How TCM can help fight chicken pox

Bugbane rhizome porridge.
PHOTO: How TCM can help fight chicken pox

Bugbane rhizome helps to promote the eruption of rashes from chicken pox and measles to hasten recovery.

WHAT IT IS: Bugbane rhizomes are the stems of plants in the family Ranunculaceae.

This herb is also known by other names such as cohosh rhizome and Cimicifuga Rhizome, and is called shengma in Chinese.

Mr Tan Chu Song, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner (TCM) at the Singapore Buddhist Free Clinic, said it is produced mainly in the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, Hubei and Jiangsu and harvested in autumn.

The third edition of the Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica notes that good quality bugbane rhizome consists of big roots with a brownish-black surface, a yellowish-green cross-section, a compact texture and no hairy roots.

A packet of the herb is sold at $1.60 for a tael (37.5g) at some medical halls here.

HOW TCM USES IT: Bugbane rhizome, with its sweet, acrid taste, is considered slightly cool in nature.

Hence, it is used to disperse heat in the body, manifested in symptoms such as mouth ulcers, a sore throat, fever, a flushed face and thirst, or in conditions such as measles, chicken pox and rubella, said Mr Tan.

Bugbane rhizome is said to move through the meridians of the large intestines, lungs, spleen and stomach. Meridians are channels in the body through which qi (vital energy) travels.

Mr Tan said the herb can help to resolve the pathogenic factors of heat and dampness which afflict the spleen and stomach and give rise to sticky stools, and a bitter and dry mouth.

Consuming too much food which is considered either heaty or cold will adversely affect the digestive functions of the spleen and stomach.

For example, durians, lychee and chocolates are considered heaty in TCM while iced drinks and bittergourd are known as cold food, he added.

When the spleen is weakened, nutrients are converted into phlegm and dampness instead of blood and qi.

Just as heat rises, the warming element of yang also has an upward movement - driven by qi, which keeps organs in their correct positions in the body.

It is believed that bugbane rhizome can address the prolapse of internal organs, such as the rectum or uterus, which are caused by yang deficiency.

Bugbane rhizome is commonly used along with other herbs such as Chinese thorowax root and kudzuvine root, Mr Tan said.

WHO IT IS FOR: Mr Tan said bugbane rhizome is helpful in promoting the eruption of rashes and hastening recovery in conditions such as chicken pox, rubella and measles, all of which are regarded as heat-related illnesses.

Those whose rashes have already fully erupted may also use it, though the herb may not be as effective for them at that stage of their illness.

WHO SHOULD AVOID IT: As the cooling herb will help to dispel heat, it will further deplete yin - the element responsible for cooling organs - in the body and so should be used with caution in those with yin deficiency.

Signs are irritability, night sweats and insomnia, Mr Tan said.

WHAT RESEARCH HAS SHOWN: A study published in The American Journal of Chinese Medicine in 2012 showed that bugbane rhizome was effective at preventing and managing the human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a major cause of lower respiratory tract infections in infants, young children and adults.

The experiment, using both human upper and lower respiratory tract cell lines, showed that the herb was effective at inhibiting RSV-induced plaque formation, hence prompting the authors from Taiwan to conclude that it "could inhibit viral replication in the nasopharynx".

The nasopharynx is the area of the upper part of the throat behind the nose.


Bugbane rhizome porridge (serves one)


30g rice
10g ginseng
3g bugbane rhizome
300ml water


1. In a pot with 300ml water, cook the ginseng and bugbane rhizome at medium heat for half an hour.

2. Then pour in the rice and let it simmer for 15 minutes or until the rice turns to porridge. Seasoning can be added if desired.

3. Serve the porridge warm.

Source: Mr Tan Chu Song, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner at the Singapore Buddhist Free Clinic.

What mainstream medicine says

What mainstream medicine says

Chicken pox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which is most commonly spread through the air.

It can also be transmitted through contact with a patient's skin rash, which contains the virus, said Dr Wong Sin Yew, an infectious disease physician at Gleneagles Medical Centre.

The chicken pox rash starts as small vesicles (bubbles) of several millimetres or centimetres in diameter, before growing bigger and spreading to more areas of the body.

The rash can last for five to 10 days, usually starting on the face, body and scalp before spreading to the limbs.

To reduce the severity of the rash and resolve other symptoms, such as fever and muscle aches, which often occur a day before the rash breaks out, doctors prescribe acyclovir tablets.

This medicine, which disrupts the replication of the virus, should be taken within 72 hours of the fever onset for it to be effective, stressed Dr Wong.

It is why people with chicken pox should see a doctor to get this medicine quickly.

He added: "The virus circulates in the bloodstream and that is why effective treatment involves taking oral medication rather than smearing a cream on the rash.

"In severe cases, the medicine may also be administered intravenously in the hospital."

Dr Wong said food, herbs and supplements are not subjected to clinical trials to confirm their efficacy in treating chickenpox.

He advised people to vaccinate their children against the virus, because the varicella zoster virus also causes shingles, a painful skin rash.

The vaccine is suitable for anyone aged 12 months and above.

Two doses of the vaccine are required, two months apart, and should provide lifelong immunity.

Like most vaccines, it cannot offer 100 per cent protection against the virus, but it is almost 90 per cent effective, he added.

This article was first published on July 31, 2014.
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