There’s a silver lining. More and more people are getting vaccinated. And most people are more committed to wearing masks, physical distancing, and hand-washing. Both are contributing to a slow-down of coronavirus spread. But the bugger isn’t done with us yet. We all need to continue being on our guard, at least until ‘Tony’ gives us a green light.

In the meantime, I would like to share useful information with you about Chinese medicine in the treatment of a wide range of symptoms and signs often related to respiratory infections. While acupuncture can bring relief and support recovery, here I will focus primarily on Chinese phytotherapy, AKA “herbs,” because that’s where most of the available clinical data originate.

Botanical medicine of the East

Chinese phytotherapy has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by doctors in East Asia (and more recently other parts of the world) to treat millions of patients during pandemics. This was often the most effective or even only available treatment strategy before the development of modern antibiotic and other antimicrobial agents. Even now, these modern therapies are not a panacea, can have undesirable side-effects, and cause microbial resistance which makes them less useful and leads to the loss of antibiotics as therapeutic agents.

Chinese phytotherapy, on the other hand, due to the complexity of botanical substances and mechanisms of action, generally has a much lower risk of leading to antimicrobial resistance. It is also generally better tolerated, in part because prescribers can take into account individual patients’s presentation and general health.

Chinese medicine has its own sophisticated system of diagnosis and subsequent treatment strategy based on a logical and replicable intellectual model. Thus, terminology used to describe findings and decisions is different from biomedical terminology. This can be confusing for both patients and conventional providers. Just know that there’s rhyme and reason.

Prescriptions of Chinese medicinal herbs are distinguished from herbal medicine practices in other parts of the world, as well as pharmaceutical drugs, in that they often include as many as 12-16 individual ingredients to address different aspects of a patient’s presentation in a balanced manner. Think of it as an audition for a music ensemble where all players need to cooperate and complement one another to perform harmonious music.

When to use Chinese herbal prescriptions

When we give an herbal formula during a period of epidemic infections, we ask ourselves what stage our individual patient is in and what her constitution is. If she is healthy, we want to support her body’s effort and ability to stay healthy and keep circulating pathogens at bay. We may even give a small amount of heat-clearing herbs along with resilience-supporting herbs to nip an invasion of pathogens in the bud before it can bloom. This is a preventive approach you could consider if you are prone to respiratory infections, work with young children or in a hospital, live in a college dormitory, or just want to reduce your risk of getting sick. Ask your Chinese medicine doctor about specific product and dosage recommendations appropriate to your needs.

If you do get sick with a respiratory infection, all is not lost. We don’t have to rely on our traditional medicine experience alone but can now draw useful information from a range of different modern research studies—some conducted during the SARS pandemic in China, or in Western countries. Because of the cost and limitations of currently available pharmaceutical treatments for Covid-19, it is well worth considering Chinese phytotherapy as an adjuvant therapy if you develop symptoms of a respiratory infection that could be a severe cold, influenza, Covid, or another illness. Keep in mind that Chinese phytotherapy is not an “approved” treatment for Covid but a therapy based on symptoms analysis to provide relief and support recovery.

Formulas for active infections can address a wide range of manifestations. Here are just a few: loss of smell, taste or appetite; sinusitis or bronchitis; abscess; chills and mild-to-moderate fever; unproductive or productive cough; congestion and chest oppression; skin rashes; indigestion, including diarrhea or constipation; vaginal or urinary discharge.

Lastly, Chinese phytotherapy can be your ally during recovery from respiratory illness. This is often a difficult period for people that thoroughly tests their patience. They can feel weak for days, weeks or months on end, have trouble focusing, or feel like they’re on the verge of getting sick again and again. This is also a void in biomedicine. People are generally left to their own devices and don’t get any meaningful help during their recovery.

How to put this information into action?

I purposely did not include any names of specific medicinal herbs or formulas in my article. It is only too common that readers will try to self-medicate—not always with stellar results. Unless you have several years to spare to study medicine and herbology before you decide what strategy would serve you best, I highly recommend you consult with a knowledgeable and experienced Chinese medicine doctor. Many acupuncturists only acquire a basic knowledge of Chinese phytotherapy because their work is focused primarily on acupuncture (no disrespect!). So, seek out someone who’s steeped in Chinese herbal medicine and can select appropriate formulations (or write individualized prescriptions, if needed) and advise you on products, dosing, and treatment strategies. You will get so much more mileage out of your use of this wonderful medicine. I know because I see the difference all the time.

© 2021 Christiane Siebert