External Causes of Disease: What Makes You Ill!

Photo by AK¥N Cakiner on Unsplash

External Causes of Disease are those we catch. We could have caused them ‘external pathogenic factors’ but that sounds less interesting!

Yet, probably at least 2000 years before Western medicine discovered bacteria and viruses, Chinese medicine developed a strategy for diagnosing and treating the illnesses bugs caused – even though doctors didn’t know the bugs existed!

Then, around 220AD, they wrote down their theory and treatment strategies. Later – in the 17th Century AD they refined all this further.

Once you understand what they meant by the words they used, you’ll begin to make sense of their ideas.

Here are the words they used – translated into English, of course.

External Causes of Disease

Man Running in Wind


NB! As we said, viruses and bacteria aren’t included because the ancient Chinese had never heard of them. In fact they came up with what we would recognise as germ-theory only five hundred years ago.

Still, that was well before the West got the idea!

Although they didn’t recognise viruses and bacteria as such, Chinese medicine did of course encounter them.

Chinese doctors observed how their patients reacted to these diseases, and the stages of disease through which illness went.

Their treatment methods have stood the test of time.

These six descriptions (Wind, Cold, Damp, Dryness, Heat, Summer-Heat, plus combinations like Wind-Cold and Wind-Heat) describe not weather-related factors but individual reactions to disease.

This means that in a group of people all exposed, say, to very damp conditions, only some of them might react with what Chinese medicine calls symptoms of Damp.

Others might produce symptoms of Wind, others of Cold, some of Wind-cold, some of Heat etc.

What can be confusing is that they use words of external origin (like ‘Wind’ and ‘Cold’) to describe internal states of disease. Once you’ve got your head round this, however, understanding the rest is easy!

External Causes of Disease produce ‘Acute’ diseases

What we call ‘external causes of disease’ produce conditions that are acute. Usually they start quickly, though how fast depends on your particular metabolism. Some, not all, of them arise from what orthodox medicine calls bacteria or viruses.

Others describe the reactions our bodies make to external conditions. The main idea to grasp is that it is not the predisposing factor, but the individual’s reaction to it, that is being described when describing these external causes of disease.

Grasp that, and you may be able to predict some of the symptoms you’d expect to find.

For example, Summer-Heat nearly always comes from very hot conditions in the environment. But the other external causes of disease – wind, wind-cold, wind-heat, damp, wind-dampness and fire – could theoretically arise from any external stimulus, not just one with bacteria or viruses, or on a very hot day, or a windy day, or cold weather. It is the reaction of the body that matters, not the actual nature of the external stimulus.

What do these Reactions to external causes of disease mean?

These reactions to external causes of disease represent acute and healing crises as your body tries to return itself to a healthy balance in the face of this attack from outside. The symptoms show how your body is externalising the disease, and when successful, how it completes the healing crisis.

If these reactions to the external causes of disease are suppressed, the disease process becomes internalised, leading to other symptoms,  usually more sinister, harder to externalise, and lowering the reactive power of your body, so making it more susceptible to further invasion.

What this means is that when an environmental pathogenic force (one of the external causes of disease) invades your body, such as when you catch (the bacteria of) a cold, the body’s reaction is classified as being Wind, or Cold or Wind-Heat or Wind-cold etc. as its immune force joins in combat with the invader.

Typical symptoms of an invasion by one of these external factors include

  • headache
  • chills
  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • stiff neck and
  • a ‘floating, fast’ pulse.


These symptoms are typical for many diseases including the common cold, influenza, and upper respiratory infections.



man holding white and gray bottle
Photo by Kelly Sikkema


What happens next depends first on the strength of your immune system, (or in Chinese medicine, your ‘Upright Qi’), and your Wei qi, your defensive energy.

Factors include not just your constitutional strength and fitness, but your mental and emotional situation and what level of toxicity your body is carrying.

Another factor is the virulence of the invading pathogenic factor and how familiar your  body is with it. However, usually more important than the virulence of the invader is your immune system’s strength.

What happens next?

What to do next depends on several factors for which there are two big theories.

We use them every day. Do they work? Yes, they do: –


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