Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sinus and Ear Infections: Alternatives to Antibiotics

It is getting to that time of year when illness strikes. The days are getting shorter, the weather a little cooler, our vitamin D stores from the summer are running low (unless you are supplementing, which I highly recommend).

It usually starts out as a cold: runny nose, headache, sinus congestion, post nasal drip, scratchy throat, fatigue. But, you compound it with poor quality or insufficient sleep, high stress and low quality nutrition, your body can't effectively fight off the cold and you may end up with a sinus or ear infection.

In Chinese Medicine we talk about these conditions as Stagnation of Phlegm, which is usually Hot Phlegm according to the color of the mucous and associated symptoms. Cold (Damp) Phlegm is usually clear or white and thinner, whereas Hot Phlegm (usually the case with infections like these) is  yellow or green, maybe blood tinged, and more viscous and thick. Typically once Phlegm gets to the infection stage it is Hot. Antibiotics are cold in nature which is why they are often prescribed for infections. However, antibiotics kill off not only the bad bacteria, but the good as well; it is that good bacteria that is helping your body fight off illness.

What are some alternatives?

Studies have shown that for both sinus and ear infections, antibiotics don't help the body get rid of the illness any faster than the body would on its own (which is why you need to continue taking antibiotics for such a long period of time). Also, the chances of getting a recurrence of the infection is high since the antibiotics don't kill all of the bad bacteria, only those that are weaker than the medication; antibiotics reduce the overall number of bacteria that your body needs to fight off, but don't kill them all. This leaves you with a stronger infection still lingering, and since your immune system has been weakened by the antibiotics (70% of your immune system is in your gut where your good bacteria has just been killed off), it is much harder to combat. There are also the common side effects of digestive upset/nausea, diarrhea and yeast infections to name a few.

Chinese medicine works by treating the body, rather than the illness. Thousands of years ago, there was no knowledge of viruses, bacteria or fungi causing illness, the ancient Chinese doctors just saw the patient's symptoms and described them as an invasion of some sort of External Pathogenic Influence (EPI). Those EPIs could be Heat, Dampness or Phlegm, Cold, Wind or Dryness, based on the symptoms that presented. These different pathogens would affect the body in different ways and the ancient Chinese doctors would treat the patient according to how he or she was presenting. If the patient had a very sore throat there was a Heat pathogen lodged in the throat; if the patient had a runny nose, headache and hoarse voice, the doctor would treat for a Wind invasion. With Sinus and Ear infections, there is Heat and Phlegm in the Nose and Sinuses and/or Ear.

Acupuncture can very effectively help the body get rid of the Phlegm and Heat, while opening the sinuses and ears to ease the pain. Although there is Heat in the condition (usually seen as fever, irritability and yellow/green Phlegm) putting a warm compress on the affected area can help get the Phlegm to move and drain. Phlegm (whether hot or cold) is seen as a Yin fluid (Yin is cool, contracting, moving inward) so is often treated by using a Yang element like heat (Yang is warm, expanding, moving outward). That is why when you take a hot shower it can often open up your sinuses and help you breathe better; the heat is allowing the Phlegm to move so it is no longer stagnant creating pain. When there is stagnation, pressure builds up and causes pain; when the Phlegm moves, it allows the Qi to move, relieving the pressure and the pain goes away.

There are some great herbal remedies that I like to use either in addition to acupuncture or on its own. Be sure to purchase herbs either from a qualified herbalist or from a reputable company that uses herbs that are GMP certified. This ensures that they are not tainted with heavy metals or other contaminants and are made in a facility that is held to high standards of quality. Before trying any herbal remedies, it is important to be seen by a licensed acupuncturist or herbalist in your area to get the proper diagnosis and make sure that you are using the correct formula for you. Plus if you suffer from food or environmental allergies, that you are not allergic to any of the ingredients in the formula. If you are allergic, the Chinese medicine practitioner can create a formula tailor made for you that doesn't contain the allergenic ingredient(s)--this flexibility is one of the reasons that I love Chinese medicine!

For Sinus infections I use the formula Bi Yan Pian. It is very effective and can help with sinus pain and pressure without negatively affecting your immune system. This formula helps your body get rid of the Phlegm and Heat, while opening the sinus passages. It also helps with any sore throat that might accompany the illness. For Ear infections Blue Poppy makes a great pediatric formula called Bupleurum and Angelica. It is a glycerine based tincture (no alcohol) and when I use it for adults I just increase the dosage. This formula also helps with the Heat and Phlegm but is more targeted toward the ears and throat. These are formulas that I've used myself and with my kids as well as many patients over the years with great success and no side effects. You may need an acupuncturist to order them for you (especially from Blue Poppy), and I highly recommend it.

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