Many lining tissues in the body constantly produce mucus and phlegm to help protect from infection and prevent internal tissues from dehydrating1. This is essential for body function and acts as a protective and moisturizing layer to keep critical organs from drying out2. Mucus and phlegm are often used interchangeably, but there are some differences between these two substances1,2.
In terms of the respiratory system, mucus refers to a thinner secretion produced from your nose and sinuses. Phlegm is the term used to describe mucus that is produced in excess, usually in response to a respiratory infection, and is harder to clear than mucus, often needing to be coughed up from the throat and lungs1,2.
Mucus protects the respiratory tract from dehydration and infection1,2. When we breathe in, allergens, viruses, dust and other debris become trapped in the mucus or phlegm so that they can then be removed1,2 . It contains anitbodies and bacterial-killing enzymes to help fight off infections 2.
When we become ill, mucus tends to become thicker and stickier than normal and is harder to clear from the respiratory system2. The average person produces around 1.5 litres of mucus daily and even more when we are sick1.
The colour and consistency of mucus and phlegm can offer a clue as to what is happening in the body:
- Clear – Thin and clear mucus is normal and healthy1,2.
- White – Thicker white mucus that is accompanied by congestion may indicate the start of an infection. The white colour come from the increased number of white blood cells1.
- Light yellow or green – Mucus or phlegm of this colour could mean that the body is fighting an infection or there are foregin substances . The colour comes from the enzymes within the white blood cells1,2. Seasonal allergies can also cause a yellow or green mucus, so it is important to note that light green does not always indicate infection3.
- Dark yellow or green – Especially when accompanied by a fever, cough and sneezing, these colours may indicate that the infection is getting worse1,2.
- Pink or red – This could mean there is a bit of blood in the mucus/phlegm and while a small amount is normal you should see a healthcare professional if it is excessive. Red or pink mucus could also be due irritation and dryness of the nasal tissue1,2.
- Brown –Dried blood, dirt particles and residue from smoking or tobacco use can cause mucus to become brown1,2.
- Black – Heavy smoking and air pollution can cause black mucus. Rarely, black mucus can be a sign of a fungal infection and requires urgent assessment from a healthcare practitioner1,2.
So, what to do when you have excess mucus production?
Expectorants can help thin mucus and enhance the body’s ability to remove it2. Expectorants can be derived from natural ingredients4,5 or can be an allopathic or modern mainstream medicine6. Natural ingredients such as Thyme extract act as expectorants to help thin mucus to help you cough it up4,5.
Some home remedies include gargling with warm salt water to help clear mucus from the back of the throat and the use of humidifiers to moisten the air and help thin the mucus. Staying hydrated can help loosen congestion and help the mucus to flow and elevating your head when lying down can help to avoid the feeling of mucus collecting in the back of the throat7.
Make an appointment to see your healthcare provider if the overproduction of mucus is persistent and recurring; if the amount of mucus that you are producing increases dramatically and if the excess mucus is accompanied by any symptoms that may be concerning7.
DISCLAIMER: This editorial has been commissioned and brought to you by iNova Pharmaceuticals. Content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information speak to your healthcare provider.
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- Premier Health. Barometers of Health (2018) at https://www.premierhealth.com/your-health/articles/women-wisdom-wellness-/mucus-and-phlegm-barometers-of-your-health (website accessed 14 March 2021).
- What is Mucus? (2019) at https://www.medicinenet.com/what_is_mucus/article.htm (website accessed 14 March 2021).
- Harvard Health Publishing. Don’t judge your mucus by its color (2016) at https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/dont-judge-your-mucus-by-its-color-201602089129 (website accessed on 14 April 2021)
- Pholtex Bronchostop® Cough Syrup professional information, September 2019.
- Capasso F. et al. Phytotherapy. Chapter 18 – Plants and the respiratory System. Springer Science & Business Media, 2003
- What is Allopathic Medicine (2019) at https://www.healthline.com/health/allopathic-medicine#allopathic-treatments (website accessed on 14 April 2021)
- What causes excess mucus in your throat and what to do about it (2020) at https://www.healthline.com/health/overproduction-of-mucus-in-throat (website accessed 14 March 2021)