Cold: An External Cause of Disease that may Internalise

Cold affects more people than you might think, especially as you grow old. but it can attack you at any age. It’s just as dangerous now as 2500 years ago.
cold mountains - bad for large intestine luo channel symptoms
Mountains - cold and beautiful

First, Cold can be Beautiful!

But … Cold can also be an External Cause of Disease

After WindCold  is the second most common of what are called the ‘external’ causes of disease – at least in ‘Northern’ Climates.

In Chinese medicine it is called an ‘external pathogenic factor‘. This means that it invades you from outside, and that your body tries to keep it at a distance from its essential inner Energy Organs, your ‘zang-fu‘.

Nearly 2000 years ago an observant Chinese doctor produced a theory called the Invasion of Cold in Six Stages. It is just as useful today as it was then! It explains what your body does as Cold invades, both in terms of symptoms and how serious they are – and what to do. The rest of this page is a gentle introduction to the first stage.

Your body defends itself as far as possible by putting or containing the symptoms in the acupuncture channels – usually the limbs and joints – away from the vital organs in the torso.

Cold can, however, penetrate those vital inner organs when the body’s defence system is damaged, perhaps by accident, ill-advised treatment, medication or ignorance. OR when your body is too weak to contain the pathogenic factor in a ‘safe’ place – ie on the outside, or as far from the centre as possible.

If the body cannot defend itself, at the start Cold may attack the surface areas of the body, its muscles and sinews, commonly the shoulders and neck. 

Depending on where you have weakness, it may then invade, for example, your Stomach (causing stomach pain and vomiting as in some forms of Stomach-Cold); your womb, (causing acutely painful periods); or your Intestines (diarrhoea and abdominal pain).

Of course, once it’s reached inside like this, it has become Internal Cold, about which read more below.

crystal gemstones
Photo by Scott Rodgerson

What are Typical ‘Full-Cold’ Symptoms?

If you think about what it is like to get suddenly intensely cold, you’ll recognize some of the symptoms in the list.

Often you don’t want to move much – except to shiver – and you like or crave warmth.

Mentally, it often makes you fearful and tense.

If you also have Qi stagnation, the Cold and Qi stagnation will reinforce one another.

Depending on other factors you could also have sneezing or shivering, for instance if Wind invades at the same time.

People with strong constitutions can become intensely restless and some feel terrified that they are about to die.

Acute Cold can make you fear you are dying
Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Cold symptoms

  • Your body tightens up
  • Tension
  • Lack of thirst
  • Dislike of cold
  • Preference for warmth
  • Shivering
  • Pain, often in one place and dull or stabbing
  • Watery discharges eg from the nose; pale urine; runny feces; clear or white vaginal discharges
  • Cold arms and legs, particularly hands/feet
  • Preference for warm coverings and drinks
  • Tongue: thick white coating over a pale tongue body. The thick white coating appears gradually.
  • Pulse: slow (in extreme cases, can be very slow)

Unexpected sources of Cold

Both Wind and Cold can invade quickly where your defensive-qi (this is roughly the equivalent of your immune system from the Western medical perspective) cannot prevent it.

Their penetration into your body can be stopped if caught early on.

Do not overlook or disregard this as a cause of disease! it can arrive unexpectedly, such as

  • when a woman in labour, sweating and heaving, asks for cool air to be fanned on her
  • on a warm evening when you’re hot and let yourself get cooled too fast by a breeze or by air-conditioning, and then get a chill
  • as cramps or spasms when you get up in the night to go to the lavatory or
  • when, hot in bed, to cool down you stick a leg out into cool air.
Warm clothes combat Cold
Photo by Victoria Strukovskaya on Unsplash

If appropriate action is taken immediately, such as covering up, or wrapping up well or taking a hot bath, the body may expel or overcome it.

If it lingers, however, it can lead to a long-term invasion and increasing bouts of severe pain for many years, culminating in the diagnosis perhaps of arthritis and the prescription of anti-inflammatory medications, steroids and painkillers.

By then, it will certainly have become internal cold.

It might even turn to Heat! …

By then the body may have even changed it into ‘Heat‘ symptoms, (masking the original cause) in a desperate attempt to contain or combat it. You might recognize this in the ‘burning’ skin around an arthritic joint.

With the correct treatment, if that Heat can be expelled, it is possible that the patient will then experience a period of coldness again, at which time appropriate treatment would be needed, possibly the opposite of the treatment for symptoms of Heat.

Read about the other external causes of disease:


Further reading? If this has whetted your appetite, there are many more pages on this site to consider, or why not consult our acupuncture study  reading list?

Jonathan Brand colours

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