Plagued by phlegm? Snot can get everywhere, so if you’re struggling with a cold or allergies and producing a lot of mucus you might be starting to lose hope. But while a steady stream of snot can be incredibly annoying, it actually plays an important role in your recovery. Phlegm is the name given to the type of mucus that forms in the lungs and upper airways and normally helps to form a protective lining. It also helps to trap particles and germs to keep you healthy.
Dr Roger Henderson looks at what the different phlegm colours means, when this can be a sign of illness, and shares 20 experts tips on clearing mucus:
What is phlegm?
Sometimes also called ‘mucus’ or ‘snot’, phlegm is the usually clear and slightly viscous liquid that is made by the cells lining the nose, throat, upper airways and lungs, and over one litre can be produced every day.
Everyone requires mucus to be made each day to help maintain a healthy body, but it is not normal to notice much phlegm unless you have a problem such as a cold or a chest or sinus infection. An excess of mucus can also be caused by smoking, allergies, infection, any irritation of the nasal or throat passages and chronic lung diseases. When phlegm is coughed up it is called sputum.
What do different phlegm colours mean?
Although research does suggest that the colour of phlegm is not a good indicator of significant infection in people with acute coughs who are feeling well, coughing up coloured phlegm might suggest a bacterial infection and may warrant advice from a health professional. Many people believe that having green or yellow mucus running from the nose means an infection is present whereas it is often a sign of simple dehydration or a harmless viral infection. We look at what the various colours of phlegm might mean:
• Clear phlegm
This is the most common colour of phlegm and is usually triggered by an irritant, an allergy or a simple viral infection. Typical causes include allergic rhinitis and upper airway viral infections such as a cold or viral bronchitis and clear phlegm is generally not as thick or sticky as other types of phlegm.
• Green or yellow phlegm
Green or yellow mucus can be a sign that the body is fighting off an infection, with the colour arising from white blood cells in the body. The longer and more severe any infection is, the greater the chance of the mucus becoming thicker and more dark green in colour. Common conditions causing this type of phlegm include sinus infections, bronchitis, pneumonia and cystic fibrosis.
• Brown phlegm
If your phlegm is brownish or ‘rusty’ in appearance this may reflect old blood in the phlegm. A common reason for this type of phlegm is a bacterial pneumonia, but others include simple bacterial chest infections, cystic fibrosis, infective exacerbations of COPD, and abscesses in the lung.
• White phlegm
White phlegm is often triggered by a viral chest infection, which may become green or yellow if it progresses into a bacterial infection. Heart failure, COPD and chronic acid reflux problems can also trigger this type of phlegm.
• Black phlegm
Seen less commonly, black phlegm – sometimes called melanoptysis – is often a sign that something black may have been inhaled (such as smoke or coal dust). It is often linked to smoking but can also be caused by cystic fibrosis and the condition pneumoconiosis, linked to coal workers.
• Red or pink phlegm
Red or pink coloured mucus is usually linked to blood, and should always be medically assessed. Causes include pneumonia, TB, heart failure, blood clots in the lungs (pulmonary embolism) and lung cancer.
When to visit your doctor about phlegm
If you are not feeling unwell, and the phlegm is clear, yellow or green then it is safe to wait to see if this clears by itself before seeking medical advice. However, if you see bloodstained sputum, or any shade of red, black or brown phlegm then contact your health professional. If coughing phlegm up is associated with fatigue or weight loss, seek urgent medical advice.
In general, see your doctor if you are not improving, having thick, dark or bloodstained phlegm, have a persistently raised temperature over 38 degrees C, have breathing problems or feel generally unwell.
How to get rid of phlegm and clear mucus
If you are not feeling unwell and there is no indication to see a doctor then following these 20 tips to get rid of phlegm and mucus can help:
1. Stay well hydrated. This helps to keep mucus thin and clear, and drinking lots of water when you have a cold will help to keep the sinuses and airways clear.
2. Use a humidifier in your home. Keeping the air around you moist helps prevent the nasal passages from being irritated, loosens phlegm and allows it to be coughed up more easily.
3. Keep the head of your bed elevated. Sleeping propped up on pillows helps reduce any discomfort caused by phlegm collecting at the back of the throat – this is more noticeable when lying flat.
4. Gargle with salt water. Mix a cup of warm water with about half a teaspoon of salt, and gargle with it before spitting it out. This can help loosen up mucus at the back of the throat.
5. Use eucalyptus oil. Rubbing this in a diluted form onto the chest or using it in a warm bath or diffuser can help reduce mucus and subdue coughs.
6. Don’t smoke. Smoking directly increases the amount of phlegm that is produced because of its irritant effect on the airways, as well as significantly increasing the risk of conditions such as COPD and lung cancer.
7. Take a hot shower or bath. Steam helps to loosen phlegm as well as giving relief from pressure in the sinuses.
8. Always blow your nose gently. Although it can be tempting to blow your nose hard to clear any phlegm away, doing this too forcefully can cause discomfort and sinus irritation.
9. Keep alcohol and caffeine to a minimum. Both of these lead to dehydration if drunk excessively and it is better to drink water or warm, caffeine-free drinks to stay well hydrated.
10. Eat plenty of fruit. Having a diet rich in fruit and vegetables will increase the amount of healthy antioxidants in the body and help the immune system fight off colds and other infections.
11. Try using a saline nasal spray. These can help clear out mucus from the nasal passages – make sure that only sterile or distilled water is used in these, and only use sterile sprays containing sodium chloride.
12. Avoid foods that cause excess acid. If you are prone to heartburn or acid reflux you may be more likely to produce more phlegm so watch your diet carefully.
13. Keep decongestant use to a minimum. Although decongestant nasal sprays can sometimes initially help, if used for too long they can cause worsening stuffiness and blocking of the nasal passages.
14. Try putting a warm, wet flannel onto your face. This can help soothe sinus headaches and feelings of nasal congestion, and inhaling through this can moisturise the throat and nose.
15. Try to always spit phlegm out into a tissue discretely rather than swallowing it, whenever possible.
16. If you have seasonal allergies, make sure these are treated as well as they can be to reduce the chances of allergy-triggered phlegm occurring.
17. Check that any perfumes, fragrances or chemicals that you use are not irritating your airways and causing more phlegm to be produced.
18. Use cough-suppressing syrups sparingly. Coughing is the body’s way of clearing away excessive phlegm so suppressing this is not recommended.
19. Over the counter expectorants can be helpful in thinning phlegm, making it easier to be blown out or coughed up. Always follow the instructions when using these and make sure they do not contain decongestants in them – ask your pharmacist for advice.
20. Finally, always pay attention to the colour of any phlegm you make. If you notice a change in its colour, volume or consistency then discuss this with your doctor.
Last updated: 17-02-2021
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