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February 1, 2004

Ten Tips for Avoiding Respiratory Infection in the Aftermath of a Fire: An Oriental Medical Perspective

By Sybil Ihrig, LAc, HHP

It is well-known in the field of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that a tremendous upsurge in upper-respiratory infections arises in the aftermath of a major fire such as the ones that occurred throughout southern California in October.

Over the next few weeks and months (especially if rain is not forthcoming), it is highly likely that we will see an epidemic of sore throats; flu; asthma attacks; sinus infections and headaches; bronchitis; pneumonia; and similar disorders, along with exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseaes such as emphysema. These illnesses, unfortunately, are likely to be lingering and recalcitrant. In the interest of public service, therefore, I would like to offer some tips rooted in the wisdom of natural medicine that will help you and your loved ones prevent such respiratory disorders. Prevention always involves less stress, suffering and expense than cure!

1. Stay indoors as much as possible and keep your windows closed. If you already have a high-quality air purifier in your home or office, great. If not, it would be advisable to purchase one, as the bad air quality is likely to be with us for quite some time. Good quality models are available from companies such as Sharper Image and Living Air, among others.

2. Keep vents in your car closed when driving to avoid pulling in contaminated air from the outside.

3. Moisturize the lungs once or twice daily using (a) a cool-water vaporizer; (b) a warm-air steam inhaler; or (c) a humidifier. Moisturizing your respiratory tract is perhaps the single most important step you can take. In traditional Asian medicine, an ancient medical aphorism states, "The lungs like dampness and dislike dryness." The same tradition also postulates that the Fire element, when unrestrained, has a destructive effect on the Metal element (represented by the lungs). In contemporary terms, this means that physiologically, the dry, caustic air prevalent during and after a fire causes the mucous membranes throughout the respiratory tract to dry out and crack. As soon as the integrity of these membranes is compromised, the stage is set for viruses and bacteria to lodge there and create disease. (Yes, it might be inconvenient to sit down with a vaporizer or steam inhaler for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, but you will avoid a great deal of suffering if you can just get into the habit for a few weeks.)

4. Another technique for preventing the invasion of pathogens (and one that comes to us from Ayurvedic medicine) is to daub a small amount of sesame oil or massage oil into the opening of the nostrils several times a day. This will not only moisturize the upper respiratory tract, but will also help the tiny hairs in your nostrils trap soot, ashes, viruses and bacteria, and prevent them from moving further down into the larynx and bronchioles. Sesame oil or sesame-based massage oil is the best to use, but in a pinch, you can try other oils (such as olive oil) that you might have on hand.

5. In the aftermath of a fire, it is essential to ingest foods that are more moisturizing than you might usually eat. Especially increase your intake of fruit at this time. Pears, mango, pineapple, cherries and similarly moist, alkaline fruits are ecellent choices; citrus, however, is not, because the acidity and sour tast tend to irritate and dry out the throat, which can lead to further problems. Also make sure to increase your intake of fluids, especially water, teas and/or juices. On the other hand, decrease your intake of coffee and alcohol at this time because these beverages tend to be caustic and dry out the mucous membranes even further.

6. Avoid or reduce consumption of dairy products while the air quality remains poor. This is especially important if you have a history of sinus trouble, moist asthma, or emphysema. Eating a small amount of yogurt is fine, but milk and cheese (the biggest culprit) will generate mucus and phlegm and provide a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria to take hold. Why? Because unfortunately, the pasteurization process destroys a vital enzyme in milk products that renders them indigestible by the human gastrointestinal tract. Our grandparents on the farm had fresh, "raw" milk and cheese, but in the modern era, only processed products are readily available to us. (It's possible to buy raw-milk cheese from most natural food stores, and including a small amount in your diet should be fine during the present crisis, but don't go overboard.)

7. Most packaged snack foods (pretzels, chips, nuts, crackers, etc.) tend to be dry and can irritate the mucous membranes of the throat. If you can't live without them during this period of poor air quality, at least eat them together with a generous amount of fluids.

8. Taking food with a little bit of spicy flavor to it actually helps the lungs, as it generates internal moisture in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tissues. Cinnamon, curry, ginger, chili pepper and the like -- in moderation -- can actually be beneficial (unless your digestive system can't handle these items).

9. If you like vegetables, root vegetables (such as carrots, turnips, parsnips or daikon radish) are especially good choices at this time, because they likewise generate moisture throughout the body.

10. Whole grains that tend to soak up a lot of water while cooking (e.g., rice and millet) might not be nutritionally recommended in normal circumstances because of their high carbohydrate content, but when the goal is to bolster the respiratory system, the human body has a higher for tolerance for these foods and actually finds them beneficial.

I hope these simple tips (which are very much in the spirit of traditional Chinese medicine) will help keep yu and your loved ones strong and healthy through the coming weeks and months. In the event that you are not so lucky, however, Chinese medicine has a long history of treating upper-respiratory conditions successfully, and there are many herbal formulas that can help moisturize and repair damaged respiratory tissue; disperse phlegm; relieve cough and asthma; and so on. Chinese herbal medicien is highly individualized to the symptoms of each patient, however, so it is not possible to recommend a "one-size-fits-all" formulation. If you need assistance in this regard, contact a local acupuncturist who also has expertise in herbal medicine.
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