What Does the Colour of Your Phlegm Mean?

4 min read

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By Physician Lin Qing of Han TCM

Key Takeaways

  • In TCM, the colour and viscosity of your phlegm can tell you what type of cough your body is experiencing. 
  • You should be mindful about what you eat when you have a cough and avoid foods that are deep-fried, spicy or cold to prevent triggering or worsening it.
  • Herbal remedies that focus on strengthening the spleen-stomach and respiratory system can help boost the immune system and prevent coughs.

In Singapore where sudden weather changes are quite common, you might often find yourself developing a cough. However, it is important to note that not all coughs are the same. In TCM, the colour and viscosity of your phlegm can tell you what type of cough your body is experiencing. Knowing what type of cough you have is important for treating and managing it.

We spoke with Physician Lin Qing, a registered TCM practitioner in Singapore, who has over 30 years of experience practising TCM, to shed some light on the different types of phlegm and how you can alleviate
and prevent coughs.

White phlegm that is thin and foamy

If this is how your phlegm looks like, it is likely that you have a cold cough. This is usually accompanied by an itchy throat, body aches and a runny nose with clear/white nasal discharge.

Yellow phlegm that is thick and sticky

This is a sign that you have a heaty cough according to TCM. This is usually accompanied by signs and symptoms like a red tongue with yellow coating, sore throat, frequent coughing and dry mouth.

Minimal phlegm that is hard to expel

When you have white or yellow phlegm in small quantities, this is usually a sign of a dry cough. Unlike the above-mentioned types of cough, this cough is less productive and you might have an issue expelling the phlegm. This is usually accompanied by dry throat and lips.

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What causes a cough?

In TCM, a cough is typically caused by exposure to external pathogens (风邪 fēng xié). But it can also be caused by an existing health condition like acute or chronic bronchitis. Combined with a poor diet and an unhealthy lifestyle, a cough can easily be triggered. Other causes of a cough include post-nasal drip (excess mucus dripping down the back of the nose and throat) and acid reflux.

Do I need to avoid eating food like chicken meat?

You may often hear from the elderly that you should avoid eating chicken meat when you have a cough. That is actually a myth. While you should be mindful of what you eat when you have a cough, chicken meat can be eaten in moderation, but avoid deep-fried chicken.

You should generally avoid eating food that is deep-fried, spicy or cold as they may trigger or worsen a cough. Before you consume any kind of liang teh (herbal tea), it is advisable to seek professional advice and figure out which cough you have to avoid worsening the condition.

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Are there any natural remedies that can help me
prevent coughs?

There are two herbal remedies that Physician Lin Qing recommends for adults and the elderly, such as soups for cough which focus on strengthening the spleen-stomach and respiratory system.

四君子汤 (sì jūn zǐ tāng): Boil 9g of ginseng (rén shēn 人参), 9g of white atractylodes rhizome (白术 bái zhú), 9g of poria (茯苓 fú líng), 6g of prepared liquorice root (炙甘草 zhì gān cǎo) together with 300g of meat and sufficient water to cover the meat and herbs for 1.5 hours. This makes one serving.

玉屏风散 (yù píng fēng sàn): Boil 9g of astragalus (北芪 běi qí), 3g of white atractylodes rhizome (白术 bái zhú), 3g of siler root (防风 fáng fēng) in 500ml of water for 30 minutes. This makes one serving.

For persistent coughs, Physician Lin Qing also recommends consuming soups with Chinese yam (淮山 huái shān). If one has a weaker respiratory system, she also recommends consuming Wild cordyceps sinensis (冬虫夏草 dōng chóng xià cǎo), as a soup or in its powdered form.

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What should I do if I have kids with coughs?

Besides soups for cough, a simple remedy to treat dry cough in children is to simply boil Chinese white pears with rock sugar. Alternatively, tui na is a treatment that can really help children who are susceptible to coughs. It can help to boost their immune system and make them less likely to catch a cold. It also helps with expelling phlegm and reduces the likelihood of allergies.

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Any self-care tips to help manage menstrual pains?

1.Avoid cold drinks, reduce water sports, and keep warm before your expected menstrual period.

2.Drink Brown Sugar Ginger Tea 2 days before menstruation starts or when menstrual cramps occur. Boil 15g of brown sugar and 15g of young ginger in a pot of water.

3.Acupressure massage for pain relief:

He Gu Acupoint

Location: Tender point found on the back of the hand between the thumb and the index finger

Function: He Gu Acupoint is a common point used to relieve pain and can help to relieve painful period cramps

How to massage: Press the acupoint with your other thumb and massage for 1 minute each time

Tai Chong Acupoint

Location: Tender point between the big toe and second toe

Function: Tai Chong Acupoint belongs to the Liver meridian and can help to improve Qi circulation to help improve mood and reduce irritability

How to massage: Press on the acupoint with your thumb and massage for 1 minute each time

Qi Hai Acupoint

Location: 1.5 inches below the belly button

Function: Qi Hai literally translates to “Sea of Energy” and is believed to be the point on the body where Qi gathers. Pressing this acupoint can help to increase Qi and energy and reduce bloating

How to massage: Press with your index and middle finger and massage for 1 minute each time

4.Add TCM herbs to your cooking or as dietary supplements

  • Angelica root (当归): Nourishes blood, regulates menstrual cycle and improves blood flow
  • Rehmannia (熟地): Nourishes Kidney, regulates menstrual cycle and improves blood circulation
  • Red peony root (赤芍): Improves blood circulation and relieves pain
  • Sichuan loveage root (川芎): Improves both Qi and Blood circulation

5.Exercise moderately to improve blood circulation, strengthen immunity, and increase Qi to overcome fatigue during menstruation.

Any self-care tips to help manage menstrual pains?

The information above serves as a general guide only. Please consult a certified TCM practitioner for a more accurate diagnosis and treatment.

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About the author

Physician Lin Qing

Physician Lin Qing is a registered TCM practitioner in Singapore, with a doctorate (PhD) in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine.

She has more than 30 years of experience practicing TCM in Singapore. During her practice, Physician Lin has attained extensive knowledge and experience especially in fertility and female health areas such as menstrual, menopause, congenital issues as well as postpartum treatment. Under her care, many patients facing infertility conditions have successfully conceived. Dr Lin also has extensive clinical experience in other areas such as general health, paediatrics, skin conditions, and patients with chronic health issues such as chronic cough.

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