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Sometimes people ask me how to say 上火 in English and I tell them I don't know. I tell them people don't really have the concept of 上火 in America, let alone the term.

So how would you succinctly explain the meaning of 上火 in English? And what do Westerners say when they get the same symptoms that Chinese people call 上火?

  • 1
    Most westerners do not regard all those symptoms as symptoms of one thing. – Colin McLarty Apr 21 '15 at 19:03
  • Born and raised in Beijing, I always thought it was just milder forms of (some types of) inflammation. – Fang Jing Jan 10 '16 at 15:01
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I'm a native speaker, and my father practices Chinese Traditional Medicine, though I'm no expert on the matter.

From what I can gather, 火 is not a real thing, i.e it has no substance, rather than a general, collective and abstract terms for a set of human body reactions or symptoms commonly found when got a cold or infection. It often includes inflammation, irritation, bleeding, sore throat etc. Basically the symptoms when one's immune systems acting up. For that matter, I think westerns do 上火.

In China, the term is widely used among the general public even for those people who don't believe in CTM. And it is used when, as mentioned before one's immune systems is acting up no matter what the reason is. It could be caused by the invasion of external bodies like allergens, the reaction of external environments (e.g. 着凉), the accumulation of other conditions (e.g. abusive drinking or smoking), or simply a false alarm.

The thing is 上火 is often be used in such a manner as if it is the cause of something. However, it is actually the result, i.e. symptom.

  • So let's say you are translating between an English speaker and a Chinese speaker. The Chinese speaker has a red sore on her face. The English speaker says, "What happened?" The Chinese speaker replies, "我上火了." How would you translate that to the English speaker? – Suragch Apr 22 '15 at 5:37
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    @Suragch I don't know an equal term for it in English. But I think it would be helpful to imagine if they are both English speakers, what would they say. It's probably something like "My allergy is acting up", "I think I got sick". I chose those two because in case (1) the speaker knows what's wrong with him or her, it would be appropriate to just state what's going on, like an allergy and in case (2) the speaker doesn't really know what's wrong, the conversation would be followed by "怎上火了?","我最近太累了”. – user1228520 Apr 22 '15 at 6:10
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    @Suragch So you see, 上火 here it's a more general symptom describing a more specific symptom. This is because in non medical settings, this is so common and hard to pin down the cause, so people just used a general term to make conversation. BTW, is there a term in English to say feeling unwell or sick for no particular reason or unknown cause? Sort of like "out of balance" but I don't think "out of balance" is common enough to be the standard translation of 上火. – user1228520 Apr 22 '15 at 6:10
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suffer from excessive internal heat

seems to be the standard. ABC, A Chinese-English Dictionary, CC-CEDICT, KEY and Oxford all translate it this way.

Here's oxfords example sentence:

他鼻子流血, 准是上火了。

His nose is bleeding. He must be suffering from excessive internal heat.

As for English I'm pretty sure we would just specifically complain about whatever problem it is that we have.

A Chinese-English Dictionary

suffer from excessive internal heat (with such symptoms as constipation, conjunctivitis and inflammation of the nasal and oral cavities)

Inflammation can often feel itchy, we would probably complain of itchy ears, swollen throats, etc.

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    The problem is, do they know what is internal heat of body? – songyuanyao Apr 21 '15 at 7:33
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    Well, that's what it is. Westerners who have studied Chinese medicine would know, but it's strictly 术语. – user3306356 Apr 21 '15 at 7:34
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A general (and vague) term I could think of is "Common inflammatory symptoms due to Yi-Yang Imbalance".

There can be 實火 and/or 虛火 in 心、肝、脾、肺 and/or 腎 occurring in different combinations and levels. I do not know if there is any specific English term describing all cases.

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In my opinion, 上火 roughly means light infections of bacteria. Especially those cases with symptoms which make people feel "irritable".

Usually people prefer not to treat 上火 with anti-bios/medicines/herbs, but leave it to the body immune system.

You may want to learn 着凉 as well. The meaning is similar but refers to the infections when people feel cold/powerless.

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You may find the word heatiness useful.

By the way, here is the link explaining what heaty and cooling food is. Westerners should then be able to visualize what 上火 means.

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