Chinese Medicine and Childhood Illness

Childhood Illnesses

At Home with an Acupuncturist

With a toddler at daycare and an infant with an active social life, my family seems to be collecting all the early childhood viruses. It’s the immune system adjustment that almost all kids go through at some point, despite our precautions. With the seasonal transitions, we’re bound to encounter this season’s round of illnesses.

So how do we cope with the fallout from routine childhood illnesses in our home? With as much patience as we can muster, plus a combination of Chinese and western herbs and nutrition, massage, shonishin and acupuncture. Yes, even acupuncture! Shonishin is another therapeutic technique for young children and infants, involving stroking, scraping, and tapping along acupuncture channels and points with small tools. It’s a great alternative to needles, especially for kids like my toddler, who have suffered through enough routine vaccines to be wary of all needles. While blanket recommendations are not easy to give, I hope this post inspires you with a glimpse of some natural ways we support our children’s health. As you’ll see from these examples, our approach depends on the season and how the illness is presenting in our kids, which can be tricky when young ones can’t tell you exactly what’s wrong.

Early this spring, both my daughters had upper respiratory conditions with nasal congestion, but no fever. While we wanted them to hydrate extra, we held off on juice, as they were already discharging a lot of mucus, and many juices can aggravate phlegmy conditions. We cut back the dairy from our toddler’s diet for the same reason, and added more pungent, acrid foods to help expel the mucus. For our baby who had just started eating solids, we did purees with cooked turnip, radish, onion, and garlic. Our pickier toddler preferred porridge with ginger and extra cinnamon. Both were given broth with seaweed to help break up the phlegm. Before naps and bed, I massaged points on their chests and upper backs with (very) diluted essential oil blends, and despite all the nose wiping during the few days it took to run its course, at night they were able to sleep without much trouble from the congestion.

Late spring, they came down with low grade fevers and low appetite that lingered for a few days. This time, I gave tea with lemon balm and licorice. Lemon balm has anti-viral properties, and a calming effect, helpful for my toddler who started off this illness with a pretty bad mood, though she couldn’t tell me what felt wrong. Licorice is a qi tonic that is especially soothing for the digestive system. And its sweetness made it more convincing to drink the tea and hydrate extra. Before bed, I did extra massage and shoni shin to help bring the fever down and make it easier for them to get to sleep. Even though the fever returned for a few mornings, we were all much less grumpy after sleeping well. On the fourth day I convinced my toddler to let me needle her very briefly, and soon after, her fever peaked and then completely subsided, with no other symptoms to follow.

Most recently, my kids had hand-foot-and-mouth disease, a common early childhood viral infection. It usually presents in young children with a high fever, followed by sores that often appear in the mouth and on the palms and soles, which can be quite uncomfortable. My toddler started with a high fever, fatigue and low appetite. I didn’t push her to eat, and mostly let her follow her appetite. I held back on the hot natured foods, and sugary foods or juices. Both girls started getting mint tea that day, even though the baby wasn’t symptomatic yet- I just assumed she’d be following close behind her sister.  I cooked a large pot of ground buckwheat cereal, which is a cooling grain that happens to also be a Chinese medicinal for treating sores. I didn’t try to stop my toddlers fever, but just monitored to make sure it wasn’t too high, and that she wasn’t too lethargic. To keep her hydrated, I offered cooling, watery cucumbers and watermelon. Overnight the fever broke and the next day she was back to her usual, energetic self. I only noticed a few sores the next day on her chin, and then a mild rash on her arms. The hardest part of the “illness” was keeping her home for a week while she felt perfectly well. Our baby followed a similar progression 3 days later, but even milder, perhaps because she had already started on the cooling herbs and foods.

Looking forward to what the new season will bring, I am making sure that our pantry is stocked with a few items that are especially useful for treating dryness. This is a common way that symptoms of upper respiratory infections seem to present in the fall, so we will keep pear juice, mullein, dried white mulberries, and goji berries on hand, for some delicious tea and congees, and get our humidifiers ready. Even with the power of Chinese medicine, I don’t expect my kids to be invincible against all the common childhood illnesses. But I am grateful to have the knowledge and tools on hand to help them through the recovery process with as little discomfort as possible.


If your child is struggling with seasonal illnesses, you can directly reach out to Erin with any questions via email at Book a visit with Erin through our site here.

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