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Colds and Flu

Acute upper respiratory tract viral infections are the most commondiseases of human beings (Eccles 2005). Adults have two to five common coldseach year and school children have from seven to ten colds per year (Johnston1996).

The common cold is most often caused byrhinoviruses (Heikkinen 2003). It is a short mild illness with early symptomsof headache, sneezing, chills and sore throat, and later symptoms of nasaldischarge, nasal obstruction, cough and malaise (Eccles 2005). Generally, theseverity of symptoms increases rapidly, peaking 2-3 days after infection, witha mean duration of symptoms of 7-10 days but with some symptoms persisting formore than 3 weeks.

Influenza is caused by infectionwith influenza A and B viruses. In the UK, outbreaks of influenza occur in mostwinters, cause much illness and are a major burden on the NHS (Meier 2000). Influenzais an unpleasant but usually self-limiting disease. The illness can affect both the upper and lowerrespiratory tract, and is often accompanied by systemic signs and symptoms,such as: abrupt onset of fever; chills; non-productive cough; myalgias;headache; nasal congestion; sore throat; and fatigue (Cox 1998). It maybe complicated by, for example, otitis media, bacterial sinusitis, secondarybacterial pneumonia, meningitis, encephalitis or exacerbations of underlyingdisease (Department of Health 2010). In the UK, 1.3% of people with influenza-like illness are hospitalisedeach year (Cooper 2003), and influenza and its complications cause around3,000-4,000 deaths in an average year (far more during a major epidemic) (Meier2000). Older people, young children and immunosuppressed people are most atrisk of developing complications.

The aim of management is to reducethe duration and severity of influenza symptoms, and the risk of complications;and to minimise adverse effects of treatment. Management of the common coldinvolves drugs to alleviate symptoms, such as mild analgesics. For influenza,there are also antivirals.



Cox NJ,Fukuda K. Influenza. Infect Dis Clin North Am 1998; 12: 27-38.

Cooper NJ,Sutton AJ, Abrams KR, et al. Effectiveness of neuraminidase inhibitors intreatment and prevention of influenza A and B: systematic review and metaanalysesof randomised controlled trials.BMJ 2003; 326: 1235-9.

Departmentof Health, 2010a. Immunisation againstinfectious disease - Chapter 19Influenza [online]. Available: [Accessed...].

Eccles R.Understanding the symptoms of the common cold and influenza. Lancet Infectious Diseases 2005; 5:718-25.

HeikkinenT, Jarvinen A. The common cold. Lancet 2003; 361: 51-9.

Johnston S,Holgate S. Epidemiology of viral respiratory infections. In: Myint S,Taylor-Robinson D, eds. Viral and other infections of the human respiratorytract. London: Chapman & Hall, 1996: 1-38.

Meier CP etal. Population-based study on incidence, risk factors, clinical complicationsand drug utilisation associated with influenza in the United Kingdom. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis 2000;19: 834-42.


How acupuncture can help

Evidence from randomised controlled trials suggeststhat electroacupuncture (Xiao 2007), acupuncture (Kawakita 2008; Kawakita 2004)and acupressure (Takeuchi 1999) may help relieve the symptoms of the commoncold (see Table below). However, there is very little research so far in thisarea, and substantially more would be required to draw firm conclusions.

Acupuncture may help relievesymptoms of colds and flu by:

  • enhancing natural killer cell activities andmodulating the number and ratio of immune cell types (Kawakita 2008);
  • reducing pain through the stimulationof nerves located in muscles and othertissues, which leads to release of endorphins and other neurohumoral factors(Pomeranz 1987);
  • reducinginflammation through the release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors(Kavoussi 2007, Zijlstra 2003);
  • increasinglocal microcirculation (Komori 2009), which aids dispersal of swelling.


(Article from the British Acupuncture Council website)