COVID-19 Infections are Treated with Chinese Herbal Medicine

The power of Chinese herbal medicine for treating viral and bacterial infections has long been under-appreciated in the West.  Yet, in China, medicinal herbs have been valued for millennia for their potent antiviral and antibacterial properties.  In modern China, traditional herbal medicine is often integrated with the use of Western pharmaceuticals to treat infectious diseases.  Herbal medicine is especially critical for widening the treatment options for new pathogens that are not well-understood, including the current epidemic of coronavirus.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Chinese herbal medicine is a critical part of China’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.  The integration of Western medicine and Chinese herbal medicine in the treatment protocols for COVID-19 comes as welcome news. COVID-19 has already arrived in the USA, and here in the Portland area.  As new herbal treatment protocols are developed and improved to combat the epidemic in China, we will benefit from Chinese research and experience.

Chinese Government Changes Strategy in COVID-19 Epidemic

With the city of Wuhan under lockdown, the Chinese government announced a major change in strategy: all patients with confirmed COVID-19 infections were to use Chinese medicine, as of February 10, 2020.  Even before this official edict, as early as January, Chinese herbal medicine was being used or required in treatment protocols for pneumonia patients with COVID-19 infection at hospitals in Wuhan, as well as Guangdong Province.

Reports from patient rounds at Guangdong Provincial Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine are compelling.  Most of the patients arrived severely ill and “did not even have the energy to moan.”  Within a few days of beginning herbal formulas along with Western treatment protocols, many regained the energy to speak and sit up in bed.  Chinese herbal treatment added greatly to the patients’ relief from breathing issues, fatigue, diarrhea and other symptoms related to the infection.

Respiratory experts in Hubei and Guangdong have worked to develop special herbal treatment protocols specific to the stages of illness with coronavirus and its complications, including prevention, active viral infection, pneumonia complications, and recovery.

In addition, researchers are testing various widely-used herbal formulas to find out if they can either kill the virus or reduce viral access to the cell, preventing the massive inflammation that can lead to death.  So far, five formulas have been identified that may prove effective, out of 54 tested, according to Yang Zifeng, of Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health.  More clinical trials are needed to confirm the results.

Herbal Medicine, East, and West

The emergence of new viral and bacterial pathogens is a major global public health concern.   Opportunities for viruses to transmit from wild animals to humans (such as COVID-19, SARS or the Ebola virus) have increased with the destruction of wild habitats.  At the same time, “superbugs” (such as MRSA) are emerging as bacteria adapt and develop resistance to antibiotics. Traditional Chinese herbal medicine offers an important option for the development of new approaches to the treatment of infectious disease in several respects:

  • Traditional Chinese herbal formulas provide safe and effective options for treating many common infections, such as cold and flu, bronchitis, sinus infections, urinary tract infections and wound healing.  This helps reduce the overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics, helping to slow the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • Chinese herbal medicine rarely has side effects.  Herbal medicine can help to avoid damage to the intestinal microbiome (the beneficial bacteria in the human gut) which results from overuse of antibiotics.
  • Herbal medicine can be used in combination with Western pharmaceutical drugs to augment treatment, as with the COVID-19 patients.
  • Medicinal herbs are the source material for research and development of new pharmaceutical drugs.  Most antibiotics, such as penicillin, were originally derived from plants and fungi that were known by traditional cultures to treat infection.  Preserving these medicinal species, and the ecosystems that support them, is invaluable to our future survival.

For thousands of years, traditional Chinese herbal medicine has been part of the treatment in every epidemic in Chinese history.  In the 21st Century, we need traditional herbal medicine even more on the world stage of public health.

What You Can Do to Stay Healthy

If you are concerned about the arrival of COVID-19 (and you should be), don’t panic and stock up on face masks.  A better choice is to improve your immune health and strengthen your immune response preventively. Regular acupuncture wellness treatments and immune-modulating herbs, along with better nutrition and lifestyle habits, can help your body survive any type of infection more easily.  If you do become ill, it is more likely to be mild if your body is in good shape.

We can’t avoid exposure to COVID-19 completely.  It has a long incubation period, which means that the infection will spread silently before someone falls ill.  By all means, take precautions like frequent hand-washing, avoiding public crowds, and planning ahead for time off from work.  But most of all, take care of your own immune health.


Special thanks to John Chen, Pharm. D., et. al., of the Lotus Institute, for translating and sharing source material.

Elizabeth Zenger, Ph.D., L.Ac. is an acupuncturist and Board-certified Chinese herbalist in private practice in Northwest Portland, OR.  She also has a professional background in public health research. If you are interested in acupuncture and herbal medicine for immune wellness, she can be contacted at 503-227-2127 or through this website.