Cough is a symptom of many respiratory illnesses such as acute or chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, colds and influenza. It can also present as a symptom of other conditions such as lung cancer. In Chinese medicine, it was recorded as early as the Yellow Emperor’s Classic, with a whole chapter dedicated to it.

Chinese medicine theory classifies cough as either Ke, which has sound but no sputum, or Sou, which has sound accompanied by sputum. As both features are generally present in a clinical setting, it is simply referred to as Ke Sou. Clinically, they can be either acute or chronic in nature.

According to Chinese medicine theory, they can be caused by:

  • External pathogenic factorsWind-Cold, Wind-Heat or Wind-Dryness. These penetrate the Wei Qi (Defensive Qi) and invade the Lung, impairing its descending function. With the appropriate treatment, exterior type coughs normally disappear quickly.
  • Emtional stress – Worry and sadness are the main emotions affecting the Lung. Sudden and intense, or prolonged emotional states directly injure the Lung-Qi, causing it to become ‘knotted’. This in turn causes Lung-Qi to fail in its descending function.
  • Diet – The excessive consumption of greasy foods, sweets or dairy products can lead to the formation of internal Dampness, in turn leading to the formation of Phlegm. This settles in the Lungs and prevents Lung-Qi from descending properly. If improper diet also includes excessive consumption of hot foods and alcohol, this leads to the generation of Heat alongside the Damp and Phlegm.
  • Smoking – This leads to the generation of Heat or in extereme cases, Fire in the Lungs. This drys the fluids, injuring Lung-Yin and creating an imbalance with Lung-Yang, leading to a failure of the Lung-Qi to descend.
  • Chronic Illness – When chronic illness affects the Lungs, it weakens Lung-Qi and/or Lung-Yin. Deficient Lung-Qi fails to descend, causing a chronic cough of the empty type.

Treating Cough with TCM

A TCM practitioner will usually create a treatment strategy involving both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. Tui Na massage can also be used, either in conjunction with acupuncture and herbs, or as an alternative to acupuncture for patients who may be averse to needling.

Common herbal formulas used in the treatment of cough include Ma Huang Tang, Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan, Er Chen Tang and Bu Fei Tang. Some commonly used medicinal herbs include Sang Ye (Folium Mori), Xing Ren (Semen Armeniacae Amarae), Zhe Bei Mu (Bulbus Fritillariae Thunbergii), Sang Bai Pi (Cortex Mori) and Tian Men Dong (Radix Asparagi).

If you wish to enquire about treatment or purchasing Chinese Herbal Medicines to help this condition please email us at