A cough is our body’s way of responding to irritants in the throat and airways. A cough that persists for long periods of time is not just frustrating, it can interfere with daily life and ruin a good night’s sleep. Chronic cough can usually be resolved by treating the underlying problem, however the difficulty is in figuring out what exactly is the cause. The most common causes are postnasal drip, asthma, and acid reflux, but it can also be caused by GERD, medications, and respiratory tract conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, or an infection, among other things.
Chinese medicine (TCM) particularly excels at accurate diagnosis, because it is based on a very careful examination and analysis of a person’s overall symptoms. For this reason, it can often find a successful avenue of treatment for mysterious problems that Western medicine finds difficult.
In Chinese medicine, cough is divided into two categories. The first category is due to external causes, which are invasions of the body by environmental causes such as wind-cold, wind-heat, or wind-dryness. The second category is due to internal causes, which are internal dysfunctions of specific organs due to our genetic makeup or our lifestyle choices. These are commonly phlegm-dampness cough, liver-fire cough, and yin-deficiency cough.
The symptoms experienced with the different externally-caused cough are quite similar but there are some distinct differences. A wind-cold cough will have a choking cough, scratchy throat with thin white phlegm, aversion to cold, headache and stuffy runny nose. A wind-heat cough will have frequent coughing, heavy breathing, sore throat, dry mouth, sticky white phlegm, fever, sweating, aversion to wind, headache, and thirst. Wind-dryness cough will have a dry cough with very little or no phlegm, or blood in the phlegm, scratchy or sore dry throat, dry nose, dry mouth, stuffy nose, headache, and aversion to cold.
Internally-caused phlegm-dampness is due to a deficiency of the lungs and spleen leading to the excess production of phlegm and dampness. A phlegm-dampness cough commonly occurs in the morning with the spitting up of a great deal of white phlegm. There will also be symptoms of oppression in the chest, fullness and distention of the stomach, nausea, fatigue, poor appetite, and loose stools.
Liver-fire cough is commonly due to emotional stress which causes the liver’s energy to stagnate instead of circulating, and then turn into heat. This heat/fire then rises up and injures the lungs. Symptoms of a liver-fire cough are a hacking cough, distention and pain throughout the chest and rib-side, flushed complexion, bitter taste in the mouth, dry throat, and an increase of these symptoms with emotional stress.
A yin-deficiency cough is due to the yin aspect of the lungs becoming weak. This causes a dry hacking cough with no phlegm, or scanty phlegm that is blood tinged. Other symptoms are gradual hoarseness, dry throat and mouth, afternoon fever, heat in the soles of the hands, feet and chest, night sweats, and weight loss.
Acupuncture can help with chronic cough by looking to these underlying causes to resolve the problem. By seeing the cough as a symptom of a larger pattern of imbalance, we can focus on improving health and correcting imbalances in order to resolve the symptoms. Of course, there are also limits to what acupuncture can do. In the case of cough, it’s also important to speak with your doctor to make sure that it’s not a result of a serious underlying problem such as an infection.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.