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A cough is a reflex action to clear your airways of mucus, phlegm, and irritants, such as dust, smoke or a foreign body.

It can be caused by inflammation of your upper respiratory tract (throat and windpipe) due to a viral infection. Viral infections include the common cold, flu, laryngitis, and bronchitis. These viral infections can also spread to the lower respiratory tract (bronchi) and cause a cough.

It’s a symptom of many illnesses and conditions including: asthma, bronchitis, common cold, influenza (flu), smoking, and whooping cough (pertussis).

How can we help?

Endorsed by the World Health Organisation for a variety of conditions, Chinese Medicine has a long history of safely and successfully addressing different types of coughs and related disorders. Studies suggest that acupuncture and medicinal herbs – rich in naturally anti-viral properties – might have a therapeutic effect and bring relief, either on their own or alongside standard treatments, without side effects.

According to research, Chinese Medicine might help lessen the severity of the symptoms, and shorten the duration of the cough, by promoting circulation, calming inflammation and triggering the release of the body’s natural painkillers. Additionally, acupuncture treatments might help regulate the immune system’s response and strengthen lung health and natural immunity.

Chinese Medicine treatments for coughs vary depending on the individual’s presenting symptoms, type of cough and specific needs. They usually consist of a tailored blend of acupuncture and highly personalised herb formulas, alongside lifestyle recommendations and advice. Treatments are usually aimed at restoring immune system health while targeting any underlying imbalance and relieving uncomfortable symptoms.

How quickly will you see results?

When it comes to cough, prevention can go a long way and keeping your immune system in good shape is best. A healthy diet, stress management, regular exercise and proper rest, all help in building up the body’s natural immunity.

A course of 3 to 4 weeks of acupuncture sessions and herbal formulas, as a preventative measure, can also help you tune up your defence system and keep your body and mind balanced.

However, if you already have a cough, due to seasonal flu and colds or associated with other conditions, come in for a chat or a treatment. Acupuncture, in particular, seems to bring immediate relief to most patients and help them ease stubborn coughs quicker and with no side effects.

About Coughs

Coughing is a reflex action and one of the human body’s ways to get rid of foreign objects and pathogens. It’s a natural mechanism meant to clear airways of mucus, phlegm, allergens and irritants, such as dust, smoke, or pollen.

Coughing involves a series of muscles, organs and reflexive actions: irritation or inflammation triggers the release of neural messages that travel to the brain from the sensory receptors in the throat, trachea and bronchial tubes. Then the brain signals the diaphragm and external intercostal and abdominal muscles to contract. When they contract the lungs force the air up and out through the respiratory tubes and finally, the mouth.

Many conditions can cause a chronic cough, including the common cold, flu, laryngitis, bronchitis, asthma, acid reflux/heartburn and pneumonia, to name a few.

There are many different types of cough. Cough can be dry, hacking, wet, worse at night, etc. Common symptoms include itchy, dry and/or painful sore throat, phlegm and/or mucus, shortness of breath and constricted lung capacity.

The particular nature of the cough and presenting symptoms can tell a healthcare practitioner a lot about what sort of condition a patient may be suffering. Treatments, whether standard or less conventional, will depend on the diagnosis.

Western Medicine view

In the Western medical view, cough can be caused by different reasons and linked to a wide variety of health conditions. It is also thought that there is no quick way of getting rid of a cough that is caused by a viral infection.

Whether the cough is due to a viral infection or some other chronic condition, standard treatments tend to revolve around symptom management. These usually include cough syrups and over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce fever and ease any aches, pains and headaches.

Chinese Medicine view

In the Chinese Medical view, cough is believed to be caused by either external pathogens or internal functional imbalances in the Lung ZF organ and closely related systems, like the Liver ZF, Spleen ZF and Stomach ZF.

As a general rule, coughs caused by external pathogens are usually marked by sudden onset and short duration. Conversely, coughs resulting from internal imbalances, tend to develop more gradually and over a period of time, last longer and are more likely to turn chronic.

External pathogens tend to cause three main types of cough with distinct sets of characteristics.

A Wind-Heat cough is generally a loud and rasping cough accompanied by heavy breathing and thick yellow phlegm that is difficult to expectorate. Symptoms usually include fever and mild chills, dry mouth or sore throat, yellow nasal discharge, a headache and general aching.

The Wind-Cold cough is characterised by heavy and frequent coughing, slight breathlessness, small amounts of thin white phlegm, a runny nose with thin white nasal discharge, a headache, and aching limbs and body.

The Wind-Dry cough is characterised by a dry persistent cough, sore throat and dry or chapped lips, mouth, nose and skin. Other symptoms might include chest pain when coughing, a constant tickling sensation in the throat, thirst, stuffy nose, and headache.

In order to treat a cough, Chinese Medicine physicians first need to determine its root cause, taking into consideration the main characteristics of the cough, such as its sound, the part of the day it is most frequent, and the colour and texture of the phlegm. Diagnosis is made on a case-by-case basis, and prescriptions and treatments are tailored to the individual’s symptoms and constitution.

The Chinese Medicine rule of thumb for restoring balance in the body is to remove any excesses and nourish any deficiencies. Acupuncture targeting the and or the foot and moxibustion are often used to restore balance, and speed up healing while strengthening the impacted organ systems.

Lifestyle advice

According to the World Health Organisation, acupuncture has a therapeutic effect on whooping cough and may be useful in treating pertussis (whooping cough), by relieving cough as well as promoting a cure*

A cough is the main symptom of lung problems and may result either from attack by external (or environmental) factors which disturb the Qi of the Lung (the essential energy of the lungs), or from disorders of the lung itself or other diseased organs affecting the lungs.

There are two types of cough due to external factors: Wind-Cold and Wind-Heat. And two types due to internal factors: one is characterized by blockage of the Lung by phlegm and the other involves dryness of the Lung with deficiency of yin (in the Yin-Yang theory of medicine, this means an insufficiency of cooling bodily fluids).

According to Chinese Medicine theory acupuncture and Chinese herbs can be prescribed to relieve chronic cough.

Acupuncture targeting the Hand is used for the treatment of coughs due to external (environmental) factors. Both acupuncture and moxibustion (which involves igniting a cone or cylinder of moxa close to the skin) are applied in case of Wind-Cold, while only acupuncture is used in case of Wind-Heat to help relieve the symptoms. Internal injury is characterized by blockage of the Lung by phlegm and is treated by acupuncture (targeting the Foot). Acupuncture treatment, or combined with moxibustion, is usually used to strengthen the function of the Spleen and get rid of phlegm according to Chinese Medicine theory.”

Lifestyle Advice

While it is true that there is no quick way to get rid of a cough, there are many ways, either natural or more conventional and drug-based, you can try to ease your symptoms.

Here are some self-care tips you can try out:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to keep yourself hydrated. Drink lots of tea. Herb teas and green teas are preferable to black tea and coffee, which have high acidity. Also, drinking more warm water can moisten and relieve tickly throat.
  • If you are a smoker, try to smoke as little as possible, as smoke can irritate the throat.
  • Get extra rest and avoid strenuous activity.
  • Eat light, nutritious foods. Avoid fried foods and dairy, and avoid or limit spicy foods, coffee and alcohol, which add more heat or dehydrate the body.
  • Improving the conditions of the living environment can also soothe prolonged coughs. Using a steamer or a humidifier can help dilute the secretion and mucus in the throat and reduce throat tickles caused by dry air.

For expert advice on strengthening your defences against colds, flu and other illnesses, please take a look at our Support Your Immune System guide. And please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for more personalised advice or pop into our Clinic for a brief chat.


Yao HH et al. [Clinical study on treatment of pertussis with acupuncture at baxie (EX:E9).] Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 1996, 16(11):604 [in Chinese].

Pei-Chia Lo, Shun-Ku Lin, Jung-Nien Lai, Long-term use of Chinese herbal medicine therapy reduced the risk of asthma hospitalization in school-age children: A nationwide population-based cohort study in Taiwan. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine,
Volume 10, Issue 2, 2020, Pages 141-149, ISSN 2225-4110, Medicinee.2019.04.005.

Fan RR, Wen ZH, Wang DW, Yang RY, Ou AH, Jin LS, Zhang ZD, Liu YT. Chinese herbal medicine for the treatment of cough variant asthma: a study protocol for a double-blind randomized controlled trial. Trials. 2019 Jan 3;20(1):3. doi: 10.1186/s13063-018-3073-x. PMID: 30606237; PMCID: PMC6318874.

Polverino M, Polverino F, Fasolino M, Andò F, Alfieri A, De Blasio F. Anatomy and neuro-pathophysiology of the cough reflex arc. Multidiscip Respir Med. 2012 Jun 18;7(1):5. doi: 10.1186/2049-6958-7-5. PMID: 22958367; PMCID: PMC3415124.