While many tend to think of needles when they think of a Chinese medicine clinic, there's actually quite a number of tools and therapies that a Chinese medicine practitioner has to use outside of acupuncture. One such tool is the use of Chinese herbs. Chinese herbs are a fantastic way to both supplement acupuncture treatment as well as to be used as a stand-alone treatment, as there are some conditions that are best treated with herbs. For example, a lot of skin conditions (think rosacea, eczema and acne) tend to respond best with the use of internal and external, topical herbal formulas.
Just as there is a lot of consideration that the practitioner gives to the acupuncture treatment they come up with for a particular patient, there are a lot of considerations given to what herbal formula will yield best results for a patient. For example, what is the condition of the symptoms that the patient is experiencing: acute or chronic? Are there symptoms of full heat (such as major sweats and high fevers) or is there cold present (with the patient feeling cold and shivering). Also, what is the age or state of the patient: young or old? Generally weak or strong constitution? Then we also have to look at how deep we think that the current condition has penetrated. For example, are the symptoms that the patient is seeking help for something superficial (usually colds fall in to this category, especially when they first come on) or has it penetrated deeper into the body (in this case, we would think of a cold becoming bronchitis or pneumonia - a cold that has penetrated the initial immune system to dig itself deeper into our bodies). A practitioner then has to decide, based on all of the above conditions, what is the best way to then alleviate the symptoms or, in the case of a bug, move the pathogen out.
Right now I am going to talk about Chinese herbal formulas and their help with colds and viruses, as we are in that transitional stage from winter to spring where pathogens are still lurking around. Internal formulas are fantastic for dealing with colds and viruses as they can add to the body (i.e. help strengthen the immune system) and/or purge from the body as well. Acupuncture is great in that it can help to move; however, if something needs strong building or purging (i.e. flushing a pathogen out), I would turn to internal herbs. Acupuncture is not directly adding anything to the body, but using the needles to stimulate what the body already has. Herbs, on the other hand, are directly adding.
To get a little more specific, let's take the warm disease theory of herbs also known as Wen Ben Fang (that which deals with febrile disease). There are four stages of "infiltration" in this theory of the transmission of an external pathogenic factor, and it is pretty similar to western germ theory. The first, or most superficial level, of infiltration via the nose or mouth is that of the wei level. Here, a patient has fever, slight aversion to cold, chills, sneezing, nasal congestion and a sore throat. Next is the qi level, where symptoms can be vigorous fever, aversion to heat, profuse sweating and thirst for cold drinks where they have a yellow-coated tongue. Next up is the ying level, where the patient may have bad nighttime sweats, insomnia, restlessness, and thirst but without a desire to drink. Finally, there is the deepest level - or that of the xue level. Here symptoms may present as feverishness, delirium, muddled consciousness, and masculopapular rashes. Think of something serious like Ebola for pathogens at this level.
With all of this in mind, the practitioner then looks to see what combination of Chinese herbs would best help the patient. Again, this would be based on their presenting signs and symptoms, as well as the nature of the herbs and the patient's underlying constitution. For example, the formula Yin Qiao San is great for the early stages of what is called "wind-heat" common cold in which there may be a sore throat, slight fever and slightly stuffy nose. This is great for someone who's throat is sore and inflamed, versus a patient with a throat that is agitated due to post-nasal drip. If they have post-nasal drip as the source of their sore throat, we would then use a different herbal formula. For someone with more congestion or a really runny nose, we could turn to Xiao Qing Long Tang or Pe Min Kan Wan. However, if there was a lot of congestion, but with yellow discharge, we might look at Bi Yan Pian.
What's fantastic about Chinese herbs for colds is that they are not intended for long-term use, they help to expel or remove the source of the symptoms (the pathogen) and have little to no adverse affects. I like to keep certain herbs on hand, transitioning my stock to reflect the most common ailments that tend to appear during that time of year. For example, as mentioned above, transitional parts of the year tend to produce a lot of colds and flu cases, so I keep formulas on hand to help with those. I also always recommend that my patients take certain herbal formulas with them when they travel, with the formulas they take predicated on the areas that they are traveling to. For example, somewhere cold I might recommend herbs known to help shorten the duration of cold and flu symptoms while somewhere more known for traveler's diarrhea I might suggest a strong, antimicrobial purgative! If you are experiencing some sort of cold or bug, talk to your Chinese medicine practitioner about adding herbs to your treatment plan as they are a great assist - if not a MVP on their own.