Phlegm and Mucus: Understanding the Causes and Tips to Clear Phlegm and Mucus from Lungs

July 31, 2023 - Shelly Jones

When we talk about respiratory health, we often encounter two often misunderstood terms: mucus and phlegm. Did you know that these substances play a crucial role in our body's defense mechanism. However, when their production goes into overdrive, we find ourselves battling constant coughing, congestion, and a host of other uncomfortable symptoms. From understanding what triggers excess mucus and phlegm to discovering effective ways to clear them from your lungs, let’s explore this fascinating and crucial aspect of your health.


Understanding Phlegm and Mucus

Phlegm and mucus are types of viscous substances produced by the mucous membranes within the body. They are comprised of water, salts, antibodies, and proteins such as mucins. Their main role is to keep the body's delicate tissues moist and defend against the intrusion of foreign particles and microorganisms.

Phlegm is a subtype of mucus that is produced specifically within the respiratory tract in the lower part of the throat and in the lungs. It usually contains debris or microbes that have been trapped in the airways, and your body is attempting to expel, often by coughing.

Mucus, on the other hand, is a broader term that applies to the slimy substance produced by mucous membranes throughout the body, such as in the nose, throat, sinuses, and even the gastrointestinal tract.

Function of Mucus in the Respiratory System

  • First, it acts as a protective barrier and a first line of defense against foreign particles and pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and dust. When these invaders are inhaled, they get trapped in the mucus, preventing them from reaching the lungs.
  • Second, mucus keeps the respiratory tract moist and prevents it from drying out. This is particularly important because the cells of the respiratory tract need to stay moist to function effectively.
  • Third, mucus aids in the clearance of particles and microbes from the respiratory tract. Cilia, tiny hair-like structures on the surface of the respiratory tract cells, move in coordinated waves to propel the mucus and the trapped particles upwards, where it can be swallowed or coughed out. This process is called mucociliary clearance and is an essential part of the body's immune defenses.

Difference between Mucus and Phlegm

While both mucus and phlegm play vital roles in protecting the body, they differ in their composition and the locations within the body where they're found.

  • Mucus is produced throughout the body by mucous membranes, including the linings of the respiratory and digestive tracts. It is typically clear and thin, acting as a protective layer that helps to trap foreign particles and keep tissues moist.
  • Phlegm, on the other hand, is produced in the lower airways, including the lungs. It's typically thicker than mucus and can become discolored when the body is fighting an infection. For example, phlegm may turn yellow or green due to the presence of immune cells called neutrophils.

To summarise, while all phlegm is a type of mucus, not all mucus is phlegm. Phlegm refers specifically to the mucus produced in the lower airways, especially during an infection or inflammation.

How Mucus and Phlegm are Produced in the Body?

Mucus and phlegm are secreted by specialized cells called goblet cells and submucosal glands, which are found in the mucous membranes lining various parts of the body, including the respiratory and digestive tracts. The production of mucus involves the synthesis of a protein known as mucin. Mucins are large glycoproteins that give mucus its gel-like consistency. In a healthy state, the water content in mucus is high, which keeps it thin and clear.

When the body encounters harmful invaders such as bacteria, viruses, or allergens, the cells in the mucous membranes react by increasing the production of mucus. In the lower respiratory tract, this increased mucus production, or phlegm, also involves the release of additional immune substances to help fight off the infection or irritation.

Why Mucus is present in the Lungs?

The presence of mucus in the lungs is crucial for the body's defenses. The lungs are continually exposed to the external environment through the air we breathe, which can contain dust, allergens, and microorganisms. Mucus in the lungs traps these particles, preventing them from causing damage or infection.

Moreover, the lungs and the entire respiratory tract are lined with small, hair-like structures called cilia. The cilia beat in coordinated waves to move the mucus, along with the trapped particles, upwards out of the lungs and toward the throat. This process, called mucociliary clearance, helps to keep the lungs clean and free from potentially harmful substances.

Normal and Abnormal colors of Phlegm

Phlegm can come in a variety of colors, and these colors can provide clues about what's going on in your body.

  • Clear or White: This is normal, healthy phlegm that your body routinely produces to keep your respiratory tract moist and protect against infections.
  • Yellow or Green: If your phlegm turns yellow or green, it generally means that your body is fighting an infection. The color comes from a type of white blood cell that combats infection.
  • Brown or Black: Phlegm of this color may indicate that you're inhaling smoke or heavy amounts of dust. It can also be a sign of a fungal infection.
  • Red or Pink: This could be a sign of bleeding in the respiratory tract. This is a serious symptom that requires immediate medical attention.

Causes of Excessive Mucus and Phlegm

Excessive mucus and phlegm production can result from a variety of factors, including infections, chronic diseases, and environmental or lifestyle influences. In most cases, increased production is a defense mechanism of the body, aimed at trapping and removing irritants or pathogens from the respiratory tract. However, when this process is excessive or chronic, it can lead to symptoms such as coughing, congestion, and difficulty breathing.

  • Common illnesses that cause excessive Mucus or Phlegm

    • Colds and Flu

      Both the common cold and influenza viruses inflame the mucous membranes, leading to increased mucus production as the body attempts to trap and remove the virus. This can result in a runny or stuffy nose, as well as phlegm production in the lower airways.

    • Bronchitis

      This condition involves inflammation of the bronchi, the main airways to the lungs. It often follows a viral infection and can cause a productive cough, with phlegm that can be clear, white, yellow, or green.

    • Pneumonia

      This is a more serious lung infection that can cause high fever, chest pain, and a cough that produces phlegm. Pneumonia can be caused by a variety of organisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

  • Less common but serious conditions that cause excessive Mucus or Phlegm

    • Cystic Fibrosis

      This is a genetic condition that causes the body to produce excessively thick and sticky mucus, which can clog the airways and lead to chronic infections and lung damage.

    • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

      This group of diseases, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, involves chronic inflammation of the airways and an overproduction of mucus. This can result in a chronic cough and difficulty breathing.

    • Lung Cancer

      While lung cancer does not always cause noticeable symptoms in its early stages, it can cause a persistent cough and production of phlegm, particularly if the cancer involves the airways.

  • Environmental and lifestyle factors that cause excessive Mucus or Phlegm

    • Smoking

      Tobacco smoke irritates the airways, causing them to produce more mucus. This can also impair the cilia's ability to clear mucus from the lungs.

    • Pollution

      Airborne pollutants can irritate the respiratory tract and trigger excess mucus production. This can be a particular problem in heavily industrialized areas or cities with poor air quality.

    • Allergens

      Substances like dust mites, mold, pet dander, and pollen can trigger allergic reactions in susceptible individuals, leading to inflammation of the airways and increased mucus production.

Symptoms of Excessive Mucus and Phlegm

  • Persistent Cough: A productive cough that brings up phlegm is a common sign of excessive mucus production in the lower airways.
  • Nasal Congestion: An abundance of mucus in the nasal passages can lead to a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and postnasal drip.
  • Throat Clearing: The presence of excess mucus or postnasal drip can lead to frequent throat clearing or a feeling of mucus stuck in the throat.
  • Breathing Difficulties: If mucus or phlegm is obstructing the airways, you might experience shortness of breath, wheezing, or a feeling of tightness in the chest.
  • Changes in the Color, Texture, or Volume of Phlegm: Phlegm that is yellow, green, brown, or red, particularly thick, or produced in large amounts can be a sign of an infection or other medical condition.

Symptoms that may require Immediate Medical Attention

  • Coughing Up Blood: This could be a sign of a serious condition such as tuberculosis or lung cancer.
  • Rapid, Shallow Breathing or Difficulty Breathing: This might indicate a severe respiratory problem that requires immediate treatment.
  • High Fever: A high fever along with cough and phlegm could suggest a serious infection, such as pneumonia.
  • Unexplained Weight Loss and Fatigue: These symptoms, particularly if accompanied by a persistent cough and phlegm, could indicate a chronic illness such as COPD or lung cancer.
  • Changes in the Color, Texture, or Volume of Phlegm: Phlegm that is yellow, green, brown, or red, particularly thick, or produced in large amounts can be a sign of an infection or other medical condition.

Remember, while it's normal to produce mucus and phlegm, particularly during a respiratory infection, persistent or severe symptoms should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.

Tips to Clear Phlegm and Mucus from Lungs

  • Quitting Smoking

    Smoking irritates the airways and leads to increased mucus production. By quitting smoking, you can reduce this irritation and give your lungs a chance to heal and clear out mucus.

  • Avoiding Allergens

    If you have allergies, avoiding the allergens that trigger your symptoms can help reduce inflammation in your airways and decrease mucus production. This might involve steps like using dust mite-proof bedding, keeping pets out of your bedroom, or staying indoors on high pollen days. Tobacco smoke, dust, and other air pollutants can worsen mucus and phlegm. Avoid exposure to these irritants when possible.

  • Hydration

    Drinking plenty of fluids, particularly warm ones, can help to thin mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough up.

  • Dietary Changes

    Spicy foods can thin out mucus, while dairy products may make it thicker for some people. Pay attention to how your body responds to different foods and adjust your diet accordingly.

  • Breathing Exercises

    Techniques like pursed lip breathing or deep coughing can help to clear mucus from the lungs.

  • Physical Activity

    Regular physical activity can improve lung function and help to clear mucus. Even simple activities like walking can be beneficial.

  • Over-the-counter Treatments

    Expectorants like guaifenesin, can help to thin mucus and make it easier to cough up. Decongestants can help to reduce swelling in the nasal passages, making it easier to breathe and helping to clear mucus.

Home Remedies to Clear Phlegm and Mucus from Lungs

  • Staying Hydrated

    Drinking plenty of fluids can help thin out the mucus, making it easier to expel. Water, juice, and clear broths are good choices. Also, hot drinks like herbal tea or a warm infusion of lemon and honey can soothe your throat and loosen up the mucus.

  • Using a Humidifier

    Dry air can aggravate your respiratory tract and increase mucus production. A humidifier can help keep your throat and nasal passages moist and make it easier to remove mucus.

  • Steam Inhalation

    Inhaling steam can help moisten and loosen mucus, providing immediate relief. You can take a hot shower or boil water, pour it into a bowl, cover your head with a towel creating a tent over the bowl, and breathe in the steam. Be careful not to burn yourself with the hot water or steam.

  • Taking Warm Liquids

    Similar to hydration, drinking warm liquids like tea or soup can help to thin mucus and soothe irritated airways. Taking warm water with onion juice, honey and lemon juice in warm water can also help reduce phlegm in the lungs.

  • Salt Water Gargle

    Gargling with warm salt water can help soothe a sore throat that often accompanies excessive mucus and phlegm. It can also help clear phlegm from the throat.

  • Elevating Your Head

    When lying down, mucus can accumulate in your throat, leading to coughing and congestion. By keeping your head elevated, you can prevent this.

  • Using a Neti Pot

    A neti pot allows you to flush out your nasal passages with a saline solution, helping to clear out excess mucus and allergens. Make sure to use distilled or sterilized water for this.

  • Eating Spicy Foods

    Eating spicy foods like chili peppers can help thin mucus and promote its removal from the body.

  • Using Essential Oils

    Certain essential oils, like eucalyptus and peppermint oil, can help to break down mucus and relieve congestion. You can add a few drops to a diffuser or a steam bath.

Prevention Tips on how to prevent excessive mucus and phlegm production

  • Avoid Irritants: Smoke, dust, chemical fumes, and certain foods can all cause your body to produce more mucus. By identifying and avoiding these irritants, you can help prevent excessive mucus production.
  • Maintain Good Hygiene: Regular handwashing, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, and not touching your face can help prevent respiratory infections that lead to increased mucus and phlegm.
  • Stay Hydrated: Drinking plenty of fluids can help keep mucus thin and easier to clear from your airways.
  • Use a Humidifier: Dry air can irritate your airways and cause your body to produce more mucus. A humidifier can help by adding moisture to the air.
  • Regular Exercise: Physical activity can help improve your lung function and help clear mucus from your respiratory tract.
  • Balanced Diet: Consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains can boost your immune system, helping to prevent respiratory infections that can lead to increased mucus and phlegm.
  • Adequate Rest: Getting enough sleep can also help bolster your immune system and promote overall health.

Remember, while personal education and home remedies are important, always seek professional medical advice when symptoms persist or worsen. You're a key player in your health journey. So stay informed, stay proactive, and breathe easy.

Helpful Information

What is the role of mucus and phlegm in our bodies?

Mucus and phlegm play critical roles in our bodies. Mucus, produced by the mucous membranes, helps to lubricate and protect our internal organs, while also trapping dust, allergens, and pathogens to prevent them from entering our respiratory system. Phlegm, on the other hand, is a type of mucus produced by the lungs and respiratory tract, and it serves to protect the lungs by trapping foreign particles and bacteria.

How is mucus and phlegm produced in the body?

Mucus and phlegm are produced by goblet cells and submucosal glands present in the mucous membranes of our respiratory tract. These cells and glands secrete proteins and water, which combine to form mucus. When you're healthy, you barely notice the mucus you produce because it's clear and thin. However, when your body fights an infection or is exposed to irritants, the mucus can become thick, discolored, and more noticeable, which we call phlegm.

What does the color of my phlegm indicate?

The color of your phlegm can indicate different things about your health. Clear phlegm is normal and signifies good health. Yellow or green phlegm may indicate a bacterial infection. Red or brown phlegm could be a sign of bleeding. Gray or black phlegm could suggest that you've inhaled pollutants or smoke.

Why do I have excessive mucus and phlegm?

Excessive mucus and phlegm can be caused by various factors including respiratory infections like cold, flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Chronic conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or cystic fibrosis also cause excessive mucus. Additionally, lifestyle and environmental factors like smoking and exposure to pollutants can increase mucus and phlegm production.

What are the symptoms of excessive mucus and phlegm?

Symptoms of excessive mucus and phlegm can include persistent coughing, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, wheezing, and frequent throat clearing. If these symptoms are accompanied by fever, weight loss, persistent pain, or blood in the phlegm, it's essential to seek medical attention promptly.

How can I clear phlegm and mucus from my lungs naturally?

Clearing phlegm and mucus from your lungs can be achieved by adopting a few lifestyle changes like staying hydrated, inhaling steam, practicing controlled coughing, and using a humidifier. Regular physical activity and certain breathing exercises can also promote mucus clearance.

Can over-the-counter treatments help in clearing mucus and phlegm?

Yes, over-the-counter treatments like expectorants can help in clearing mucus and phlegm. They work by thinning the mucus in your airways, making it easier to cough out. However, it's always advisable to consult a healthcare provider before starting any new medication.

How does smoking affect mucus and phlegm production?

Smoking can lead to excessive mucus and phlegm production as it irritates the lungs and stimulates the production of mucus. Over time, this can obstruct the airways and cause chronic bronchitis, a type of COPD, characterized by a daily cough and mucus production.

When should I seek medical help for excessive mucus and phlegm?

You should seek medical help if your symptoms persist for more than a few weeks, if you cough up blood, if you have high fever, if you're losing weight unintentionally, or if your symptoms interfere with your daily activities. These could be signs of a more serious condition.

How can I prevent the excessive production of mucus and phlegm?

To prevent excessive mucus and phlegm, maintain a healthy lifestyle, avoid smoking, manage allergies, avoid pollutants and irritants, stay hydrated, and ensure you get vaccinated against common respiratory infections like influenza and pneumococcus.

Can allergies cause excessive mucus and phlegm?

Yes, allergies can cause excessive mucus production. When you're exposed to an allergen, your body produces histamines that can cause your nose to run, your eyes to water, and can also cause excessive mucus production in your respiratory tract.

Are there foods that can increase mucus production?

Certain foods, especially dairy products, are believed to increase mucus production for some people, though the scientific evidence is inconclusive. Spicy foods, on the other hand, may actually thin mucus, making it easier to expel.

What is post-nasal drip and how does it relate to mucus and phlegm?

Post-nasal drip is a condition where mucus from your nasal passages drips down into your throat. It can cause a persistent cough, sore throat, and a feeling of constantly needing to clear your throat. It's often associated with colds, allergies, sinus infections, or even gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Does exercise help to clear mucus and phlegm?

Yes, exercise can help to clear mucus and phlegm. Physical activity improves your body's circulation, including within the lungs, and this can help to loosen and move mucus, making it easier to expel.

Are mucus and phlegm the same thing?

Although often used interchangeably, mucus and phlegm aren't the same. Mucus is a normal protective layering for our respiratory and digestive system, whereas phlegm is a type of mucus that's produced in the lower airways in response to inflammation or infection.

Can weather changes cause excessive mucus and phlegm?

Yes, changes in weather, particularly cold and dry conditions, can lead to increased mucus production as your body tries to keep your nasal passages moist and warm.

How does hydration help in clearing mucus and phlegm?

Staying well-hydrated helps to thin mucus, making it easier to move and expel. Consuming warm liquids like herbal tea or warm water with lemon can also soothe irritated airways and facilitate the removal of mucus and phlegm.

Can chronic mucus and phlegm production be a sign of lung cancer?

While it's not common, chronic mucus and phlegm production can sometimes be a sign of lung cancer. If you've persistent symptoms, especially if accompanied by other signs like weight loss, chest pain, and coughing up blood, it's crucial to seek medical advice promptly.

Do mucus thinners help to clear phlegm and mucus from the lungs?

Mucus thinners, also known as expectorants, work by thinning the mucus in the airways, allowing it to be coughed out more easily. They can be beneficial for individuals suffering from conditions that cause excessive mucus, like COPD or cystic fibrosis.

Can a humidifier help in clearing mucus and phlegm?

Yes, a humidifier can help clear mucus and phlegm. Dry air can thicken mucus, making it harder to clear. A humidifier adds moisture to the air, helping to thin the mucus and make it easier to expel.


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