Coughing according to Chinese Medicine

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 palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue in the pattern “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.

Ginseng (Ren Shen) is the king ingredient for Si Jun Zi Tang, a formula used for Qi Deficiency

Qi Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Empty (Xu), Weak (Ruo)

Tongue color: Pale

Qi Deficiency simply means lack of Qi. It includes the lack of Original Qi, Nutritive Qi, Defensive Qi or the Qi that resides in Organs or Channels. It mainly manifests itself in a weakened function of Organs and a declining ability of the body to resist diseases.

In addition to coughing, other symptoms associated with Qi Deficiency include palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue.

From a Western Medicine standpoint Qi Deficiency is associated with health issues such as Abnormal Uterine Bleeding or Heavy Menstruation.

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 Qi Deficiency here

Kansui Roots (Gan Sui) is the king ingredient for Shi Zao Tang, a formula used for Phlegm-Fluids in the hypochondrium

Phlegm-Fluids in the hypochondrium

Pulse type(s): Deep (Chen), Wiry (Xian)

Tongue coating: Sticky coating

Tongue color: Pale

Tongue shape: Swollen

This is when Phlegm-Fluids clogs up the chest and hypochondriac regions, producing chest pain, cough and shortness of breath.

In addition to coughing, other symptoms associated with Phlegm-Fluids in the hypochondrium include palpitations and shortness of breath.

Phlegm-Fluids in the hypochondrium is often treated with Shi Zao Tang, a herbal formula made of 4 herbs (including Kansui Roots - Gan Sui - as a key herb). Shi Zao Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that drive out excess water", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Purges and drives out Phlegm-Fluids".

Read more about Phlegm-Fluids in the hypochondrium 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 vomiting, asthma 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 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, listlessness and headaches.

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

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

Heart and Spleen Qi and Blood Deficiency

In addition to coughing, other symptoms associated with Heart and Spleen Qi and Blood Deficiency include palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue.

Heart and Spleen Qi and Blood Deficiency is often treated with Ren Shen Yang Rong Tang, a herbal formula made of 14 herbs (including Ginseng - Ren Shen - as a key herb). Ren Shen Yang Rong Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that tonify", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Tonifies Qi and Blood".

Read more about Heart and Spleen Qi and Blood Deficiency here

Five herbal formulas that might help with coughing

Si Jun Zi Tang

Source date: 1107 AD

Number of ingredients: 4 herbs

Key actions: Tonifies Qi. Strengthens the Spleen and Stomach.

Why might Si Jun Zi Tang help with coughing?

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

Other symptoms characteristic of Qi Deficiency include palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue.

Read more about Si Jun Zi Tang here

Ling Gui Zhu Gan Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 4 herbs

Key actions: Warms and transforms Phlegm-Fluids. Strengthens the Spleen. Resolves Dampness.

Why might Ling Gui Zhu Gan Tang help with coughing?

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

Other symptoms characteristic of Phlegm-Fluids In The Hypochondrium include palpitations and shortness of breath.

Read more about Ling Gui Zhu Gan 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 vomiting, asthma 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, listlessness and headaches.

Read more about Xiao Chai Hu Tang here

Ren Shen Yang Rong Tang

Source date: 1174 AD

Number of ingredients: 14 herbs

Key actions: Tonifies Qi and Blood. Nourishes the Heart. Calms the spirit.

Why might Ren Shen Yang Rong Tang help with coughing?

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

Other symptoms characteristic of Heart And Spleen Qi And Blood Deficiency include palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue.

Read more about Ren Shen Yang Rong 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 Si Jun Zi 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 Xuan Fu Dai Zhe 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 Liu Jun Zi 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 Baikal Skullcap Root (Huang Qin) 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 Xiao Chai Hu Tang for instance).

Baikal Skullcap Roots is a Cold herb that tastes Bitter. It targets the Gallbladder, the Spleen, the Heart, the Large intestine, the Lung and the Small intestine.

Its main actions are: Expels Heat and Dampness. Clears Upper Burner Heat, especially of the Lung. Clears Heat and stops reckless movement of Blood. Clears pathogenic Heat which is upsetting the fetus. Cools the Liver, reducing Liver Yang rising syndrome.

Read more about Baikal Skullcap Roots here