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, dizziness and palpitations 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 shortness of breath, dizziness and palpitations.

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

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

Spleen and Lung Qi Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Empty (Xu)

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

Spleen and Lung 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 Spleen and Lung Qi Deficiency 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

Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs

Pulse type(s): Rapid (Shu), Slippery (Hua)

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

Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs is often treated with Wen Dan Tang, a herbal formula made of 8 herbs (including Crow-Dipper Rhizomes - Ban Xia - as a key herb). Wen Dan 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: "Clears Hot-Phlegm".

Read more about Phlegm-Heat in the Lungs here

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

Wind-Cold-Water invading the Lungs

Pulse type(s): Slippery (Hua), Floating (Fu)

In addition to coughing, other symptoms associated with Wind-Cold-Water invading the Lungs include shortness of breath, fever and aversion to cold.

Wind-Cold-Water invading the Lungs is often treated with Xiao Qing Long Tang, a herbal formula made of 8 herbs (including Ephedra - Ma Huang - as a key herb). Xiao Qing Long Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that clear wind-cold", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Releases the Exterior".

Read more about Wind-Cold-Water invading the Lungs 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 shortness of breath, dizziness and palpitations.

Read more about Si Jun Zi Tang here

Liu Jun Zi Tang

Source date: 1107

Number of ingredients: 6 herbs

Key actions: Tonifies Qi. Strengthens the Spleen and Stomach. Clears Phlegm and mucus. Promotes appetite.

Why might Liu Jun Zi Tang help with coughing?

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

Other symptoms characteristic of Spleen And Lung Qi Deficiency include shortness of breath, aversion to cold and weak voice.

Read more about Liu Jun Zi 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

Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan

Source date: 1584 AD

Number of ingredients: 8 herbs

Key actions: Clears Heat. Transforms Phlegm. Directs Rebellious Qi downwards. Stops coughing.

Why might Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan help with coughing?

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

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

Read more about Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan here

Xiao Qing Long Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 8 herbs

Key actions: Releases the Exterior. Transforms Phlegm-Fluids. Warms the Lungs. Directs Rebellious Qi downward.

Why might Xiao Qing Long Tang help with coughing?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Wind-Cold-Water invading the Lungs' of which coughing is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Wind-Cold-Water Invading The Lungs include shortness of breath, fever and aversion to cold.

Read more about Xiao Qing Long Tang here

Acupuncture points used for coughing

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 Liu Jun Zi 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 Apricot Seed (Xing Ren) 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 Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan for instance).

Apricot Seeds is a Warm herb that tastes Bitter and Sweet. It targets the Large intestine and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Stops cough and wheezing caused by either Heat or Cold. Lubricates the Intestines and relieves constipation.

Read more about Apricot Seeds here