Lung Damp Phlegm: Gunge in your Lungs

‘Lung Damp Phlegm’ is another snappy description most people can understand even without knowing the first thing about Chinese medicine. Who hasn’t heard someone coughing up piles of damp-phlegm?
Tissues for Lung Damp Phlegm
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Lung Damp Phlegm describes it exactly: lots of gunge in the Lungs that you have to cough up. You might think that the Chinese, eating as all Westerners know, a perfect diet (completely lacking in chocolate, sweets or alcohol of course), would never suffer from phlegm, let alone damp phlegm.

You would be wrong. China has just as many terrible dietary habits as we do. In fact, probably more, there being a good many more people living in China (1,354 million) than in North, Central and South America combined (956 million). As for Europe, well we’ve only got around 740 million people, barely half the number of Chinese.

Lung Damp Phlegm is a syndrome in Chinese medical theory.


Have you ever sat next to someone with loose phlegm in his chest? It’s not a comfortable experience as he tries to raise the gunge!

If he is elderly, it’s worse. He never seems to quite clear it: there’s always more Lung Damp Phlegm and repeated coughing gradually weakens him.

Probably he’s been given antibiotics, which usually clears the green phlegm but leave puddles of white phlegm.

That white phlegm is often the ideal home for the next bacteria that floats in for a look around. For the bacteria, those lungs are free and warm, there are plentiful supplies of damp and lots of oxygen – perfect! – and best of all, for the bacteria there’s no need to continue the struggle to survive in that wholly alien environment outside where there’s fresh air and worse, sunlight.

  • chronic cough
  • repeated coughing bouts
  • lots of white phlegm to be easily spat or coughed out, which helps …
  • – but there’s always more of it!
  • often can’t speak clearly for phlegm in the breathing passages
  • phlegm in the throat and back of mouth
  • chest feels full: they know it’s full of gunge
  • breathing properly is difficult: wheezes
  • unable properly to catch the breath
  • sitting or standing upright is better than lying down: if they lie down they need to be well propped up or breathing becomes very difficult

To explain this Chinese medicine uses a kind of short-hand. Although the text below summarises things, for more detail click on the links.

Possible Causes of Lung Damp Phlegm

1. Weak Spleen causing Lung Damp Phlegm

This can arise for a number of reasons, most of which take time, sometimes years, to wreak their damage:

  • lack of exercise
  • sitting around too much
  • worrying too much – this can be having too many things to run or do so that your mind is always thinking
  • too much intellectual work and not enough physical activity or
  • too much intellectual work interspersed by physical activity that is too intense or competitive or short-lived
  • a history of ‘wrong’ eating habits, including eating too fast, or while working or on the go, not chewing, snacking rather than taking meals, working while eating, snatching meals at erratic times rather than regularly; 
  • also, eating with people who disturb or worry you instead of people with whom you feel relaxed 
  • a history of eating the wrong foods
  • … in short, what the Chinese call ‘irregular eating habits’

2. Weak Kidney Yang and Lung Damp Phlegm

The Kidneys occupy an important position in Chinese medicine and a great deal of thought has gone into understanding them.

Fundamentally they look after the roots of Yin and Yang in our bodies.

Kidney Yin has a cooling, moisturising and consolidating action.

Kidney Yang is warming and, in particular, warms Spleen Yang.

So if Kidney Yang is weak, Spleen Yang will also be weak. Both are aspects of Yang deficiency.  Deficient yang then allows phlegm to build up in the Lungs and you get Lung Damp Phlegm!

How do you get Kidney Yang weakness? This is a big subject but it boils down to excess strain on your system such as:

  • a series of acute illnesses or a long chronic illness
  • too much physical work, or over-lifting or even exercising intensively too frequently, or exercising without adequate recuperation between sessions
  • too much loss of sperm for men, as in too much sex for the man’s age and constitution. While on this subject, look up sexual impotence.
  • eating too much food that has a cold energy. For more on this read our page on Nutrition.
  • getting cold too frequently
  • growing old exposes these problems as Kidney energy diminishes with age


Weight-lifting businessman

© Sergey Khakimullin

  • low energy
  • heavy feeling
  • nausea
  • head feels full of damp cotton-wool
  • not easy to think straight
  • often dizzy
  • snores
  • white complexion: ‘pasty-faced’
  • Tongue: swollen and covered in a white sticky coating
  • Pulse: ‘slippery’ and ‘soft’ or ‘soggy’ 

The above symptoms are common to this syndrome.

Additional symptoms you may get with Lung Damp Phlegm

In addition to the above Lung Damp Phlegm signs, you may get, depending on other factors, symptoms such as the following, which are not part of the main syndrome picture but may accompany it:

  • Increasing weakness, with sweating
  • Trembling, twitching
  • Faintness
  • Digestive complaints
  • Feels worse in a warm room, or when wrapped up or heated
  • Anxiety when alone, liking consolation
  • Hard to please
  • Prefer a cool breeze or open windows
  • Feel worse after heavy exertion, ie more coughing, but may be better for very gentle walking in cool air
  • Can lead on to wheezing


When your lungs are all stuffed up like this, you become more susceptible to Qi stagnation, a complication you certainly won’t welcome.!

Many of these symptoms, especially those of the main Lung Damp Phlegm syndrome above, occur because Phlegm blocks the proper flow of Energy. It stops Lung energy descending so you cough. It prevents your Stomach energy descending so you feel nauseous. Phlegm is said to get to the head, making you confused and heavy-headed and sometimes dizzy.

Where does Phlegm come from? In Chinese medicine it comes mainly from the Spleen and is said to be stored in the Lungs. But there’s much more than that to it. Read what people say about my book on the subject.

Hence all the coughing in this syndrome.

3. Diet

Lung Damp Phlegm doesn’t happen suddenly. It arrives gradually, preceded by months if not years of eating foods that have weakened the Spleen. Typically foods eaten have been too rich, or greasy, too cold or raw, with too much dairy food in them and too many sweeteners, including sugar, honey and artificial sweeteners.

People with this problem probably like sweets, chocolates, sugary treats and puddings. Just occasionally you get people who claim, hand on heart, that they never eat such garbage, but who never eat warm food either, insisting that all their food is fresh, raw, uncooked. For them, especially in winter, this may be too cold for their Spleen energy to handle.


4. Attack from Outside

Any attack on the system from outside, such as from a bug or virus, or from what in Chinese medicine is called Wind-Heat or Wind-Cold, will block the flow of Qi along the channels.

Such disruption prevents the Spleen and Lung from doing their jobs properly leading to build-up of damp and phlegm.

That gives you Lung Damp Phlegm.

How is Lung Damp Phlegm treated?


  • Just clear the Damp and the Phlegm
  • Re-start the Lungs descending and
  • Kick the Spleen up the bum.
  • Or maybe read my book on the subject first, see Yuck! Phlegm!

Well, not so easy. Damp and Phlegm are two big ‘heavies’ that can take a lot of shifting. While the Spleen’s and Lungs’ energies are both labouring in the presence of Damp and Phlegm, they can’t get it together to clear things up.

So take proper rest, and avoid foods that make it worse. The usual advice is not to eat dairy food, sweet food, or raw or chilled food or drink. Instead eat foods that are warm, and add a little fresh ginger root to cooking. Nutrition is a big subject, to a great extend under our own control, and can make a huge difference to health!

(NB Proper rest may mean more time in bed, or napping through the day, or lying down when you would otherwise be working. Recovering energy takes time!)

If you are young and vigorous, that might be enough, especially if you can live or stay somewhere neither damp nor cold while you recover. A warm climate helps.

If you are older and less vigorous, you’ll almost certainly take a long time to recover and your energy may remain low for ages. 

Chinese medicine, by carefully diagnosing the syndrome into its constituent parts, offers clear ways to treat it. That doesn’t mean overnight cure! But when I’ve treated it, it usually does go quite fast, with the correct treatment. Acupuncture is a powerful method.

Chinese Herbal medicine can be excellent for this too.

Other pages you may like:


Return from Lung Damp Phlegm to Lungs.

Jonathan Brand colours

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