How symptoms of colds and flu can potentially benefit from acupuncture. 

Please note that the source of this information comes directly from the British Acupuncture Council Resources.

 Acute upper respiratory tract viral infections are the most common diseases of human beings (Eccles 2005). Adults have two to five common colds each year and school children have from seven to ten colds per year (Johnston1996).

The common cold is most often caused by rhinoviruses (Heikkinen 2003). It is a short mild illness with early symptoms of headache, sneezing, chills and sore throat, and later symptoms of nasal discharge, nasal obstruction, cough and malaise (Eccles 2005). Generally, the severity of symptoms increases rapidly, peaking 2-3 days after infection, with a mean duration of symptoms of 7-10 days but with some symptoms persisting for more than 3 weeks.

Influenza is caused by infection with influenza A and B viruses. In the UK, outbreaks of influenza occur in most winters, cause much illness and are a major burden on the NHS (Meier 2000). Influenza is an unpleasant but usually self-limiting disease. The illness can affect both the upper and lower respiratory tract, and is often accompanied by systemic signs and symptoms, such as: abrupt onset of fever; chills; non-productive cough; myalgia’s; headache; nasal congestion; sore throat; and fatigue (Cox 1998). It may be complicated by, for example, otitis media, bacterial sinusitis, secondary bacterial pneumonia, meningitis, encephalitis or exacerbations of underlying disease (Department of Health 2010). In the UK, 1.3% of people with influenza-like illness are hospitalised each year (Cooper 2003), and influenza and its complications cause around3,000-4,000 deaths in an average year (far more during a major epidemic) (Meier2000). Older people, young children and immunosuppressed people are most at risk of developing complications.

The aim of management is to reduce the duration and severity of influenza symptoms, and the risk of complications; and to minimise adverse effects of treatment. Management of the common cold involves drugs to alleviate symptoms, such as mild analgesics. For influenza there are also antivirals.

How acupuncture can help

Evidence from randomised controlled trials suggests that acupuncture (Kawakita 2008; Kawakita 2004) and acupressure (Takeuchi 1999) may help relieve the symptoms of the common cold (see Table below). However, there is very little research so far in this area, and substantially more would be required to draw firm conclusions.

Acupuncture may help relieve symptoms of colds and flu by:

  • Enhancing natural killer cell activities and modulating the number and ratio of immune cell types (Kawakita 2008);
  • Reducing pain through the stimulation of nerves located in muscles and other tissues, which leads to release of endorphins and other neurohumoral factors(Pomeranz 1987);
  • Reducing inflammation through the release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors(Kavoussi 2007, Zijlstra 2003);
  • Increasing local microcirculation (Komori 2009), which aids dispersal of swelling.


Cox NJ,Fukuda K. Influenza. Infect Dis Clin North Am 1998; 12: 27-38.

Cooper NJ,Sutton AJ, Abrams KR, et al. Effectiveness of neuraminidase inhibitors intreatment and prevention of influenza A and B: systematic review and meta analyses of randomised controlled trials.BMJ 2003; 326: 1235-9.

Department of Health, 2010a. Immunisation against infectious disease – Chapter 19Influenza [online]. Available: [Accessed…].

Eccles R.Understanding the symptoms of the common cold and influenza. Lancet Infectious Diseases 2005; 5:718-25.

HeikkinenT, Jarvinen A. The common cold. Lancet 2003; 361: 51-9.

Johnston S,Holgate S. Epidemiology of viral respiratory infections. In: Myint S,Taylor-Robinson D, eds. Viral and other infections of the human respiratory tract. London: Chapman & Hall, 1996: 1-38.

Meier CP etal. Population-based study on incidence, risk factors, clinical complications and drug utilisation associated with influenza in the United Kingdom. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis 2000;19: 834-42.