Coughing according to Chinese Medicine

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Coughing can be the consequence of several so-called “patterns of disharmony” in Chinese Medicine.

Chinese Medicine sees the body as a system, not a sum of isolated parts. A "pattern" is when the system's harmony is disrupted, leading to symptoms or signs that something is wrong (like coughing here). It is similar to the concept of disease in Western Medicine but not quite: a Western disease can often be explained by several Chinese patterns and vice-versa.

A pattern often manifests itself in a combination of symptoms that, at first glance, do not seem necessarily related to each others. For instance here coughing is often associated with shortness of breath, palpitations and weak voice in the pattern “Lung and Heart Qi Deficiency”. As you will see below, we have in record five patterns that can cause coughing.

Once identified, patterns are treated using medicinal herbs, acupuncture, and other therapies. In the case of coughing we’ve identified five herbal formulas that may help treat patterns behind the symptom.

We’ve also selected below the five medicinal herbs that we think are most likely to help treat coughing.

The five "patterns of disharmony" that can cause coughing

In Chinese Medicine coughing is a symptom for 5 patterns that we have on record. Below is a small explanation for each of them with links for more details.

The Lungs is a so-called "Zang" Organ. Learn more about the Lungs in Chinese Medicine

Lung and Heart Qi Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Empty (Xu)

In addition to coughing, other symptoms associated with Lung and Heart Qi Deficiency include shortness of breath, palpitations and weak voice.

Lung and Heart Qi Deficiency is often treated with Si Jun Zi Tang, a herbal formula made of 4 herbs (including Ginseng - Ren Shen - as a key herb). Si Jun Zi Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that tonify qi", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Tonifies Qi".

Read more about Lung and Heart Qi Deficiency here

Honeysuckle Flowers (Jin Yin Hua) is the king ingredient for Yin Qiao San, a formula used for Toxic-Heat

Toxic-Heat

Pulse type(s): Rapid (Shu)

In addition to coughing, other symptoms associated with Toxic-Heat include sore throat, shortness of breath and fever.

Toxic-Heat is often treated with Yin Qiao San, a herbal formula made of 10 herbs (including Honeysuckle Flowers - Jin Yin Hua - as a key herb). Yin Qiao San belongs to the category of "external formulas for external disorders", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Disperses Wind Heat".

Read more about Toxic-Heat here

Inula Flowers (Xuan Fu Hua) is the king ingredient for Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang, a formula used for Rebellious Qi

Rebellious Qi

Pulse type(s): Wiry (Xian)

Tongue color: Normal (light red), Red sides

Rebellious Qi is when Qi flows in the wrong direction. For instance, if one suffers from a rebellious Stomach Qi (a common case), the normal downward flow of Stomach Qi is disrupted and it goes upward instead. This may result in nausea, vomiting, belching or hiccupping.

In addition to coughing, other symptoms associated with Rebellious Qi include asthma, vomiting and diarrhea.

Rebellious Qi is often treated with Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang, a herbal formula made of 7 herbs (including Inula Flowers - Xuan Fu Hua - as a key herb). Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang belongs to the category of "formulas for a rebellious qi", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Regulates the downward flow of Stomach Qi".

Read more about Rebellious Qi here

The Lungs is a so-called "Zang" Organ. Learn more about the Lungs in Chinese Medicine

Damp-Phlegm in the Lungs

Pulse type(s): Slippery (Hua), Soggy (Ru)

Tongue coating: Sticky coating, Thick coating

Tongue shape: Swollen

Phlegm in the Lungs (a synonym for "Substantial Phlegm") is the sputum that collects in the Lungs and is spat out during bronchitis or other Lung diseases.

In addition to coughing, other symptoms associated with Damp-Phlegm in the Lungs include asthma, shortness of breath and dizziness.

Damp-Phlegm in the Lungs is often treated with Er Chen Tang, a herbal formula made of 5 herbs (including Crow-Dipper Rhizomes - Ban Xia - as a key herb). Er Chen Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that dry dampness and transform phlegm", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Dries Damp and dispels Phlegm".

Read more about Damp-Phlegm in the Lungs here

The Liver is a so-called "Zang" Organ. Learn more about the Liver in Chinese Medicine

Lung Qi Deficiency and Liver Qi Stagnation

Pulse type(s): Empty (Xu), Tight (Jin)

Tongue coating: Thin white coating

Tongue color: Normal (light red), Pale

In addition to coughing, other symptoms associated with Lung Qi Deficiency and Liver Qi Stagnation include dizziness, headaches and depression.

Lung Qi Deficiency and Liver Qi Stagnation is often treated with Xiao Chai Hu Tang, a herbal formula made of 7 herbs (including Bupleurum Roots - Chai Hu - as a key herb). Xiao Chai Hu Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that harmonize lesser yang-warp disorders", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Treats the Lesser Yang Channels (Gallbladder and Triple Warmer)".

Read more about Lung Qi Deficiency and Liver Qi Stagnation here

Five herbal formulas that might help with coughing

Bao Yuan Tang

Source date: 1624

Number of ingredients: 4 herbs

Key actions: Tonifies the Qi and warms the Yang.

Why might Bao Yuan Tang help with coughing?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Lung and Heart Qi Deficiency' of which coughing is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Lung And Heart Qi Deficiency include shortness of breath, palpitations and weak voice.

Read more about Bao Yuan Tang here

Bai Hu Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 4 herbs

Key actions: Clears Qi-level Heat. Drains Stomach Fire. Generates fluids. Alleviates thirst.

Why might Bai Hu Tang help with coughing?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Toxic-Heat' of which coughing is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Toxic-Heat include sore throat, shortness of breath and fever.

Read more about Bai Hu Tang here

Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 7 herbs

Key actions: Regulates the downward flow of Stomach Qi. Expectorant, treats hiccups.

Why might Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang help with coughing?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Rebellious Qi' of which coughing is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Rebellious Qi include asthma, vomiting and diarrhea.

Read more about Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang here

Xiao Chai Hu Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 7 herbs

Key actions: Treats the Lesser Yang Channels (Gallbladder and Triple Warmer). Regulates the Liver and Spleen functions. Addresses combined Yin-Yang symptoms of External and Internal, Excess and Deficiency, and Hot and Cold.

Why might Xiao Chai Hu Tang help with coughing?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Lung Qi Deficiency and Liver Qi Stagnation' of which coughing is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Lung Qi Deficiency And Liver Qi Stagnation include dizziness, headaches and depression.

Read more about Xiao Chai Hu Tang here

Er Chen Tang

Source date: 1148 AD

Number of ingredients: 5 herbs

Key actions: Dries Damp and dispels Phlegm. Regulates Qi and harmonizes the Middle Burner (Stomach and Spleen).

Why might Er Chen Tang help with coughing?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Damp-Phlegm in the Lungs' of which coughing is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Damp-Phlegm In The Lungs include asthma, shortness of breath and dizziness.

Read more about Er Chen Tang here

The five Chinese Medicinal herbs most likely to help treat coughing

Why might Liquorice (Gan Cao) help with coughing?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat coughing and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat coughing as a symptom (such as Bao Yuan Tang for instance).

Liquorice is a Neutral herb that tastes Sweet. It targets the Spleen, the Stomach, the Heart and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Basal Qi and nourishes the Spleen Qi. Clears Heat and dispels toxicity. Moistens the Lungsexpel phlegm and stop coughing. Relieves spasms and alleviates pain. Harmonizes and moderates the effects of other herbs.

Read more about Liquorice here

Why might Fresh Ginger (Sheng Jiang) help with coughing?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat coughing and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat coughing as a symptom (such as Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang for instance).

Fresh Ginger is a Warm herb that tastes Pungent. It targets the Spleen, the Stomach and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Relieves the Exterior and disperses Cold. Warms and circulates Qi in the Middle Burner. Calms a restless fetus and treats morning sickness. Treats seafood poisoning.

Read more about Fresh Ginger here

Why might Crow-Dipper Rhizome (Ban Xia) help with coughing?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat coughing and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat coughing as a symptom (such as Er Chen Tang for instance).

Crow-Dipper Rhizomes is a Warm herb that tastes Pungent. It targets the Spleen, the Stomach and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Drains Dampness and reduces Phlegm. Reverses the flow of Rebellious Qi. Reduces hardenings and relieves distention.

Read more about Crow-Dipper Rhizomes here

Why might Tangerine Peel (Chen Pi) help with coughing?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat coughing and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat coughing as a symptom (such as Er Chen Tang for instance).

Tangerine Peel is a Warm herb that tastes Bitter and Pungent. It targets the Spleen and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Warms the Spleen and regulates the Middle Burner Qi. Dries Dampness and disperses Phlegm from the Lungs and Middle Burner. Reduces the potential for Stagnation caused by tonifying herbs.

Read more about Tangerine Peel here

Why might Platycodon Root (Jie Geng) help with coughing?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat coughing and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat coughing as a symptom (such as Yin Qiao San for instance).

Platycodon Roots is a Neutral herb that tastes Bitter and Pungent. It targets the Lung.

Its main actions are: Opens the Lungs and smoothes the flow of Lung Qi. Expels Phlegm and pus from the Lungs and throat, can be used for either Wind-Cold or Wind-Heat according to the other herbs in the formula. Directs the actions of other herbs to the Upper Warmer.

Read more about Platycodon Roots here