You may not realize it but there are hundreds of different ways to be sick and probably just as many ways to treat an illness using natural medicine. You could just walk into an herb shop or health food store and ask someone that works there what you should take for your cold/cough/flu etc. but you will probably receive one of three answers:
1. Whatever is most popular - Echinacea, elderberry syrup, vitamin C, Thieves, etc.
2. Whatever is most profitable for the business - what's on clearance, what was overstocked, etc.
3. Whatever comes into the store clerk's brain at that moment or what has worked for them.
If you want good results, none of these suggestions will be very helpful to you. Sure it might work - but it might not - and then you will have wasted your money and you will still feel terrible. To get the most out of your trip to the herb store you need to first find someone who has some experience or training in natural health. Don't automatically assume that the young person with the tattoos knows less than the gray-haired elder or vice versa. Anything goes in this business!
Once you find someone who knows their stuff you need to know how to describe your symptoms so they can find the right remedy for you. Chances are if you start describing your symptoms this way, you will very quickly find out whether or not the person you are speaking to knows anything anyway. So here are some quick tips for describing your illness to any naturopath, herbalist, homeopath, or general natural health practitioner. I've tried to keep these as easy to understand as possible for the average person by leaving out some of the common energetics we are taught in herbalism. I find it hard sometimes to figure out whether my symptoms are damp or deficient or dry and in excess so let's keep it simple.
Ways to Describe a Sore Throat
Dry – A dry throat feels better when you drink liquids. It can hurt to swallow but generally feels okay as long as there is food or liquid there. This kind of sore throat is common in the winter with the dry air. You may notice it is worse in the morning and gets better throughout the day.
Damaged – This is the sore throat that results after an illness has been going on a while. A runny nose or sinus infection is often the culprit. The eventual drainage and action of the immune system leaves you with damaged mucosa that needs to be repaired. Laryngitis is common with this type of sore throat.
Swollen – This is at the start or early stages of an illness where the tonsils or glands become so swollen with white blood cells trying to fight the infection that it hurts to swallow or talk because of the physical action.
Other important notes - Pay attention to where it feels bad. Up high in the back of the mouth? Down by your voice box? Can you point to exactly where it hurts?
Ways to Describe a Cough
Dry – This kind of cough produces no phlegm or mucus. It's the cough you get like a tickle in your throat that just doesn't want to go away. There's nothing to cough up but it's still there. Or maybe you can feel the congestion deep in your chest but nothing comes up.
Wet – Lots of phlegm and wet stuff with this kind of cough. The immune system is working overtime drowning you in mucus. You may even hear rattling in the chest as you breathe. This is a productive kind of cough that needs to get out but you feel like your ribs and diaphragm are bruised from all the coughing.
Other important signs – If you can cough something up, what color is it? Is it thick or thin? Does it hurt when you cough like something is tearing inside? Does the cough only come at night or first thing in the morning? Does it make a particular sound like a saw going through boards or like a barking seal? Does the coughing come in fits where it is hard to catch your breath? These are all important points to note.
For Sinus Infections and Colds
Again we can go with a simple wet or dry description but it can be helpful to note the consistency of the mucus too.
Dry – it hurts to breathe through your nose. Your sinuses are packed full of mucus but it all seems stuck up there because your nose isn't running at all. You can blow all you want on that tissue but it just makes a noise like a party favor and nothing comes out.
Wet – Your nose runs constantly. You've gone through multiple boxes of tissues and you can not believe how much snot can come out of your head.
Thin – Thin mucus is runny so you have to sniff constantly to keep it in there. It may even irritate your nose and upper lip making them red and sore.
Thick – Yellow or green viscous mucus that fills up the tissue. While many people associate this kind of mucus with an infection it is not always directly associated.
Infected – This is where the sinuses are so inflamed that your teeth hurt or your head feels like it's going to explode. There is a lot of pain and a general miserable feeling.
Other important things to note for any illness
Sudden onset or gradual onset – Did you wake up all of a sudden with the illness or has it been slowly coming on over several days. This is an important thing to note especially for fevers and will help determine the best homeopathic to use.
Intensity – Is it a mild annoyance or are you wishing someone would just cut off your head to make it go away?
What makes it better- Hot drinks, cold water, outside air, wrapping up in blankets, certain types of food, etc.
What makes it worse - Cold wind, humidity, bending over, laying down, etc.
Duration of illness – Have the same symptoms been affecting you for a week or have the symptoms changed and progressed over time? Did it start with a sore throat and runny nose and then turn into a cough and congestion? Were you really sick for awhile and now a few minor symptoms seem to linger?
Additional symptoms – Body aches, earache, sneezing, headache, watery eyes, chills, fever, digestive upset, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.
Hopefully this gives you some idea of what kinds of things it is important to mention to a natural health practitioner so they can determine what the best remedy is for you. Once you do find that perfect remedy though, remember that it works best for that particular condition. So you may not be able to use that yarrow and elderflower tea for your dry cough but the next time you feel flushed and feverish with body aches and a stuffy nose, you'll be ready.
To Your Health!
Kathryn Doran-Fisher is a Traditional Naturopath, Certified GAPS Practitioner and owner of Elder & Sage.