Damp-Heat: signs of Humidity in the body

Firefighters putting down a fire
Photo by Ozzie Stern on Unsplash

Damp-Heat might not seem that interesting, but in Chinese medicine, the combination of damp and heat in your body can be unpleasant, and sometimes lead to more dangerous health syndromes.

In life, we use water to douse fire, as in the picture above.

Think of the effect warm, humid weather has on you. If you’re like me, it makes you feel tired and heavy. Sweating doesn’t work! Your body tries to cool itself through perspiration, but the humidity prevents the sweat from evaporating, so you stay hot. Meantime the perspiration on your skin becomes more salty.

Assuming that global warming is a reality, then we may expect the incidence of damp-heat to increase. Some forms that it takes are contagious, but not all. Read on for the details.


Sauna Bucket
Photo by Karen Stahlros on Unsplash


With this syndrome, usually the main problem is the Damp. After all, the heat of a sauna becomes more uncomfortable the more water you pour on the hot coals. If there’s no water, the air, though hot and dry (dryness, by the way, if too intense or prolonged can harm your Lung energy and your lung organs) is easier to endure.


Health Problems from Damp-Heat

In Chinese medicine, many health problems and conditions are wholly or partly due to an invasion of damp and heat together. Here are just a few – you’ll think of more when you understand how it works:

  • some kinds of abdominal distension
  • acne
  • weak appetite, some kinds
  • bacteria and virus caused disease
  • coughs with lots of coloured phlegm
  • many kinds of cystitis 
  • genito-urinary discharges
  • sore, heavy muscles eg from over-exertion or fibromyalgia
  • styes  or itchy, inflamed eyelids
  • fungal infections in your feet, between your toes or in your toenails
  • difficulty urinating
  • Just as Western medicine has had to deal with these kinds of problems, so too has Chinese medicine, and for much longer…


Signs of Damp-Heat

When you combine the signs of damp and heat in your body, you get one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Swelling or distension
  • Heaviness, tiredness
  • Glands swollen
  • Coloured mucus, phlegm or discharges
  • Heat, redness, inflammation, body warm to touch
  • Burning pains
  • Fever
  • Restlessness
  • Sticky taste
  • Face is often oily
  • Thirst, but, usually, little desire to drink
  • Bitter taste
  • Tongue: often swollen, with yellowish, greasy coating
  • Pulse: slippery or soggy

How do you get Damp-Heat?

In Chinese medicine, there are two broad ways to describe how you get it, called External and Internal, with some overlap.



External means that damp-heat forces its way into your body from outside. Your body tries to slow its progress by putting up barriers.

These barriers are not physical blocks, but energetic blocks. I’ll try to explain what this means.

Where those barriers occur, you get a syndrome which describes how the body defends itself via symptoms. In effect, the symptoms are the signs of that particular syndrome. The name of the syndrome is shorthand for the way the body defends itself, ie how it blocks. The barrier consists of the symptoms of that particular syndrome.

Everybody uses shorthand in everyday life.

  • prickly personality means, at least to me, that someone easily takes offence or adopts a defensive attitude.


Rainy Day
Rainy Day


  • If in Britain we call it a miserable day, it means that it was probably raining, cold and damp – and we felt miserable! However, someone who had just fallen in love probably wouldn’t notice. So perhaps the misery starts inside us.


Chinese medicine is full of shorthand ways to describe health and illness situations. It’s useful for health practitioners, because they don’t have to explain everything when talking about it with other professionals.

However, if it’s new to you it can be very confusing. Damp-Heat is one of those areas which seems easy on the surface, but after several thousand years of hard thought, Chinese medicine has managed to complicate it, at least for newbies! That’s because its repercussions can reach so far into our health. So you’ll find all sorts of side-avenues from this page.

Three Ways Attacks Come from Outside

With attacks invading from outside, the Chinese worked out that there are three ways the body reacts. Each of these three ways has further subdivisions.

  1. Wei or Defensive level. This is the first of what are called the Four Levels, each presenting a barrier to the penetration of what are called ‘Warm diseases’. ‘Warm’ diseases mostly mean diseases spread by contagious pathogens like bacteria and viruses. These include the common cold, influenza, tuberculosis, ebola, measles and so on. There are two subdivisions at this wei or Defensive level, one being straight damp-heat, the other being summer-heat with dampness. Should defence at this wei or defensive level fail, then the disease pushes on inside deeper to the second, third or fourth of the Four Levels, each more dangerous than the last.
  2. Channel damp-heat. This is where the damp-heat forces its way through your skin and up the acupuncture channels. Your body tries to stop it, initially in the muscles, which become stiff and achey, heavy and tired. If that fails, eventually your body manages to ‘stop’ the invasion at your joints, which can become inflamed and swollen. In Chinese medicine, many kinds of arthritis are seen as having first arisen from an invasion along the Channels. Wrongly treated, they can become chronic conditions. Unfortunately, Western medicine (including over-the-counter medicine) is extremely good at suppressing these symptoms before your body has got rid of them. Consequently they linger indefinitely, gradually deteriorating and eventually requiring powerful medication to control pain. In addition, damp-heat can invade and lodge in your zang-fu energy organs, see next below.
  3. Zang-fu or Energy Organs. The energy organs that are most susceptible to this are:
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Examples of External Damp-Heat

This syndrome can arise in several ways.

1. As a reaction to a Contagious Disease

Here damp-heat appears as your body’s defence against contagious disease. Your body defends itself through Four levels – already mentioned above – each deeper than the last.

The first of these levels is the wei or Defensive level. You will be familiar with this if you’ve ever suffered from an acute contagious disease.

If the bug is really powerful, it can overcome this level and push deeper. The common cold is usually easily stopped at the wei level – nobody dies at the wei level!

More powerful bugs like Ebola can easily push through this level, for instance to the Qi level, also mentioned below. But for susceptible people, when their immune system is weak, even mild bugs like the common cold can push through the first level and become dangerous.

How do you become susceptible and unable to stop even a mild disease at this level?

Lots of ways! – 

  • Poor nutrition: either not enough good food or too much bad food, or no food, or not eating food in a healthy way, Very important is that you maintain good levels of yin fluids in your body.
  • Read our page on foods that are bad for Damp Heat.
  • Tiredness. Overwork or working so much that you become chronically tired.
  • Lack of sleep.
  • From taking medications that suppress one set of symptoms but cause another (for more on this, read Primary and Secondary actions)
  • Illness-causing living conditions, like living in a damp basement, or working too close to fire or heat
  • Lack of sunlight. In the West, we might now say this means you lack enough vitamin D, but I think Chinese medicine theory means more than that. Light, especially sunlight, is very yang. We need that for life. Read about yang deficiency here.
  • Poor air
  • Lack of exercise
  • A series of acute, exhausting diseases
  • Getting old and infirm
  • Ongoing emotional strain or stress (see Qi Stagnation)
  • Allowing yourself to harbour unhealthy thought-processes over a long period can make you more susceptible, or so the experience of Chinese medicine suggests.
  • Immunisations sometimes produce Damp and Heat. Normally I regard this as a good thing, because the body is trying to externalise the ‘invasion’. But some bodies aren’t very good at this and can’t resolve it, giving an ongoing condition, or too extreme, with high fevers or even convulsions: this is probably more common in babies and young children.


For more on the actual symptoms and what happens, click on Four Levels.


2. As a reaction to an Environmental Hazard

This ‘invades’ through your skin and then along up your acupuncture channels (or meridians). Here there is no contagious disease, just something to which your body responds with this syndrome of damp-heat.

In susceptible people, getting cold and wet might do it: it happened to me once!

After riding my bicycle through a thunderstorm and getting my legs and low back soaked, I had no time to get dry and warm before starting work. The next day I had symptoms of damp and heat (mainly damp) in my back. (What symptoms were these? Stiffness, heaviness, very hard to get moving after rest, temporarily better from continued movement and warmth: aching back.)

I had several massage treatments which helped temporarily, but what got rid of it was a homoeopathic remedy, which worked instantly.

We are all going to become more susceptible to Damp Heat if and as when global warming affects us. A report in Nature says climate change will make hundreds of diseases much worse. These are diseases with symptoms of Damp Heat, and climate ‘hazards’ include flooding and heatwaves, (respectively Damp and Heat).

What can do about this?

  • Information on this page and site may help.
  • And of course we should be wary of foods that make Damp Heat in us more likely: ‘Damp Heat foods‘ will make us more susceptible to invasion by Damp Heat. Read that page also for suggestions for foods that may help.

3. Arising from damp-heat building up in one of the susceptible zang-fu

  • A common example is a syndrome called Gall-bladder Damp-Heat which happens – for example – when you eat too much food that is ‘heating’: often this is fatty or oily. 
  • A ‘healthy’ diet usually means that you won’t suffer from this kind of syndrome. For an introduction to the Chinese dietary way of thinking, click on Nutrition.


Internal causes of Damp-Heat

Internal means that the syndromes arose from problems within your body, though they may have started externally.

Damp-Heat (internal) can be either acute or chronic.

  1. Internally Acute at the ‘Qi level’ [to understand what the Qi Level is, click on Four Levels] occurs when Damp-Heat warm disease has overcome or bypassed your external Wei or defensive barriers (see above under External) and your body is now mounting a huge attack on it. From your point of view this is most unpleasant, but the symptoms you experience are the sign that your body is using its inherited genetic know-how to manufacture a huge defensive effort.
  2. Chronic: it can occur in your: –
  • Skin – for instance as acne or pustular eruptions
  • Channels – in your joints but probably affecting your zangfu energy organs eventually, see below – or skin, when it is often a little swollen, localised, and worse for scratching.
  • Zangfu energy organs: affecting the functioning of the vital energy organs that power your body. 
  • Gall-bladder 
  • Bladder
  • Stomach
  • Intestine
  • Uterus
  • Liver 
  • Spleen


What can YOU do about your condition of Damp-Heat?

This depends on where your Damp-Heat has reached in your system. For instance, if it has managed to progress into your joints, or deeply into your Zang-fu energy organs, you’ll need treatment from a professional. (Acupuncture and Chinese medicine have helped many.)

You can help yourself, however, wherever it has reached.

The following is pretty well common sense!

  • Avoid the causes of your Damp-Heat – see above
  • Stop eating the damp heat foods – and drinks! – that make you worse
  • Eat in a more healthy way- that page on Damp Heat foods has suggestions for foods that fight Damp Heat – but also read Nutrition
  • Stop smoking! Smoking puts Heat into you. I’m pretty sure vaping does too, even if mint flavoured
  • Eat foods that promote healthy bowel habits
  • Take appropriate exercise, sunlight and fresh air
  • Wear clothing appropriate to your condition
  • Try to keep where you live dry and well ventilated: not too hot
  • Get lots of sleep
  • Consider whether any medication you are taking could be causing or exacerbating your symptoms


What treatments help Damp Heat?

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