Winds of Change: A Chinese Medicine Understanding of Airborne Disease

In Chinese medicine, there are just a handful of categories into which every type of disease can be sorted. Some are very easy to understand, like Heat. This category includes diseases with symptoms such as fever, inflammation, and infection. Another is Cold, which includes chills, frostbite, pain where the tissue is cold to the touch and improved with the application of heat, and diseases where systems are under-functioning system, like low metabolism, hypothyroidism, and certain types of infertility.

One of the other main categories is Wind, which is not as easy to grasp and includes many seemingly unrelated conditions. To understand Wind as a metaphor for disease it is helpful to look outside to the wind itself and observe its characteristic behaviors: it comes on quickly, changes direction and force rapidly, travels fast, and causes movement, blowing the trees around and pushing the clouds across the sky. Wind conditions have these same characteristics. For example, since strokes come on so rapidly, cause immediate and dramatic change, and are accompanied by spasmodic movements, they are categorized as Wind. Other examples of Wind include tremors, epilepsy, and even itchy skin conditions like eczema and hives.


Interestingly, respiratory diseases caused by airborne pathogens are also categorized as Wind. I find this especially amazing considering that Chinese medicine predates the invention of microscopes and the germ theory of disease by thousands of years. Still, the ancient Chinese were able to understand that certain symptoms were related to something carried by the wind. They couldn't see it directly but they knew the pathogen was there by its effects. Think about it; just like the Wind diseases above, symptoms of airborne viruses come on fast, change quickly, sometimes even by the hour, spread rapidly from person to person, and cause movements like shivering, chills, or even the convulsions that come with dangerously high fevers.

Since COVID-19 I've been thinking a lot about Wind. This airborne disease in particular has come on so fast and spread so quickly, traveling around the entire world in just a matter of months. Because of its speed and far-reaching scope, this disease is behaving a lot like other historically significant diseases, spurring change on many levels. Since the pandemic, it seems like we are all pausing and reflecting, reevaluating everything from how we socialize and communicate to how we work and travel. Even mundane tasks like going to the grocery store or getting gas have taken on a whole new meaning. It is clear that our society at large is going through some sort of major shift or transformation and COVID-19 is accelerating the process. I don't know where we are heading but I sincerely hope that all of this reevaluation and reflection brings about a lot of positive changes.

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