic influenza with possible bronchitis. While effective for either gender, it is particularly useful for postpartum fevers and flus, but also for recurrent fever (including peri-menstrual heat), sore throat and swollen glands.

Some TCM practitioners prefer to avoid the use of supplementing herbs (Cold Quell contains some) during pronounced cold symptoms, believing that doing so may push the pathogen deeper into the body. Others insist that the body's qi, which by definition was insufficient to ward off the microbial pathogen(s),  must be supplemented in order to further resist the pathogen and to develop new resistance (immunity). Cold Quell addresses both needs. It is also a formula that can be used nicely as a preventative.

YU PING FENG SAN (Jade Windscreen Powder)

[IMAGE] Yu Ping Feng San is an elegant little 3 - herb formula for individuals who are susceptible to frequent or repeated bouts of common cold, chronic mild bronchitis, rhinitis (hay-fever/allergies), etc. It contains herbs that release pathogens and also boost qi (immune function).  The photo at left shows Immune Plus (Immune +), a modified version of Yu Ping Feng San intended to support increased production of white blood cells, inhibit the growth of bacteria, and to boost energy and vitality. It is indicated for individuals with weakened or compromised immune systems or who contract frequent bacterial or viral infections. It is best used as a long-term preventative and not specifically for symptom treatment as it does not have antibiotic properties, per se. It acts to support the immune system, not treat active infections. 

  • Zong Gan Ling (Efficacious Cold Remedy) originated in the early twentieth century (yes, Chinese medicine does experience advances!) and is used for symptomatic relief of severe or advanced head cold or flu. With symptoms such as headache, sore throat, nasal congestion, body aches, fever and chills. It clears heat (antifebrile), drains dampness, eliminates cold, releases muscles, and moves blood to relieve pain. This is one of the better products for full-blown influenza.
  • Pu Ju Xiao Du Yin Wan (Universal Benefit Disperse Toxin Cool-Decoction Pills) is really a very effective remedy. It can be used for acute influenza and severe common cold symptoms, even tonsillitis and swollen lymph nodes. It is also excellent for pediatric conditions, including tonsillitis, otitis media (ear infections), measles, mumps, and chicken pox. It has both antiviral and antibacterial effects. Like Gan Mao Ling Wan (see below), Pu Ji Xiao Du Yin Wan contains some cold or cool herbs and should be used cautiously by individuals who are cold or shivering or who have a tendency toward loose stools.
  • Chai Ge Jie Ji Tang (Bupleurum and Kudzu Decoction to Release the Muscle Layer) is for unresolved externally contracted wind-cold transforming into heat where chills are giving way to increasing fever, including inflammation (interior heat) in the muscles, accompanied by headache, muscle aches, orbital and eye pain, stiffness of the extremities, dry nasal passages, irritability, and insomnia.
  • Sang Ju Yin Wan (Mullberry Leaf / Chrysanthemum Pill) is for common cold with hacking cough or where cold predominates.

  • Gui Zhi Tang (Cinnamon Twig Decoction) The classic formula to treat common cold symptoms that are not relieved by sweating, with symptoms of nasal congestion with clear mucous and absence of thirst.

  • Cold Away is a contemporary preparation for early-to-late stage cold and flu with signs of fever, sinus and/or chest congestion, coughing, headache, and sore throat.

These are just a few of the TCM formulas that are useful for symptoms of common colds, flu, rhinitis, and allergy symptoms. We strongly advise that you work with a licensed acupuncturist when considering any of these or other TCM formulas for you or your family. For example, TCM distinguishes the common cold into various patterns on the basis of symptoms (clear, thin nasal discharge suggests a different type of microbial pathogen and bodily response than does thick, purulent discharge. Similarly, a cough with easily expectorated phlegm is quite a different illness than one where the patient has a barking cough with difficult-to-expectorate phlegm). Using a formula ill-suited to the presenting pattern fail to resolve symptoms and might even make them worse. We're always a phone call away (952-767-4910) and happy to help.
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