Chinese Medicine and Self-Care in the Treatment of COVID-19

Recently I was asked about suggestions for deep breathing exercises to help with breathing difficulties and anxiousness resulting from COVID-19 symptoms. This question brings up some important topics related to diagnosis and treatment according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The predominant pathological factor related to COVID-19 from the perspective of Chinese medicine is damp phlegm.  This is a particularly thick and tenacious category of phlegm that can result in a cough that is dry and non-productive, as the phlegm is deeply lodged in the lungs and is not readily expectorated. There are numerous therapeutic approaches to phlegm resolution in Chinese medicine, the primary herbal ones being to dissolve, dry, expectorate and purge. With damp phlegm, in many situations the correct approach involves dissolving phlegm.

It is common practice in Western medicine to apply oxygen therapy as well as respiratory training using a spirometer. From the perspective of Chinese medicine, these approaches are not correct. With both treatments, the phlegm is further dried and pushed deeper into the lungs.

While it is important to learn to relax breathing, it is not necessary for breathing to be deep when phlegm is involved. Phlegm should first be dissolved, literally, using appropriate herbal medicinals such as zhe bei mu (frittilary) and gua lou (tricosanthes). Also needed are herbs that can penetrate to deep crevices and hidden areas, such as qing hao (artemisia). (Interestingly this last herb is commonly used for malaria and related disorders in Chinese medicine, and Western medicine has similarly considered the use of anti-malaria medications to treat COVID-19 related symptoms.)

This brief article is in no way intended as medical advice. I am not suggesting that anyone disregard medical advice and treatment. Medical treatment of any sort should always be first focused on what has been shown to be clinically effective. However, if a person is not responding well to a given therapy, it is reasonable to consider that the therapy is not correct and consider other approaches. Chinese medicine can play a useful role in such situations, as it offers a different perspective that is often overlooked in conventional therapies. In addition to this, it is important to not overlook basic self-care. Prevention of illness is the most important treatment, and Chinese medicine is rich with simple, practical advice on how to live, eat and take care of oneself to maintain health.