Phlegm in Chinese Medicine an important tale teller

Phlegm causes many diseases in Chinese medicine. It is a surprising tale teller that needs more attention than most people think.
Ginger tea mug
Photo by Dominik Martin on Unsplash

Key Learning Points

  • Why Phlegm in Chinese medicine causes many problems
  • Who gets Chinese medicine Phlegm
  • What kinds of Phlegm there are
  • How to get rid of it

Phlegm causes many diseases

Phlegm can cause many diseases in Chinese medicine, some of them serious.

Unfortunately, it is easy to get and hard to clear.

Here’s what you need to know, and the first thing to realise is that the ‘catarrh’, ‘mucus’, ‘gunk’, ‘goo’, – thick stuff – you have to cough or hawk up is indeed nearly always ‘Phlegm’ with a capital P.

But not always!

For example, thick, white stuff could be due just to Heat.

Click to read about Phlegm Colour.

By the way, many internet sites suggest ways to clear it. They have good ideas, but no explanation as to why one method works and not another.

Why Does One thing work, and Not Another?

So you end up trying this, then that and not necessarily knowing why this  works, and that doesn’t!

A Small ‘Plug’ for my Book on Phlegm – much more detail than here!


I’ve written a book on this, with suggestions for the FIVE MAIN different kinds of gunk.


It explains how your body gets it and what to do about it.


It goes into much more detail than this page, covering herbs for each kind and then, taking the suggestions you find elsewhere on the web, explaining which work for your kind of the stuff!


As far as I’ve seen, no other website explains how different kinds of phlegm need different solutions!


Available for Kindle and in softback from Amazon.

(… end of Sales pitch …)

Phlegm is also lots of other things in Chinese medicine, including nodules, lumps and bumps under the skin, swellings and soft masses in the abdomen, dry powdery stuff you see in the cracks in people’s tongues and at the corners of their mouths.

No Sign of Phlegm?

And even when you can’t see any phlegm as such, it could still be there, technically, obstructing the free movement of Qi and Blood.

Phlegm in throat feeling

That’s when it becomes the cause of disease. So it can contribute to the formation of both Qi Stagnation and Blood Stagnation.

Worse, it can obstruct free movement of Qi in the Heart, leading to all sorts of serious Western medically-defined diseases.

When it blocks up what are called the ‘orifices’ of the Heart, you can get very disturbed mental behaviour, (because the Heart ‘governs’ your Mind – for example, see Heart Phlegm-Fire).

Of course, it’s also the result of other processes malfunctioning and of other syndromes.

Technically to be Phlegm (capital P), there should be:

  • Tongue: tongue coating is greasy or slimy or viscid and the tongue body is usually swollen
  • Pulse: slippery and sometimes wiry (technical terms used by acupuncturists to describe what they feel when taking your pulse)
  • There is, very often, heaviness in the chest, with heaviness in the body as a whole, a confused ‘thick’ head, and sometimes dizziness too. Also, nausea is common.


One last thing before I get on to the reasons you have it, and this is for the geeks. Phlegm is a form of yin excess. The more you get to know about yin and yang, the more this will make sense and the faster you’ll understand what you’re doing ‘wrong’ and how to do something about it.

So! Onto the causes …


Phlegm’s Underlying Cause – the Spleen

Nearly everyone agrees that the Spleen is most to ‘blame’ for Phlegm formation. Almost equally important, at least to my mind, are the Lungs and the Kidneys. 

In fact, a Lung or Kidney syndrome can be the prime cause.  The poor old Spleen tags along, unable to clear the mess the other has left.

Having pointed blame at the Spleen, do be aware that it is mainly YOUR fault if your Spleen isn’t functioning well!

You’ve been eating all wrong, so read on.

Your Spleen energy is a bit like Cinderella, never quite able to keep up with the demands of her older sisters, but vital for keeping the house tidy.

When Cinderella fails to clear up their mess, you get decaying piles of old food, mildew and dust in the corners, smelly unwashed garments, untidy beds and an air of subdued complaint and desperation. (Go right out and buy yourself a good recording of Rossini’s interpretation of the Cinderella story. It’s funny, witty and full of good tunes.)

In Chinese medicine, the Spleen is supposed to ‘transform and transport’.

‘Transforming’ means turn something into something else (like the Fairy Godmother in many tales of Cinderella).

In this context it means both

  • turning food into good blood and energy but also 
  • clearing Damp and accumulated detritus, which could be blood cells past their use-by date, or muscular tissue being broken down through exercise, or fat hanging around, unwanted.


Lean Woman on the beach. Lean people do get catarrh, however.
Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

A Plug for FAT!

By the way … Who wants fat? Everyone! It’s probably our best form of insulation, energy and energy reserves, and our forefathers burned it up through physical effort and manual labour. We make it by eating too much food that turns into sugar in our blood which we don’t burn up because we take little exercise. Of course our genes play a part in this too, but I doubt if they can be blamed for more than a small proportion of overweight humanity.

Anyway, you guessed it, excess fat is a form of Phlegm!

By ‘Transporting’, is meant clearing stuff away from where it has lost its usefulness, which means keeping the highways and byways of your body clear.

When Phlegm builds up, things don’t move so smoothly, and everything becomes an effort, like wading through glue.

So far, so good!

Sub-categories of Phlegm

Now it gets tricky, because there are lots of sub-categories of Phlegm and each has different causes and different treatments. Here are some of them. It’s possible to have more than one of the following at the same time.

As you read on down, you may get a bit mesmerised by all the reasoning, and other syndromes to which there are links (click on the words in colour and underlined).

If this concentrated mass of information is a bit much for you, my book Yuck! Phlegm! should make it easier. I think, as it is, this page reaches about the limit of information that most people can take in a sitting. I’ve just re-read it and even my mind began to wander! (Nothing new there, of course.)

Stomach and Phlegm

pepperoni pizza

‘Stomach phlegm’ causes are usually either from poor diet or bad eating habits. Maybe too much cold food, or too much greasy food? But also see below under diet.

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting of a clear sticky sort of mucus
  • Pulse: the slippery pulse might be more noticeable in the middle position on the right wrist.
  • Tongue: signs of a greasy coating more noticeable in the centre of the tongue


Lungs and Phlegm

Phlegm in the Lungs disturbs and blocks the proper flow of Lung Qi which should be downwards: the result is coughing as Lung Qi ‘escapes’ upwards.

It also stops Lung Qi dispersing effectively and the result can be dyspnoea (meaning an awareness of breathing difficulty when you wouldn’t expect it) and/or mucus expectoration.

It’s good to be able to expectorate mucus from the Lungs, but some people find it hard to raise, including children, so its absence doesn’t mean there is no Phlegm, if other symptoms suggest it.

  • Pulse: slippery in the Lung position, but also probably in the Spleen position, being the middle and distal positions respectively  on the right wrist.
  • Tongue: slimy coating towards the front of the tongue


NB If you have thick white mucus, this may or may not be Phlegm! It could be due to Heat, which has ‘cooked’ the natural colourless mucus. In this case, treatment to clear Phlegm wouldn’t work: you would also have to clear the Heat.

Head and Upper Body

Phlegm here causes:

  • Dizziness (often crippling, very severe, as for example in diseases such as Meniere’s)
  • This dizziness may recur in bouts
  • This dizziness often occurs as a result of other syndromes such as Liver Fire or Internal Wind, with their related symptoms such as headaches, neurological disorders and even epilepsy.
  • Pulse: slippery in the distal and possibly middle positions but there would be other qualities depending on the syndromes involved
  • Tongue: greasy towards the front of the tongue, but with other qualities depending on the syndromes involved


Heart and Phlegm

Phlegm here may not be in a visible form, but is still ‘assumed’ to be present, blocking the free flow of Heart Qi. The technical name for it is ‘blocking the orifices of the Heart’.

A bit like someone with vital life or death decisions to make for his family, who can’t see or hear what’s going on, let alone communicate properly, and who gets very upset and disturbed.

With blocked Heart’s orifices you get:


Man holding his temples and looking down.
Photo by Siavash Ghanbari
  • palpitations
  • lack of clarity in self-expression
  • disturbed expression
  • … which can become signs of mental derangement including Western medically-recognised conditions such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder
  • Pulse: slippery in the distal positions at the wrist but probably other pulse qualities too
  • Tongue: viscid or slimy coating towards the tip of the tongue but often also a deep central line to the tip, which may have what looks like powder in it.


Kidney and Gall-Bladder

Over time, heat dries fluids and creates first phlegm then stones. Kidney and Gallbladder stones are intensely painful end-products. 

  • During pain, the pulse will be wiry.


Chest and Sides of Body

Phlegm here causes:

  • Sensation of distension in the chest and/or
  • Pain in the chest
  • Sore cough
  • Pulse: slippery in the middle and distal positions
  • Tongue: slimy coating towards the front of the tongue
  • Note: a sensation of distension in the chest could be caused by Qi Stagnation too. In that case the Qi Stagnation has to be dealt with before expecting the phlegm to disappear. I’ve written a whole book about Qi Stagnation: see below.


The Jingluo

The What?

Jingluo is the name given to all the interconnecting paths and passageways that Qi takes just under the surface of the body.

  • Nodules, lumps and swellings that feel rubbery and don’t move around much. Usually they don’t hurt and Western medicine regards them as being removable with surgery. These are Phlegm in yet another form. Sometimes the channel on which they lie is clearly discernible, and treatment along that channel may slow down their growth. Once a nodule forms, however, it takes time to clear, even with good treatment.
  • Lymph nodes that swell display Phlegm, as do swollen thyroid glands and lipomas.
  • Where bones and joints get deformed and swollen, an underlying syndrome is Phlegm. Fluid build-up over a long period of time eventually coagulates to Phlegm. That Phlegm can then transform into bony growths. (This may not be how it is seen in modern rheumatology, but from the point of view of Energetic medicine, it is a way to understand and diagnose a condition, then treat it.)


black net like jingluo deformed by phlegm
Photo by Andrés Canchón

Skin of the limbs

Here we get into the area of ‘theoretical’ Phlegm. When you get areas of numbness for which there is no other obvious cause, the default suspect is Phlegm. Elderly people are prone to this.

  • Numb areas on the skin, without obvious other cause
  • Pulse: slippery
  • Tongue: you would expect a greasy tongue coating
Jonathan Brand colours

Stay in Touch!

No spam, only notifications about new articles and updates.

The latest books
Book a Consultation
Book Consultation
Acupuncture consultation

Book a Video consultation if you want to know more about your symptoms

Other kinds of Phlegm


(This was the kind of phlegm I had that led me to acupuncture, though it was complicated by Qi Stagnation. After I sorted out the Qi Stagnation situation, the problem didn’t return. In the meantime, acupuncture really helped keep the ‘Damp-Phlegm’ at bay, though I had to make some dietary changes too.)

Mainly caused by Spleen deficiency and appears as Lung syndromes:

  • poor appetite
  • nausea, especially on waking in the morning
  • huge amounts of clear or white mucous sometimes with the feeling that the chest contains lumps of the stuff
  • lack of thirst
  • chest feels oppressed
  • sense of fatigue
  • sticky taste in the mouth
  • Tongue: often swollen, with a sticky coating
  • Pulse: slippery


Phlegm-Cold (or ‘Cold-Phlegm’)

Commonly appears in syndromes of Stomach or Lungs:

  • cough is wet
  • mucous is clear and may be stringy
  • sense of coldness, eg cold arms and legs, easily chilled, likes warmth
  • nausea
  • chest feels heavy, full


Ice and Snow can be a cause of cold-phlegm
Photo by Pascale Amez on Unsplash


  • lack of thirst
  • Tongue: pale, swollen and coating is white and wet
  • Pulse: slow, slippery, may be deep


Example of Phlegm Cold

I just went out on my bicycle (not a pretty picture so you’re not getting one) to deliver a homoeopathic remedy to someone who lives about two miles away, mostly uphill.


It’s not a steep hill, but it wasn’t a warm day and I had to pedal hard.


Normally I try to exercise without breathing through my mouth – just through my nose – but I was on my lunch break. (… Yes, though I work on the website from home, I try to keep office hours. Should you ever find me asleep on the sofa after lunch, I’ll assure you it’s not sleep but deep thought …)


So I was in a hurry and did breathe quite a lot through my mouth. This cooled my lungs.


I think the exercise did me good, overall, but when I got back my chest felt full of liquid, and my nose felt blocked and I did a certain amount of hawking and snorting to clear it from my throat and lungs.


This was really a form of Lung Phlegm Cold, from cold air and slight over-exertion, which weakened the Lung function of descending qi. For more, read Lung Phlegm Cold.


This – Lung Phlegm Cold – is common in skiers, especially as they age and find their Kidney Yang energy reducing. If you are like this you should definitely avoid cold foods.



Mainly occurs in syndromes of the Lungs, Stomach or Heart:

  • mucus expectorated is thick, sticky and either green or yellow: it may also be full of globules or big lumps of phlegm
  • Mucus can be hard to expectorate
  • chest feels full and heavy, difficult to breathe easily
  • Signs of Heat, such as fever, dryness, thirst (although not always with desire to drink, as the phlegm fills the stomach)
  • nausea
  • face is red
  • mouth is dry
  • generally restless
  • Tongue: red, swollen, with yellow, sticky coating
  • Pulse: fast and slippery



Mostly affects the Lungs:

  • often cannot expectorate phlegm
  • any phlegm is very tenacious and thick, almost rubbery
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest feels very congested, causing distress
Smoking - a cause of Lung Phlegm with Lung and Spleen deficiency
Smoking – Photo by Riccardo Fissore on Unsplash
  • can occur after inhaling poisons: tobacco smokers get this
  • Tongue: may be red and dry
  • Pulse: slippery but also tight or even wiry


Qi-Phlegm often feels like Phlegm Stuck in Your Throat

This ‘phlegm in throat’ sort, is where you get a sensation that phlegm is stuck in your throat constantly, or at the back of your throat.

It feels like a phlegm lump in your throat.

It’s too deep to see, and neither swallowing nor hawking will clear it.

What’s more, your doctor won’t be able to see it either. And in reality, there may be NO actual phlegm in your throat! But you can certainly FEEL it!

This syndrome is mainly associated with Liver Qi stagnation.

  • it feels as if there’s a lump in your throat, swelling it, although no swelling or lump can be found or seen by your doctor
  • hard, well impossible, to swallow and you can’t expectorate it
  • chest and upper abdomen feel stuffy and oppressed
  • with this kind, you’re often emotional, especially angry or irritable, and moody
  • depression may be an issue
  • you feel better when doing something, especially something physical, like enjoyable exercise
  • Tongue: may be unaffected, or sometimes with teethmarks on the sides
  • Pulse: wiry


Phlegm Throat

Phlegm in throat sensation
Photo by Kate Hliznitsova

If this ‘phlegm stuck in throat’, or ‘lump in throat’ sensation is worse when you are under pressure, especially ’emotional’ pressure, then it’s almost certainly this Qi-phlegm type.

Phlegm from throat Causes

For instance, if you get it when

  • at work, when you are stressed, or
  • with someone you don’t get on with, or
  • you are trying to reach targets when there’s no time, or
  • you have an argument, or a situation, with someone at home
  • rushing because you are late for an important appointment
  • you are being contradicted by someone
  • someone has just barged into the queue in front of you
  • your child is stressing you  – again
  • your boss is criticising you or being impossible
  • you feel nobody takes you seriously
  • and … the above are just examples!


Phlegm From Throat is often from Qi Stagnation

Well! … in all these examples your phlegm-throat feeling is because of Qi stagnation, caused by stress. Often you don’t actually have any phlegm in your throat, but your Qi is constrained – stagnating – and constricts your feelings there. 

This makes it hard to speak confidently and assertively. You often feel as if your Adam’s Apple is pushing up in the front of your neeck and you have to keep swallowing to ‘push’ it down.

Usually this feeling subsides when you do something to clear your Qi Stagnation. (Read the linked page for more on this and more on what you can do about it.) 

For example, if you aren’t in the stressful situation, usually the phlegm-in-throat, or lump-in-throat feeling goes away. Often pleasant exercise shifts it, until your stress returns or you start worrying about it!

By the way, acupuncture is brilliant at sorting out this Qi Phlegm, Phlegm in Throat syndrome.

Of course, you can have real phlegm in throat. But unless it’s from stress too, you can usually swallow it or hawk it up and spit it out. (Though hawking up Phelgm-Heat and Phlegm-Dryness can be difficult.)


Tissues for Lung Phlegm Fluids
Paper tissues for Phlegm

Real, observable, hawkable phlegm in throat can come from many of the syndromes listed on this page, including Damp-Phlegm, Phlegm-Cold, Phlegm-Heat, Stomach-phlegm, Wind-phlegm and Lung-phlegm.


Various kinds of Phlegm-Fluids occur, in the hypochondrium, stomach, the limbs and the diaphragm, each with different symptoms, but nearly all have

  • expectoration of thin watery mucus, 
  • difficulty breathing, 
  • dizziness and 
  • swollen tongue. 
  • Pulse is usually wiry. Worse cold.



This syndrome occurs with a serious and acute condition called, in Chinese medicine, Wind-Stroke, which has a close relationship to ‘stroke’ and ‘epileptiform’ conditions.

  • mucus expectorated is watery or white, may be bubbly
  • phlegm is easily coughed up
  • chest feels heavy
  • throat sounds rattly, as of phlegm there
  • aphasia (difficulty communicating via speech)
  • dizziness
  • vomiting and nausea
  • limbs may feel numb or tingly or lose power (usually one-sided)
  • Tongue: swollen, often deviated or seems to ‘strain’ to one side, with a sticky coating
  • Pulse: wiry


What can You do about your Phlegm?

DIY : avoid foods that increase mucus production!
DIY Disaster – Photo by Andre Maritz -Dreamstime


What can you do to improve the chance of successful treatment – see below?

Sorting out your ‘situation’

This is the obvious solution, but not so easy for all of us!

  • You may not be able to avoid your situation … at work or at home.
  • Asserting yourself too vigorously may endanger your job – friendship – partnership
  • You may need the job more than you need to clear the phlegm
  • People may, indeed, not be taking you seriously
  • You may be too tired or depresssed to do anything about it
  • Changing your habits or diet may not be an option


Certain foods are best avoided with most kinds of Phlegm:

Foods known to weaken or block the Spleen include 

  • dairy foods (milk, cheese, cream, yogurt),
  • greasy/fatty food, 
  • sweet food,
  • sugars and sweets
  • raw food (especially when you have Cold Phlegm) and 
  • cold/iced food – and drinks.


These cause Damp fluids which easily turn to Phlegm. Don’t ignore this dietary advice! It really can make a difference!


Sweet dairy foods often cause phlegm

Other Foods that can lead to Phlegm

  • Food that has been refined, or treated with preservatives, or contains food additives such as artificial colours or flavours or flavour enhancers. Although these obviously modern substances were not available to the Chinese who worked out how phlegm was caused, I think they would be included in the list of discouraged substances now. 
  • Foods that are not organic include antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, admittedly in minute quantities. On any one day these are unlikely to cause harm, but taking such foods regularly over time may build up undesirable amounts in the body fluids, hampering Spleen, Kidney and Liver actions.
  • Alcohol: at the time this can feel like a very good idea to help drown your misery, but you may notice that your Phlegm quickly worsens. 


Bad Habits

Poor eating habits include:

  • eating in a rush or when working or otherwise occupied
  • irregular meals
Frequent snacks lead to more gunk in your throat
Cheetos Baked chip bag lot
  • not chewing food properly before swallowing
  • eating when tense or tired
  • eating too much at a time
  • snacking
  • eating too fast, or – as mentioned – a big cause! …
  • … not chewing properly.


What if you are ill?

  • If you are ill, take longer to eat, eat with small mouthfuls, and chew everything well. The same goes if you are elderly and your digestion lacks its earlier ‘fire’.
  • Drinking lots of cold or iced liquids douses your Stomach Fire, so you won’t digest food so well. Warm liquids are better. In fact, if you suspect that your digestion is below-par, always start and finish meals with something warm, even if it’s just a cup of warm tea: this helps to ‘warm’ the tubes!
  • Your Spleen nearly always benefits from Ginger. Get the root variety, not the dried powder. Cut up a slither of root and add it to whatever you’re eating. Or make it into a tea by pouring hot water over it in a mug.
  • Read more under Nutrition and Supplements.


Movement to clear Phlegm


Movement helps to clear phlegm.
Photo by Ahmad Odeh
  • There are various stretching movements that keep the spine flexible and in so doing force you to expand and contract your lungs.
  • Tai Qi is one way that has helped many;
  • the simple exercise in appendix 10 of my book Qi Stagnation takes about 2 minutes to do and can be repeated regularly through the day.
  • Walking in fresh air is usually beneficial, but make progress – don’t amble! (However, for Phlegm-Cold affecting the lungs, you may be better in a warm environment, if the air is well-circulated and clean.)
  • However, the above advice is mostly appropriate to the Cold and Damp forms of Phlegm. If you have Phlegm Heat, there are other considerations and you will want to drink more cool (not iced) fluids to dilute the Phlegm and wash it away. But you’ll also probably need treatment to clear the Heat.

Treatment for Phlegm

Given that Phlegm comes into existence when fluids either

  • stagnate because of Qi Stagnation, or 
  • arise from either Cold congealing fluids or
  • thicken or condense fluids to become Phlegm because of Heat


and you’ll realise that there’s not much point just trying to wave it away unless you also deal with the underlying cause (Qi Stagnation, Cold or Heat).

If the cause is Qi Stagnation, you must do something about it! Unless you do, the problem will return. (Mine did! I know what I’m talking about!)

Later, that probably means your acupuncturist will need to treat your Liver at some point, but other Zangfu may be involved depending on underlying emotional factors. (… not that emotional factors are the only causes of Qi stagnation, see my book, ‘Yuck! Phlegm!’)


clear glass bottle on brown wooden table

What will your acupuncturist do?

He (or she) will choose – from knowledge of either TCM Theory or 5 Element acupuncture theory, for example – the acupuncture channels to adjust by means of acupuncture points on them. 

Then, because the Spleen has been unable to free up the passage of fluids, meaning that Phlegm has accumulated, he must treat the Spleen.

He or she might not do acupuncture – he might start with cupping, as in the picture above.

If the Lungs, which tend to store the Phlegm, are involved, then treatment must assist them.

Finally, he must ‘support’ your Kidney Qi, because it supports all the other zangfu, helps Spleen Yang to transform Phlegm and is particularly relevant for the warmth of your body.

Complicating factors?

Lots! For example if an external pathogenic factor – a bug/bacteria/virus – is Hot and is blocking your Lung Qi from disseminating fluids, you get a thick, sticky or green ‘gloop’ that is often smelly.

If the invading pathogen has produced a Cold reaction, then your phlegm is clear, more runny and odourless.

In both cases, your body may clear the invader but be unable to clear the Phlegm. Sometimes the invader appears to remain. During treatment, symptoms of the original invasion may then recur before your body can eliminate both invader and Phlegm.

Sometimes the patient gets repeated attacks of what seems to be Wind-Cold when actually it is not a deficient immune system, but Phlegm blocking the passageways and preventing ‘Wei Qi’ – your immune force – being circulated to the exterior. In this case, trying to strengthen Wei Qi wouldn’t work until Phlegm had been cleared.

And that’s not all! Once Phlegm gets into the system, especially that of an older, weaker person with a system that can’t clear it, the phlegm becomes self-perpetuating and slows everything down, causing more fluids to stagnate leading to even more Phlegm.

This is common where someone eats a poor diet, not recognising which foods to avoid. Dairy foods are often better avoided if you have Phlegm – but there are other causes too, see above.


Pills and sugars often increase your mucus.
Photo by on Unsplash

Western Medicine and Phlegm

However, Western medically trained doctors, not trained in energetic-type medicine, typically use medications that prevent the body making the repairs needed. For instance

  • In the case of hot or dry Phlegm, broncho-dilators (which Chinese medicine regards as having a hot-dry energy) may make symptoms temporarily better but then worse.
  • Where there is blockage or what seems like an inflammation (which could be not from a bug but from Yin deficiency), it is tempting to use steroid-type sprays, but these often have a weakening effect, not to say anti-inflammatory effect, that is in effect cooling.
  • where bacterial infection is suspected, antibiotics may be prescribed. These mostly have a cold-damp effect. They usually kill the bug (assuming the antibiotic is well-chosen and the bacteria hasn’t learned to resist it, now becoming a huge problem) but, being cold and damp, can weaken the Spleen. That means that the Phlegm remains and may increase. IF your type of phlegm is by nature cold and damp, antibiotics will make it, and you, worse. Instead, make yourself warm soups and stews with plenty of warming ginger. Take clogstoun congee for moisture (add ginger to that too) and energy. You’ll probably find the improvement matches anything antibiotics can do, with the advantage that you don’t go down with the same thing again right after stopping the medication!


As you see, although not deeply complicated, there are many ways in which Phlegm can compromise the body. Making the right diagnosis and then treatment is not always easy.

That’s why I wrote the book about it “Yuck! Phlegm!”

For example, if the cause has been, say Heat invasion, but there is also an underlying Yin deficiencyKidney Yang exhaustion (as can happen with the elderly) and a history of bad diet, picking one’s way through the treatment process can take time.

Here the weak Kidney Yang cannot transform fluids, which then overflow upwards and stagnate. Guess what happens? Those fluids transform back into Phlegm!

How to Proceed!

So … I hope you’ll agree that Chinese medicine has given Phlegm a considerable amount of thought over the millennia. It’s a sometimes deep and often complicated subject.

You CAN do a lot to help yourself, however, and in my book I’ve summarised many successful strategies, treatments and herbs you can use once you understand your kind of phlegm, and its cause

Of course, both acupuncture and herbs have been used to clear Phlegm for millennia. If you are receiving treatment, be patient!

Questions and Comments on Phlegm?

Go right to the bottom of this page and you’ll find comments and questions from readers, with some replies. 

These may deepen your understanding of phlegm.

Other pages to read

Related Articles

photo of person showing silver-colored ring
Causes of disease

Knee Pain

Knee pain has five main causes. It’s certainly worth trying acupuncture before you resort to surgery!

Read More »

17 Responses

  1. I really needed this information and I’m so grateful I found you! I have been struggling with this embarrassing phlegm issue for several years, at first I thought it was something that would go away on its own but it hasn’t. It is creating issues in my personal life and I need to get rid of it somehow. Just like another reader commented on a different page, it seems to be provoked when stomach goes towards empty at night so in the middle of the night I feel it at the back of my throat and I have to get up and go to the bathroom to spit it out, very disturbing! I also noticed it more often after drinking water even if it’s not cold water. I often drink ACV diluted in water, I really enjoy the tangy taste but that too lifts up phlegm. Besides acupuncture what else do you think would help in my case? I don’t eat dairy anymore but it doesn’t make a difference. Thank you for all your work!

    1. I’m sorry you have so much phlegm, and it can be hard to shift. I would say your next strategy is to use herbs. In my book (Yuck! Phlegm!) I list and explain quite a few herbs that may help and give the names of basic Chinese formulae for each kind of phlegm.

      When using the Chinese formulae, please do not buy them off the shelf as already ‘made-up’ formulae. While this makes them cheaper, it doesn’t necessarily make them better for you! Any practitioner of Chinese medicine, if he or she thought that the basic formula I list were the correct one, would then adapt it to your particular needs.

      A slightly crass analogy would be when your left foot hurts and your doctor suggests new shoes. So you ring up a shoe shop and order a pair of their most popular shoes, but forget to mention your size. Your size is rather important! Similarly with a herbal formulae: your herbalist must adapt it to your particular circumstances.

      Not getting it right might theoretically make it worse and if merely ineffective would reduce your confidence in what is otherwise a great and honourable medical tradition, body of experience and intellectual acuityy: also a cultural asset.

  2. Wow. I have just started seeing a Chinese medicine doctor for shortness of breath on exertion and problems with gas exchange at alveolar level though I have good lung capacity volume and have been doing my own rehab with breathing exercises till now. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in Nov 2019 and had successful radical surgery and 4 rounds of aggressive chemotherapy (which I believe damaged my lungs). I had 11 months in remission but now they say the cancer is back in my lymph nodes. I did not want any more chemo or radiation which is all that was on offer in NHS and as I had had successful acupuncture/chinese herbal treatment for breathing problems many years ago I decided to give it a go again. My Chinese Dr who has been practising 30 years says I have blocked Lung chi/phlegm. I felt immediate improvement after first session and know I have a long way to go to rebalance my body with Chinese medicine as well as rebooting my body via juice detox schedule (for 10 days initially). Thank you for this detailed information and evidently I have to and want to learn/understand more this regime I am embarking on to regain health. I know Chinese medicine can’t cure my cancer but I am hoping it can make my final months more comfortable and bearable and who knows if the enlarged lymph nodes are not cancer but merely a lot of inflammation in my body I. might have a better outcome than expected. I’m 72 and a retired nurse and have some understanding of how the body works physically, mentally and emotionally (according to Western medicine) but I have always been interested in ‘old’ medicine and so I am ‘all in’/totally committed to these radical changes in looking after my body. I am very overweight and am sure eventually acupuncture will help me to shift the fat too. I know I made my body sick with eating wrong foods (processed) although I am vegan and eat more fruit and veg than most, so I owe it to my body to try to make it better, more balanced. Thanks again for all your words of wisdom and I’m sure I will be back to buy some of your books in the coming weeks as my journey progresses and I observe changes and want to understand more of how to support my body as it goes through treatment and change. I came looking for explanation of what my Dr told me that I have lung phlegm blockage and didn’t realise I had so much to learn but I am a good and fast learner. From your words I understand this translates into too much Yin/cold and I need to heat up my body with food, medicine, acupuncture and more physical ability as able. I am totally committed so again thanks for leading me to the path of balancing chi.

    1. Dear Robyn

      Thank you for your long contribution. Phlegm takes many forms and certainly can lead to other problems such as Blood stasis and cancer. It is a form of yin excess.

      As a general rule, with Chinese medicine you try to clear blockages such as excesses of yin first, to allow clear Qi and Blood to circulate smoothly.

      It’s true, Yin factors are more often cold than hot but they can have some hot characteristics, as with Damp-Heat.

      Excess ‘fat’ is also regarded as a form of phlegm!

      Because phlegm takes many forms, the solutions are different. In my book on phlegm I describe five main kinds, with what to do in each case. More than likely one, or possibly several of them, will apply to you.

      What we eat makes a huge difference and vegetables are usually good.

      Good luck with your treatment!


  3. Hi, Thank you for this in-depth summary. I am recovering from mold exposure, and while I have mostly eliminated it from my home, I am only about 90% better and still struggling to fully clear the phlegm from my body. I am hypersensitive to it now and have an allergic reaction when exposed with many symptoms (actually phlegm (white), anaphylaxis, as well as nausea, heartburn, sneezing, stomach pain, my doctor said my liver was slightly stressed…). I am curious if mold has a hot or cold effect. Do you know anything about it? I am trying to work on my diet but find it difficult to cut out alcohol, popped corn, and potato chips. I will eat more ginger. Otherwise, I eat very healthy (lots of bone broth, warm foods and tea, nuts and fruits and seeds, and generally few carbs and sugars. The proverb above is exactly how I feel.

    1. Hi Anna, It’s your body that ‘decides’ if mould, or indeed anything, has a hot or cold effect.

      Also, you can have a reaction that is ‘hot’ or yang in one part of your body and ‘cold’ or yin in another. From what you say, you have a mix of yang and yin imbalances (or possibly more complicated than even that, with elements of yin deficiency and yang deficiency too).

      Guessing, I would agree with your doctor but go one step further and suggest that the action in terms of Chinese medicine of your Gallbladder may be imbalanced. This Wood energy regulates your Earth energy, including your Stomach (nausea, heartburn, pain, craving for sweet foods such as alcohol, popcorn and chips) and bile cuts through fat in the intestines so can be likened to cutting through the effect of mould.

      But without examining you, including tongue and pulse, I can’t be sure.

      Hope this helps. Jonathan

  4. Hi Jonathan

    I had a bad flu towards the end of November last year. My throat was on fire for a few days coughing. I had lots of mucus in my head and sinuses. Also, had an unbearable thirst whilst sick for nearly 3 weeks. I was taking paracetamol and ibuprofen during that time. I drank a lot of chicken broth as had no appetite.
    But now I have phlegm in my throat since, with that is a cough. Sometimes I find my throat sticky, eating a piece of apple or a grape. I can’t swallow it all. It sticks in my throat, takes 2 or 3 attempts to get it down.
    Also within the last 2 weeks I’ve noticed heartburn only suffered from whilst pregnant. I feel an emptiness feeling below my sternum. Not sure if this is indigestion. I’m drinking kefir milk which has helped heartburn but dairy not good for phlegm. But I think now the phlegm & cough are related to the stomach?
    I feel cold & energy not good since flu in November.
    I eat pretty well, glass a wine maybe once a week and sometimes not. Fresh fruit & vegetables. Do eat meat but not much. Cook from scratch, no processed foods & organic where possible.

    I’ve made GP appointment as bothering me now and mind working overtime. But reading your information as led me to writing this.

    What do you think?

    Thanks Joyce

    1. Hi Joyce

      From what you say I think you may have a mixture of Damp Phlegm, Stomach Yin deficiency, and Kidney yang deficiency, all associated with Spleen qi deficiency.

      That’s a difficult mix because to warm yourself you need warming foods but if they’re too heating they’ll worsen your Stomach yin deficiency.

      First read our page on Stomach Yin deficiency and when it comes to the suggestion about warming or heating foods, be sure to eat warm foods, but to avoid very spicy foods as listed on our page on Heating Foods. Red wine is usually good but white wine and beer are less beneficial.

      Acupuncture would help. Antibiotics are usually cooling so avoid them. Obviously you’re aware of the main foods that worsen phlegm. Good luck with your doctor.

  5. Hello,
    I really appreciate the article as I myself am suffering from phlegm since having a cold last December and now seeing an acupuncturist for my issue. May I ask how long it took for you with TCM treatment to feel relief? I read online that my condition Lung qi/spleen qi deficiency will take a long time to get satisfactory results.

    1. The right treatment, assuming you are in otherwise good health and not taking medication for other issues that might be additional ‘baggage’ for your Liver and Spleen to deal with, and not overstrained by life emotionally or physically, and eating sensibly, not least to avoid phlegm-forming foods, might improve your health in days. As you will have read, Lung and Spleen are depleted by overthinking and disappointment as well as poor diet and lack of exercise etc so don’t usually weaken suddenly. If depleted by years of woes, improvement will take longer.

  6. i have a feeling of phlegm stuck in my throat.. and sometimes it does makes my voice sounds wet/hoarse.. it used to be way worse when i was constantly clearing my throat which the cycle itself is destructive as it creates more phlegm, so i put in huge effort to stop clearing my throat. Im now able to go on the day without clearing my throat, but however, i still feel that phlegm is stuck in my throat.. if it is globus as termed by the western doctor, then i wouldnt have encountered the wet raspy hoarse voice. In other word, i could have the same amount of phlegm in my throat as a normal person, but perhaps im super sensitive to it? I dont know is it a intrinsic phlegmy problem or im just super sensitive to it or it can be both. I admit my diet back then wasnt so good.. all the sweet spicy cold drink.. i have since try to clean my diet.. im definitely better compare to back then, but i want the feeling of phlegm stuck in my throat to be gone

  7. prior to this.. i also am taking dry ginger every morning, im drinking chinese barely tea throughtout the day.. supplementing with li zhong wan medicine and bao he pian after meals.. i have only started my tcm journey maybe half a year ago… and i have the mentioned symptom for almost a decade.. it all started with an upper respitory infection if i remembered correctly, which leads to this constant phlegm stuck in the throat feeling.. i do notice before this phlegm stuck in the throat feeling, i do have phlegmy constituition(i may be wrong as this was long ago), but it never bothers me because the phlegm doesnt feel stuck there..

    1. You mention your upper respiratory infection which pre-dated the onset of phlegm. Such an infection often leaves what is called Lung Qi deficiency .

      In addition there are other reasons for the globus sensation in your throat, including Liver Qi stagnation.

      Avoiding the foods that produce phlegm is half the battle, but if you have these other syndromes, you may need professional help.

      1. will you book be able to help me in some form or another? and what books do you recommend me to buy and read?

        1. Not knowing your full health condition I cannot confirm whether or not my book will help, but the unsolicited reviews of it suggest that it has helped many people. If your main problem is phlegm, start with Yuck! Phlegm!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *