What is a Cough?

From Modern Western Medicine

A cough is a reflex reaction to try to clear the airways of mucus, phlegm, a foreign body, or other irritants or blockages. Most coughs are due to irritation of the airways by dust, smoke, or mucus dripping from the back of the nose. A cough is said to be productive when it brings up mucus or phlegm, and unproductive, or dry, when it does not.

In some cases, a dry cough may be relieved by sucking on throat lozenges or by drinking warm, soothing drinks, such as honey and water. If this is ineffective, narcotic cough remedies afford symptomatic relief, particularly at bedtime to permit sleep. When there is productive coughing, suppressants should be avoided since they do more harm than good. An expectorant medication or drinking lots of fluids can help loosen mucus or phlegm if there is any difficulty coughing up. A physician should be consulted if any cough persists for more than two or three days, is severe, or is accompanied by symptoms such as chest pain, green phlegm, coughed up blood, or breathing difficulty.


From Traditional Medicine

In the simplest terms, a cough is one of the body’s mechanisms for elimination of mucus, cigarette tar and other toxins, air pollutants, viruses, and bacteria. Often, coughs arise when the lung energy is inadequate or deficient, causing inefficient elimination of waste. This results in stagnation of waste products within the lungs that eventually leads to a chronic cough.

Lungs are weakened by excessive consumption of dairy products, high-fat foods, and inadequate intake of leafy greens and other foods that strengthen lung energy (placed collectively under the metal element; see the section on Chinese Medicine in Part III). Other substances that injure the lungs are, of course, cigarettes, drugs, and highly processed foods. The Chinese regard the lungs as the repository of unresolved and unexpressed grief, emotions that can injure the health and vitality of the lungs.


Foods to Eat

See the Bronchitis entry and the section on lungs in Part IV.


Foods to Avoid

See the Bronchitis entry and the section on lungs in Part IV.


Herbs to Treat a Cough

There are two main groups of herbs: expectorant or phlegm-dissolving herbs and antitussive or cough-relieving herbs. In general, however, most expectorant herbs have cough-relieving properties and most cough-relieving herbs tend to aid in the elimination of mucus. The expectorants are in turn divided into two groups, according to whether their nature is cooling or warming. Clear or white phlegm means that the condition is caused by cold, where as yellow or blood-tinged phlegm is more reflective of heat and stagnation.

Cooling expectorants are for hot phlegm (dry cough, difficult expectoration, bleeding from the lungs). Many possess moistening properties:

  • Kelp: 3 – 15 g (contraindicated for people with weak, cold digestion)
  • Comfrey moistens lungs and helps dissolve mucus: 3 – 9 g; tincture, 10 – 30 drops
  • Bamboo is used for lung inflammation and phlegm that is difficult to expectorate. Bamboo is especially useful for treating children’s coughs: 3 – 12 g.


Warming expectorants (herbs that warm and dissolve cold phlegm) are used for a cold condition, which is indicated by clear, whitish phlegm, coldness, and a pale complexion. These herbs will also eliminate the accumulation of mucus by improving digestion. They are contraindicated for dry cough and inflammatory conditions:

  • Yerba santa is an excellent expectorant, especially combined with grindelia. Dosage is 3 – 9 g; tincture, 10 – 30 drops
  • Grindelia should be used with other herbs: 3 – 6 g; tincture, 5 – 30 drops


Antitussive herbs relieve coughs, regardless of a person’s condition. These can be combined with herbs from the previous categories that treat the underlying causes:

  • Wild cherry bark: 3 – 9 g; tincture, 10 – 15 drops
  • Apricot seed (contraindicated for diarrhea): 3 – 9 g of crushed seeds (higher doses could be poisonous)
  • Mulberry acts as an anti-inflammatory to the lungs and quiets the cough. Dose is 6 – 15 g in decoction.
  • Lungwort: 3 – 9 g; tincture, 10 – 30 drops



  • Use aconite for a cough that comes on after exposure to cold, dry wind or if a constant, short, dry cough wakens the patient from sleep and the patient awakens feeling anxious. Use for a cough that becomes worse when entering a warm room.
  • Use belladonna if the person is red-faced, burning hot, with dilated pupils, for the sudden onset of a dry, teasing cough.
  • Bryonia treats a hard, dry cough that hurts the chest, necessitates sitting up in bed, and is worse when entering a warm room.
  • Pulsatilla treat a dry cough in the evening or a loose cough in the morning; coughing with gagging and yellowish mucus; the person feels better in open air, and they may feel as though there is a weigh on the chest.
  • Nux vomica treats a dry, teasing cough, sore larynx and chest, a cough that occurs in spells and ends with retching, one that is more apt to occur in cold, dry weather, and is for a person who is oversensitive.
  • Phosphorus is often indicated when a head cold had gone into the chest; a dry, tickling, and exhausting cough; a cough that is induced by talking or being in the open air, and a person who is thirsty for ice-cold drinks and fruit juices.


Chinese Medicine

Please see the section on Bronchitis and the list of Foods to Eat.

  • Elecampane brings up and dissolves phlegm, and stops coughs and wheezing. Dose: tincture, 10 – 30 drops; infusion, 3 – 9 g.
  • Acupuncture
  • Acupressure
  • Moxabustion