Defensive Level Damp Heat Illnesses like Influenza

Photo by Noémie Cauchon on Unsplash

Key Learning Points

  • Defensive level damp heat conditions explain how your body defends itself against diseases like ‘flu, SARS and the corona virus.
  • Ideally you’ll get a fever. If not, the disease will probably last longer. Avoid painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications if possible.
  • What to eat and what to avoid.
  • How to strengthen your body to cope better.

Defensive level damp heat syndrome? What on Earth can this be?


By the way! If you’ve arrived at this page by clicking on ‘influenza’ somewhere, welcome! This site is about how Chinese medicine explains and treats disease, and this page is on a syndrome that is very like influenza.

As a contagious disease attacks you, your body responds with symptoms. If your body responds to the pathogen with symptoms of what in Chinese medicine is called  ‘damp heat‘, then this first response is said to be on the outside, because the disease has not gained a strong foothold inside you.

In the case of influenza, Western medicine considers it more a problem of the lungs.

Chinese medicine approaches it rather differently, but don’t let that stop you benefiting from this page.

Chinese medicine certainly doesn’t ignore the lung problem!

That outside or exterior level is where your defensive, or wei qi energy works to defend you.

This is a bit like saying your immune system strives to keep the disease as far from your important inner organs as possible, ie on the outside or as near the outside as possible.

So, if you’re reading this page, perhaps you’ve already caught the bug. But if not, and assuming you don’t want to catch it, click here to see what to do.

Defensive level Damp Heat symptoms

This is a contagious disease that your body is fighting, and its first and often best response is a fever

  • This kind of fever is often worse later in the day, or from the afternoon onwards
  • Dislike of cold, eg cold air: you prefer warmth – even though you have a fever
  • Skin feels hot when touched
  • Sensation of heaviness, tiredness
  • Glands are swollen
  • Headache on the forehead
  • Stomach area, ie epigastrium feels full and blocked
  • Taste is ‘sticky’
  • Thirsty but no great desire to drink
  • Can have diarrhoea and vomiting
  • Tongue: white, sticky coating
  • Pulse: soggy, slow


Why do you get these symptoms?


Damp weather
Damp weather

These defensive level damp heat symptoms are produced mainly because of the nature of damp. Damp affects the Stomach and Spleen energy organs more than the others. Like a damp, foggy day, which slows traffic and produces condensation that makes clothes heavy, everything gets blocked up in your body.

  • Your stomach gets ‘blocked’ by the damp. Just as you can’t see properly through a fog, your Stomach energy cannot express its hunger needs clearly. Even if thirsty you don’t want to drink much.
  • Your forehead feels heavy and sore. This is where your Stomach channel extends to.
  • The Damp prevents your Spleen from nourishing your muscles, making you feel heavy and tired.
  • Damp makes your glands swell.


What can be done about Defensive Level Damp Heat?

Notice that in the following treatment plan for defensive level damp heat, no mention is made of the kind of pathogen, the actual disease – other than its damp-heat nature! To work, this treatment doesn’t need to know which bacteria or virus caused your problem and its symptoms. 

So it could be many diseases, ranging from the common cold to influenza. Theoretically it could be almost any disease, though some pathogens don’t play the game and romp straight past this defensive level damp heat into deeper and more serious levels.

This is very different from Western medicine, which might perhaps take a swab for a laboratory to discover which disease you had, and so identify the best antibiotic or treatment for it. Meantime, your doctor might give your a broad-action antibiotic in the hope that this would hamper the bug’s movements.

What Chinese medicine aims to do for Defensive Level Damp Heat conditions

For defensive level damp heat, the aim of treatment in Chinese medicine is to

  • ‘release’ the exterior, (see below)
  • ‘resolve’ the Damp. This means to help your body to excrete the ‘damp’, mostly by urination. It does this by assisting your Spleen to be more effective at transforming the damp into liquid which your kidneys can then excrete.
  • clear the Heat and 
  • regulate the Spleen and Stomach


© Kk5hy | – The Fighter Photo

Releasing the exterior means helping the body to throw the pathogen out, ensuring that any perspiration that occurs is not prevented or suppressed.

However, sweating too much can be draining so at the same time as ‘resolving’ the Damp and clearing the Heat, the inside energy of the body is regulated by ‘steadying’ the Spleen and Stomach.

The basic, or commonly used, herbal recipe suggested for defensive level damp heat is huo xiang zheng qi tang, which does all these things.

The relative amount of the ingredients of the basic formula would be varied according to how much heat and damp there were.


This formula for defensive level damp heat has often been used for diseases like colds and influenza in their early stages.

People are often tempted to treat themselves

Because Damp has a stultifying effect on the mind, get someone else to diagnose and treat you! It is easy to forget that sick people take sick decisions! If you are the sick person, you may not be thinking straight!

Acupuncture points often used for defensive level damp heat include LI 4, LI 11, CV9 & 12, Sp9, Sp6 with other points on the back. But these would vary according to your symptoms and the syndrome(s) you had. For example, if you had a cough as well, then other points would be added.

If you have this condition and don’t want to use Western medicine to suppress it, (mainly by cooling you down and often by preventing a proper fever then perspiration), then go to bed and husband your resources.


What can you do yourself?

Sort out Stress

Most kinds of stress strain your Spleen Qi, because you get worried, and worry/anxiety is a particular drain on your Spleen.

They also often stop you breathing properly. Why? Because – in Chinese medicine – your Liver energy when stressed hits out specifically at your Spleen and Lungs.

I appreciate that just telling you that may not be enough!

When I started thinking about this, initially I wrote a page on Liver Qi stagnation. It’s quite a good page, though I say it myself.

But lots of people wanted to know more.



So I wrote a book on it – Qi Stagnation – Signs of Stress. This wasn’t for professionals, although to judge from feedback, many who read it are either students or practising Chinese medicine as a career.

It was written for you. At the time of writing, the book has been publicised only on this website. If people find it, they find it here. I have had many very positive responses, that it’s easy to read, very informative, quite different from most books on stress and so on.

I’m very grateful for what people say. They have contributed their opinions without special prompting, other than on this site or on Amazon. None of the opinions about it are from professional or paid reviewers. 

Do read what they said – here. If you are troubled by stress, I hope the book will help you.




Photo by CDC on Unsplash

You may be tempted to get vaccinated against influenza, a disease with symptoms very similar to those of  defensive level damp heat.

Although doctors insist that the latest ‘flu vaccines will protect you, there are disadvantages to having the jab, too. And of, course, if the ‘flu turns out to be different to the virus against which you’ve been vaccinated, it won’t work much if at all.

What is more, according to recent reviews in the Cochrane Database of Systematic reports, there is very little evidence that the vaccination makes much difference, for instance for the elderly or for the healthcare workers who care for them. Similar reports cast doubt on the beneficial effects of influenza vaccination in children.


What helps?

There are some things you can do about this defensive level damp heat syndrome, both to avoid it in the first place, and to reduce the severity of your symptoms should it get you in its grip.

First, prevention, so please read our page on hygiene and skin care.

Hygiene - wash hands in warm water

Also, read our page on influenza. There’s much more on that page on prevention than we can easily cover here.

Just touching something recently touched by someone with ‘flu can spread it to you.

But even then, you won’t necessarily catch the virus.

To catch it (a disease of the defensive level damp heat type) you have to be susceptible, and there is plenty you can do to make yourself less susceptible. If your immune system is healthy and active, it can often stop the bug getting a hold. So the reason you catch the bug is also because your immune system is impaired.

The main thing to realise is that defensive level Damp Heat severely compromises the action of your Spleen and Stomach. Different bugs affect different organs: influenza, for instance, also affects the Lungs, and your Lung energy works very closely with Stomach and Spleen. Indeed, the Lung channel starts in the region of your stomach.

So there are three main zangfu – energy organs – that your actions can weaken; Stomach, Spleen and Lungs.

  • Stomach: what you eat makes a HUGE difference to how susceptible you are
  • Spleen: foods affect it, as do emotions like worry
  • Lungs: because your Lungs rule your skin as well as your lung organs and respiration, and together with your Spleen and Stomach provide you with Qi – energy – to nourish your immune system, you need to know how to keep your Lung energy working well.


Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Let’s face it, a fever is unpleasant. But that’s how your body uses its genetic know-how to fight the invader. Unless your fever exceeds 40 Celsius for long periods – please, let it do its work! You’ll recover faster. So try to avoid aspirin and other painkillers that reduce your fever – which they all do.

We take analgesics like aspirin for the discomfort and fever. They do work, but at they same time they ‘suppress’ or weaken your body’s natural response.

In healthy people, this suppression of ‘defensive level damp heat’ reactions may not matter much, but prolonged or frequent suppression may weaken your health. To understand more about why this could happen, read up on suppression.


How to help your Stomach/Spleen

First, what to Avoid!

There are foods that stop your Stomach and Spleen working properly. If you eat a lot of these ‘wrong’ foods, your body will be less able to defend itself against defensive level damp heat type situations.

That means you are more likely

  • to succumb to them and/or 
  • to suffer symptoms that are either worse or last longer.


Here’s a list of the problem foods, ie those that weaken the Stomach and Spleen:


Sweet, creamy Cake - a terrible food if you fear defensive level damp heat diseases
Junk food to sink your Stomach and Spleen!
  • Sugar and all things sweet, or that turn into sugars soon after eating. So avoid foods that are made from refined grains, like bread, pasta, all forms of sugar, brown or white, and sweetening (including honey), starches like potato, and even sweet fruit, including puddings. These will tend to weaken your Spleen and Stomach, making them more susceptible to Damp and Heat.
  • Fructose is thought to be particularly pernicious. Unfortunately fructose is frequently used in a huge range of foods, including syrups and fruit juices.
  • You can also weaken your Stomach by eating cold, raw and chilled foods and drinks, so avoid them too. If there is a cold or influenza lurking in your environment, make sure all you eat is freshly cooked, and eaten or drunk when hot, using unused and clean utensils. Green tea, in one study, reduced the incidence of flu in children who drank it often.


Any good foods?

  • Chicken or turkey soup is famous for being beneficial for Spleen and Stomach. Ideally use birds that are organic or at least free-range. Probably these birds will not have been reared with antibiotics.
  • Ginger in small quantities helps your Stomach and Spleen work better against defensive level damp heat challenges.
  • Warm foods are better than cold foods. They also take less energy to digest, especially in cold weather. Against defensive level damp heat, you may need all the help you can get.
  • Well-cooked food is usually more easily digested, and free of bugs that might cause problems. But cooking does destroy enzymes and some vitamins, so if you are in good health and sure your food is not infected by unpleasant E.Coli type organisms (wash it carefully!), this is less important.


Non-food situations

person diving on pool splashing water
Photo by Lavi Perchik
  • Of course, avoid damp and warm-damp places, such as steam-rooms, if you can. Why? From the point of view of Chinese medicine, this is only partly because these are places that the virus/bacteria can survive for longer. Damp and warm-damp environments are problems for your Spleen which is said (in Chinese medicine) to function better in cool or cold conditions.
  • Even swimming pools and changing rooms are wet and warm. They should, of course, be regularly checked to ensure that their water is unfriendly to the bugs but if you are swallowing water that was recently spat out by someone contagious, your immune system may still be challenged.


  • Many actions of the mind affect the Spleen. The main ones are worry and anxiety. Over-studying or working mentally also weakens the Spleen. Make time to do other things than just work. Stress occurring as you catch a disease weakens your immune system. Talk it out if you can.


Helping your immune system BEFORE the ‘flu season

  • It is thought that a large proportion of your immune system resides in your gastrointestinal tract, starting in your mouth and ending in your anus. Keep that healthy and it will fight the bugs. 
  • How to do this? Good nutrition is part of this. 


six brown cubes on gray surface, bad for defensive level damp heat like influenza
Photo by Irina
  • In addition, and this is importantavoid sugars and sugary or sweet foods, as explained above, because these weaken your Spleen and Stomach and favour the opposition.
  • Also, reduce dairy foods, which form phlegm inside you. Bugs love phlegm!
  • Cut out sugar and sweeteners and foods containing them including dairy foods, because when as a result of eating them you start getting phlegm, this phlegm often ends up in your lungs, blocking them from getting you better. Also, bugs love phlegm.
  • Cut out sweeteners (whether artificial or otherwise), and processed foods. Processed foods are often already half-way to being sugars because of the way processing affects the enzymes in the foods.

Try to avoid painkillers and antibiotics!

  • Avoid medicines that destroy the health of your gastrointestinal tract, including antibiotics. Your doctor knows that antibiotics don’t work against viruses like colds and influenza, but you or he may be tempted by antibiotics for other conditions. Such as? Well, some forms of pneumonia that are bacteria-caused: these antibiotics ‘may’  kill. But not all pneumonias are like this and antibiotics have no effect on these other kinds. The trouble is that antibiotics aren’t fussy! They kill off other parts of your immune system that could keep unwelcome viruses at bay.


  • Not all your immune system resides in your gastro-intestinal tract! In Chinese medicine, your defence energy – your wei qi – is managed by your Lung qi at the skin level: a reason why a reasonable – natural – tan is not a bad idea, and benefits you in many ways. 
  • However, you can’t suddenly get a tan when ‘flu appears. This is something you acquire by taking exercise in sunny weather. You then top it up with exercise outside as often as you can. More on this below.
Sensible sunbathing helps lungs
Sensible sunbathing helps immunity

Sunbathing girls by the pool

© Rebecca Abell



  • (Sunburned skin, especially that acquired in most tanning parlours, is not a good idea.) 


What Foods Might Help as/if you catch a cold or ‘flu?

  • Bear in mind that once you’ve caught the bug, and symptoms have settled into this defensive level damp-heat pattern, the emphasis on what to do changes from avoiding other people who may be contagious and being scrupulous about hygiene, to avoiding people who have NOT caught it – whilst still remaining careful of hygiene!

  • Once you have come down with the disease, it is not so important to take only cooked foods. There are many foods that nourish your immune system and these include:


Milk Glass
Photo by Kim Gorga on Unsplash
  • Milk and milk products like natural yogurt BUT … of course don’t take these if you are allergic or highly sensitive to dairy food; take it only if it is from organic and preferably grass-fed cows; AND …
  • … take dairy foods only if your symptoms do not include much phlegm and catarrh.
  • ‘Milk’ alternatives made from almonds, coconut, quinoa and flax seed are less phlegm-forming and almost as nutritious as dairy milk. Beware nut sensitivities, of course!
Sauerkraut supports your body in dealing with Defensive level damp heat
Sauerkraut – a good probiotic food
  • Take foods that are rich in natural enzymes that assist health such as miso, sauerkraut and pickles. These populate your gastrointestinal tract with all the best kind of bacteria. In many ways they are like the good bugs in natural yogurt, but less easily destroyed by your stomach on the way to your intestines. Be sure they are not pasteurised! Pasteurisation kills the very ‘good’ bugs you want. (By the way, some clever-clogs will tell you that your stomach acid will kill off all ‘good’ bugs in sauerkraut or yogurt so they’ll never reach your gut. Well, ask yourself, assuming you have good bugs down there, how did they get there in the first place?)


  • Vegetables and salads – preferably organic. 
  • Organic vegetables – cooked. Chinese medicine prefers that you eat cooked food, especially when ill, because it is thought that raw foods put more of a strain on Stomach Yang energy, which, when you are ill, may be low.
  • What about (organic) beef, chicken and eggs? eg Chicken or turkey soup! And fish, preferably from the sea, not from fish-farms. However, you do not need much protein! Indeed, too much protein is hard to digest for your embattled Spleen and Stomach.
  • Mushrooms like Reishi, Shiitake and Maitake. These are generally thought to be beneficial for your immune system. However, although they are foods, they are concentrated in their actions, so don’t take them on their own. Also, remember that your digestion may not be used to them. Any food, if taken too concentrated, can produce side-effects such as nausea, indigestion and diarrhoea when you aren’t used to it.
  • Drink plenty of fresh, clean water: hot or cold. Drink enough to make your urine either colourless or a very light yellow. (But don’t go mad! For example, if you regularly take Vitamin B, it will colour your urine. To render your urine colourless you’d need to drink far more than might be sensible and keep you hopping off to urinate every hour. Not restful at all!)
  • If your nose is very blocked up by the virus, add herbs that stimulate your Lung Qi to work a little harder, such as pepper, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon.
Jonathan Brand colours

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Herbs, Acupuncture and Defensive Level Damp Heat

How do these help with defensive level damp-heat?

What is Acupuncture?! Useful for defensive level damp heat conditions
Acupuncture needle being inserted into low back.
  • Before you get sick, good treatment aims to strengthen and balance your system using acupuncture points and herbs. These treatments aim to balance your Qi and Blood, and to keep each of your acupuncture channels and zangfu healthy.
  • Tai Qi can teach you movements that stretch and exercise your body naturally, taking it up to, but not beyond, its natural stretch limit. The more you do it, the fitter and healthier you’ll become, the result being a stronger immune system. A stronger immune system means that sometimes you won’t catch an illness when others do, but if you do catch it, your response will probably be stronger and, other things being equal, you are likely to recover faster.
  • After you’ve caught a defensive level damp heat disease, perhaps something like influenza, very often the treatment for it from a practitioner will ease your way back to health faster.


Help your Lungs deal with Defensive Level Damp Heat problems

With defensive level damp heat, after your Spleen, your Lung energy comes next. Your Lungs Qi looks after not just your lungs and your respiration but also your skin. What can you do to help your skin? 

There’s more on this on our page Skin Care and Hygiene.


Vitamin D

  • Skin: during the summer, expose your skin to the sun, enough to get a mild tan without burning. Do it regularly. This, we now know, enhances the vitamin D your body makes. Vitamin D is important for immune system health. 
  • If you cannot expose your skin enough, either because of where you live or because the sun is too low in the sky to make you tan, then consider supplementation with Vitamin D2, the kind you get from foods like fish liver oils, dairy products, and eggs; also from sweet potatoes and vegetable oils. But Vitamin D2 from food can’t be used until it’s been metabolised by your liver and kidneys, and is less effective than D3 from sunlight. D3 (cholecalciferol) is thought to be best. For more on this see this article.
Vitamin D helps against defensive level damp heat problems
Tanning for vitamin D protection – Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash
  • Tanning naturally from the sun is better, not least because it produces a different and better form of vitamin D in your blood. But in dark winter months well away from the equator, vitamin D supplementation may be important to help your immune system: just not as good as the sun. 
  • Tanning in some kinds of tanning studios may also help. Click here for what is thought to be the best form of tanning studio.
  • Exercise that gets you out of breath! In the open air, if possible. Regularly! See below.
  • Vitamin D isn’t the only benefit from exposing skin to the sun. Other benefits are experiential. In due course someone will elaborate on the scientific benefits of the right kind of skin exposure, not just vitamin D!



  • Breathing – fresh air. Exercise your lungs by taking regular doses of fresh air, preferably by doing something, like walking fast, that gets you out of breath so that you have to breathe deeply, for 20 minutes a day. 
  • This helps Lung Qi. Getting out of breath regularly, ie toning your lungs, is important because otherwise you may not exercise the upper parts of your lungs as well as the lower parts. Defensive level damp heat is less likely to occur if you have strong lungs. If it does occur, it is less likely to really weaken you.
  • Introduce live growing plants into your environment. Spend time where trees and plants grow: parks, woods, the country. But don’t just sit around admiring it! Walk through it. Run if you like!
  • Learn to breathe properly, using all parts of your lungs. For example, as in yoga, but any good exercise therapist, physiotherapist or acupuncturists may be able to help.
  • Defensive level damp heat makes you heavy and slow. Learning to breathe properly helps you stay healthy.


girl singing and playing guitar near wall
Photo by Felix Koutchinski
  • Singing: before the season of colds and ‘flus, do something to improve your lung capacity and health. 
  • Take up singing. It helps your lungs work more efficiently, improving their action in supporting your immune function.
  • Exercise: this forces your body to push fresh blood round your body, maintaining your tissues. In Chinese medicine, this moves your Qi and Blood.
  • When Qi and Blood are moved, regularly, the damp in defensive level damp heat has less of a chance to settle.


Rest and Sleep

  • Rest and Sleep: don’t get over-tired! Getting over-tired lowers your resistance to defensive level damp heat, making you more susceptible to diseases including influenza. Good sleep rejuvenates your Qi, your Lungs and your immune system, making you less prone to defensive level damp-heat.
  • Remember that we’re talking here about defensive level damp heat. Those words defensive level imply not attack but defence. For defence you need strong, well-rested defenders. So during the ‘flu season, for example, rest more: which doesn’t mean ‘gaming’ all night.


Direct work on your skin


Skin brushing tones skin and Lungs
Skin brushing helps Lungs and immune system
  • Moving a little further into territory that stimulates your Lungs, consider vigorous massage, the kind your get after a Turkish bath, or using a brush to stimulate your nerves and to  clear away old skin. 
  • Brushing. The way you brush yourself should be vigorous and from your extremities towards your heart. Buy a long-handled skin brush, preferably with a hand-retainer across its back. 
  • This will probably help even when you have defensive level damp heat symptoms but it’s best done before. You might not feel up for it when you have full blown symptoms!
  • Don’t forget to read Skin Care and Hygiene.


Defensive Level Damp Heat seasons

Just because we’ve mentioned influenza and colds as being more prevalent in autumn and winter, it doesn’t mean defensive level damp heat problems don’t occur in other seasons or conditions.

Of course they do! For example, people returning from summer holidays are often cooped up in warm, damp transports such as cars, buses and trains, even planes.

Or they eat all the wrong foods at this time.

Try to become aware of how your body is reacting. Start taking precautions if possible even before symptoms appear, and certainly as they occur.

For information how different phases of life and the seasons affect you, read up on the 5 Elements.

Return from this page on defensive level damp heat to our main page on the four levels.

You could also read our page on the remaining pathogenic factor – the dead burglar in your house!

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