Excessive mucus and phlegm may not be much of a conversation starter (unless you’re 14 and trying to spit the furthest). But if you have too much mucus, it can drive you crazy in search for solutions.
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First, consider that mucus has a purpose. This fluid is naturally made by your body every day, says laryngologist Paul C. Bryson, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Voice Center.
“While the exact amount your body makes isn’t known, most experts think it’s about one liter a day,” he says. (That’s half of a 2-liter bottle of soda!)
- Why does your body overproduce mucus?
- Is excess mucus ever a sign of something more serious?
- Are there natural ways to address mucus or phlegm?
- Other options for phlegm and mucus
- What Is Mucus?
- Mucus vs. Phlegm
- Mucus When You’re Sick
- Mucus Color
- How to Get Rid of Mucus
- What’s a Booger?
- Sinus Conditions & Treatments
- Clear snot
- Colorless cloudy snot
- What Does Mucus do?
- WHAT CAUSES EXCESS MUCUS?
- What Causes Excess Mucus?
- What is mucus?
- What are the symptoms of too much mucus?
- What causes too much mucus?
- How to get rid of too much mucus
Why does your body overproduce mucus?
Mucus has an important role in the body. It lines many of your tissues. Its slippery consistency helps protect and moisturize, and it also traps potential irritants.
Your body can go into overdrive creating mucus and phlegm when you:
• Have a cold
• Have irritated sinuses (sinusitis)
• Have allergies
• Are exposed to smoke or pollution
“Environmental allergies can cause excess mucus or phlegm, as can food allergies, but the latter is harder to diagnose based on this symptom alone,” Dr. Bryson says.
Is excess mucus ever a sign of something more serious?
If the amount of mucus your body makes is uncomfortable, you might worry it’s a sign of a more serious problem.
According to Dr. Bryson, mucus is typically not a symptom to worry about if it’s your only symptom.
“Worrisome signs are mucus accompanied by fevers, chills and night sweats, especially if you also experience weight loss, nasal obstruction or intermittent nose bleeds for more than two weeks,” he says.
Are there natural ways to address mucus or phlegm?
If you have chronic problems with phlegm, try the following:
Hydrate more. Drink more water. Also, consider your medications or any dehydrating beverages you regularly drink, such as coffee, alcohol and some teas. “A good rule of thumb is to drink enough water to make your urine pale,” Dr. Bryson says.
Use a humidifier. This can help your body moisturize your throat and nasal passages and may help you reduce mucus and phlegm production.
Check filters on heating and cooling systems. Make sure the filters are clean and functioning well to keep dust and other potential irritants out of the air.
Use a nasal saline spray. This helps rinse and hydrate tissues in your nose and sinuses.
These remedies also help if your problem with mucus and phlegm progresses to a post-nasal drip.
Other options for phlegm and mucus
“If you’re concerned about allergies, remember that the testing is easy and straightforward. You can also try over-the-counter allergy medications, which may solve your issue,” Dr. Bryson says.
Also, if in doubt, don’t hesitate to discuss your problem with your primary care doctor or an otolaryngologist, who can dig into your particular symptoms and history to find solutions.
What Is Mucus?
Mucus may be annoying when you’re sick, but your body needs it to keep you healthy.
Mucus — also known as sputum — is a sticky, gelatinous material that lines your lungs, throat, mouth, nose, and sinuses.
It’s produced by membranes in the nose and sinuses known as the mucous membranes.
Mucus vs. Phlegm
You may also hear “mucus” and “phlegm” used interchangeably, but phlegm is actually a different mucus-like substance.
Phlegm is produced by your lungs and respiratory system.
Your body always produces mucus, but you may notice it most when it changes as a result of a respiratory infection (such as the flu), the common cold, a sinus infection, or allergies.
You may also produce more mucus if you smoke.
Mucus production is normal and serves many purposes, even when you’re healthy.
It protects the tissue that lines your lungs, throat, and nasal and sinus passages, keeping it from drying out.
It also works to trap unwanted bacteria and allergens (such as dust or pollen), preventing them from spreading through your body and making you sick.
Mucus even contains antibodies, or enzymes, designed to kill or neutralize these harmful materials.
Mucus When You’re Sick
Research suggests that your body usually produces as much as 1.5 liters of mucus a day, even when you’re not feeling sick.
Most of this mucus simply slides down your throat.
When you’re sick, your body doesn’t necessarily produce more mucus. But when you’re sick or experiencing an allergic reaction, you’ll notice a change in its consistency.
Bacteria or allergens can cause your mucous membranes to become more productive, but mucus exposed to these materials also contains a substance called histamine.
Histamine causes the tissue in your nasal passages to swell and produce more, thinner mucus. This usually leads to a runny nose, as well as sneezing, itching, and nasal stuffiness.
Your mucus may also become thicker or stickier when you’re sick, meaning it won’t simply slide down your throat.
Instead, it may build up in your lungs and throat, causing congestion and — in severe cases — leading to difficulty breathing or swallowing.
Having thick mucus can make it seem like more mucus is being produced and can create problems, such as postnasal drip.
Thick mucus is usually a sign that your mucous membranes are too dry, perhaps as a result of:
- A dry indoor environment (due to heat or air conditioning)
- Not drinking enough water or other fluids
- Drinking beverages such as coffee, tea, or alcohol that lead to fluid loss
- Taking certain medications
If you think you might have allergies, a cold, or a respiratory infection, your doctor may assess the quantity, consistency, and color of your mucus when making a diagnosis.
You may also notice a change in the color of your mucus when you’re sick or suffering from allergies.
Mucus is usually clear. But when you have an illness such as a cold, your mucus may take on a greenish or other non-clear color (such as light yellow or beige).
When you have a cold, your body produces more white blood cells and sends them to your airways to fight the infection.
Your white blood cells contain a substance called neutrophils, which can give your mucus a yellow or greenish color.
Mucus may also appear to be green when it thickens.
You may also notice a red or brown color in your mucus after you blow your nose. This is often a sign that there’s blood in your mucus.
Having blood in your mucus is generally the result of irritation and drying out of the tissue in the nasal passages due to excessive rubbing, wiping, or blowing your nose.
A little bit of blood in your mucus is nothing to worry about. But if you experience excessive bleeding, talk to your doctor. This may be a sign of a serious infection, such as bronchitis.
How to Get Rid of Mucus
There are several ways to get rid of mucus, including the following treatments:
Decongestants You can use an over-the-counter (OTC) nasal or oral decongestant to reduce the amount of mucus in your lungs or nasal passages.
These medications clear up thick mucus but shouldn’t be overused, since they can lead to side effects or complications.
Decongestants work by narrowing the blood vessels in your nasal passages, restricting blood flow and reducing the amount of mucus produced in the area.
If overused, these drugs can actually dry up your mucous membranes and thicken the mucus they produce, leading to congestion.
Decongestants have also been linked to side effects such as dizziness, nervousness, and high blood pressure.
Antihistamines These medications are designed to block or limit the activity of histamine, a substance your body produces during an allergic reaction.
Antihistamines are great for treating symptoms such as an itchy or runny nose, but they can cause side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth, and headache — especially if they’re overused.
Expectorants Many cold and flu medications — both OTC and prescription — contain expectorants, which make mucus thinner and easier for your body to get rid of.
Guaifenesin is an example of a commonly used expectorant.
Nasal irrigation This is a natural method for getting rid of excess mucus. It can be performed using a neti pot, a bulb syringe, or a squeeze bottle containing salt water.
All of these methods work by pumping salt water into your nostrils to loosen up the mucus in your nasal passages and flush it out.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using distilled, sterile, or boiled water for this process, and cleaning the irrigation device after every use.
As with decongestants and antihistamines, overuse of nasal irrigation can lead to complications.
Although the flush process does help thin out mucus and remove bacteria and allergens, it can also wash away some of the mucous membrane and other protective tissue that helps keep you from getting sick.
To reduce mucus and congestion, doctors also often recommend drinking plenty of fluids, breathing through a warm washcloth, and inhaling steam (not too hot) to make your mucus thinner and easier to clear.
But first she points out that mucus is a liquid gel made up of mucin, a protein, and infection-fighting substances. It acts as a protective blanket over the lining of your nose, and the sticky substance can help trap and clear dust, allergens, bacteria, and viruses.
You make roughly a quart of clear, thin mucus a day, which you usually just swallow. But snot production often cranks up, thickens, and discolors when you catch a cold, have allergies, or get an infection.
Phlegm is also mucus that’s coming from the chest and lungs. Technically, doctors call it sputum. Most people don’t normally have phlegm, says Gray, but the lining of the airways has mucus in it to keep the lungs clear.
A rainbow of mucus and phlegm
As far as color goes, mucus is typically clear. But when the immune system sends white blood cells into the nose to fight off infection, they contain a greenish enzyme that shades the substance yellow or green. These are the same tones mucus takes on when it dries and clumps into boogers.
Red- or brown-tinged snot could occur when tiny blood vessels in your nose break from frequently blowing it. Black mucus can come from the noses of smokers or people who work in coal mines or dusty environments.
The phlegm palette is similarly multicolored to mucus with clear or white sputum being normal, yellow or green hues from frequent coughing, and red or brown shades from blood that’s new or old. If you’re seeing a lot of blood in phlegm, give your doctor a call.
To thin down mucus or loosen phlegm, drink plenty of hot or cold liquids, and take a hot shower or inhale steam. Nasal rinsing with warm water can also help flush out congestion to make breathing easier.
Gray says she is often asked by her patients with sinus trouble whether the color of mucus means a person has a bacterial infection and if they need an antibiotic. “The color in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” she explains.
A physician will determine whether an illness is viral or bacterial, an allergy or a sinus problem based on what a patient is saying about their other symptoms — fever, body aches, nasal congestion, how long they’ve felt this way — not just the color of mucus.
So if you have a cold, you might see a rainbow of gook from your nose and chest. But it doesn’t tell you much and it’s usually nothing to worry about.
- Symptom tracker: Cold? Flu? Or something else?
What’s a Booger?
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Hey, get your finger outta there! Instead of picking them out, let’s learn about those little blobs. Yeah, we’re talking about boogers.
To understand what boogers are, you need to know about mucus (say: MYOO-kus). Mucus is the sticky, slimy stuff that’s made inside your nose, airways, and even your digestive tract. If you’re like lot of kids, you have another name for nose mucus: snot. Your nose and sinuses make about a quart (about 1 liter) of snot every day.
Mucus has a pretty important job — it keeps the lining of your nose moist and warms the air you breathe. Mucus also protects the lungs. When you breathe in air through your nose, it contains lots of tiny things, like dust, dirt, germs, and pollen. If these made it all the way to the lungs, the lungs could get irritated or infected, making it tough to breathe. Luckily, snot helps trap this stuff, keeping it in the nose and out of the lungs.
After this stuff gets stuck inside the nose, the mucus surrounds it and some of the tiny hairs inside the nose called cilia (say: SIL-ee-uh). These hairs help move the mucus and the trapped stuff toward the front of the nose or the back of the throat. When the mucus, dirt, and other debris get dry and clump together, you’re left with a booger.
Boogers can be squishy and slimy or tough and crumbly. Everybody gets them, so they’re not a big deal. In fact, boogers are a sign that your nose is working the way it should!
If you have to get rid of boogers, your best bet is to blow ’em out of your nose and into a tissue. Picking your nose isn’t a great idea because boogers contain lots of germs and because poking around in your nose can make it bleed.
Sinus Conditions & Treatments
- A maxillary sinus in each cheek
- Between six and 12 ethmoid sinuses on each side of the nose between the eyes
- A frontal sinus on each side in the forehead
- A pair of sphenoid sinuses behind the ethmoid sinuses
Each sinus has an opening, called an ostium, which connects it to the nose.
The sinuses, except for the frontal sinuses, begin in the fetus as pea-sized air pockets that grow through childhood until they are roughly walnut sized.
Purposes of the Sinuses
The sinuses lighten the skull or improve our voices, but their main function is to produce a mucus that moisturizes the inside of the nose. This mucus layer protects the nose from pollutants, micro-organisms, dust and dirt. Tiny hair cells called cilia move the layer of mucus slowly backward into the throat, where it is swallowed.
The nose and the sinuses are closely linked by the ostium. The nose is divided into two cavities by the nasal septum. The superior, middle and inferior turbinates are rounded projections that run the length of the nasal cavity along the side of the nose. The area between each turbinate is called a meatus. The sinuses drain via the ostium into the meatus areas between each turbinate, with the different types of sinus draining into different areas.
If you’ve ever blown your nose and had something unexpected come out, you’re definitely not alone if you immediately hopped onto Google and typed “snot color meaning.” But don’t panic: If you’ve ever had a nasty cold, you know that your snot color can change up depending on your health.
To help, we talked to doctors who told us exactly how to decode the color in your tissue. Turns out, it’s more than just color you’ll want to pay attention to. “Color is important, but so is consistency and amount,” Raj Sindwani M.D., an otolaryngologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. When snot—or nasal mucus, as the pros call it—is abnormal, it may indicate that something is up.
Let’s look at the rainbow of snot color meaning, shall we?
Good news: Normal, healthy snot is clear, thin, watery, and plentiful, Erich P. Voigt, M.D., associate professor in the department of otolaryngology at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells SELF. “Our body produces about 1 liter of mucus and saliva a day, but we don’t notice the normal production.” What’s the stuff made of? Mostly water, with some proteins, antibodies, and dissolved salts, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
That said, you’re not totally in the clear just because your snot is. If your snot is clear, but also runny and more abundant than usual, that often means your nose is working overtime to try to get rid of something in there that your body doesn’t like, typically an allergen or irritant, Dr. Sindwani says. This is a classic symptom of seasonal allergies. “If it’s the start of spring and all of a sudden your nose gets stuffy and starts running and it’s clear,” it’s likely you’re having an allergic reaction, Dr. Voigt says. This will typically be paired with other symptoms, Dr. Sindwani says, like itchy eyes or sneezing. Treating the allergic reaction with something like antihistamines should help stem the flow and clear up your other symptoms, but see your primary care doctor or an allergist if you’re feeling miserable every day.
Runniness that is sudden and short-lived can be due to other elements in the environment. You may be dealing with exposure to irritants, such as pollutants in the air, certain fragrances, or secondhand smoke, Dr. Sindwani says. Or, suddenly drippy discharge on a chilly day could actually just be water condensing as the cold air is warmed in your nasal passages and runs out your nostrils, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Excess clear snot paired with other symptoms like a cough, fever, or general feeling of blahness that hangs around for three or four days may also signal the beginning a mild upper respiratory virus, like a brief cold, Dr. Voigt says. You can often treat yourself with OTC cold medicine, but see your doctor if you start to feel worse or don’t get better after a few days.
Colorless cloudy snot
Colorless, thick nasal mucus (the kind that clogs up your nose and doesn’t seem to budge no matter how much you blow) signals congestion that may be due to a couple things. One possibility is a chronic allergy, like if you’re allergic to dust. “It’s everywhere year round, so you won’t feel that runniness anymore, you’ll just feel stuffy all the time and the nasal mucus might be thicker and more plentiful than usual,” Dr. Voigt says. Consider seeing an allergist if this is the case for you.
Dehydration can also make your snot a little stodgy. “Mucus reflects the level of hydration in our bodies,” Dr. Sindwani says. When there’s less water content, it becomes more concentrated, viscous, and congesting. Thick snot may also make it seem like you’ve got more snot in there than you actually do. “People who think they have too much mucus many times are, in fact, not making enough,” Dr. Voigt explains, “so it’s too dry and not flowing nicely.” So if your snot is like molasses, drink up to help thin it out.
What Does Mucus do?
Your mouth, nose, throat, sinuses and lungs are lined with mucus membranes. These membranes contain mucus glands that produce – surprise – mucus.
Mucus-producing membranes line specific passages in your body, like the respiratory and digestive tracts, for protection and support.
Mucus is a mixture of water, sugars and proteins (and other things that have long, scientific names). But even though this slippery, gooey liquid is far from glamorous, it plays an important role in your health.
The mucus that’s produced in your respiratory tract has 3 important jobs:
- MUCUS PROTECTS. Mucus moistens and warms inhaled air and keeps the mucus membrane cells and the little hairs called “cilia” lubricated. These little hairs line the top layer of mucus membrane cells. Cilia helps to remove inhaled particles that have gotten trapped by the mucus layer covering the cilia. They need to stay moist to do their job.
- MUCUS ACTS AS A BARRIER. Mucus traps inhaled particles (like dust, allergens, bacteria, or viruses) and keeps them from getting deeper into your lungs. Mucus also keeps them from invading the cells lining your airway and entering your system. The cilia transport the mucus layer toward your throat, where it could either get spit out or swallowed.
- MUCUS DEFENDS YOUR BODY. Mucus contains antibodies, enzymes, and proteins that work to help get rid of whatever’s in the air you’ve inhaled that could make you sick.
But sometimes, the mucus layer in your airways lets something slip by or is overwhelmed by the amount of particles inhaled. This could be bacteria, a virus that’s getting passed around, or an allergen (like pollen) that will aggravate your respiratory tract.
One of the ways your body might react to an irritant or an infection is by producing more mucus. Your mucus may get thicker and change color, too. Just one way your body attacks the thing that’s making you sick.
Tag: Mucus, Sinus Pressure
Mucus. You hack it up. Spit it out. Blow it into tissues and throw it away. But while it’s gross once it leaves the body, mucus, phlegm and snot play important roles inside us.
Part of the immune system, the role of this sticky goop is to help, explains Brian Button. He studies biophysics — the physics of living things — at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Mucus covers every part of our bodies that is exposed to the air but unprotected by skin. That includes our noses, mouths, lungs, reproductive areas, eyes and rectum. “All are lined with mucus to trap and clear the stuff we are exposed to,” he notes.
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The sticky substance is made of long molecules called mucins (MEW-sins). Mixed with water, mucins link up to form a gluey gel. That gel traps bacteria, viruses, dirt and dust in its sticky embrace. In fact, mucus is the lung’s first line of defense against germs, which explains why the lung makes so much of it. Our lungs produce about 100 milliliters of mucus per day, enough to fill about a quarter of a 12-ounce soda can.
Lung mucus is known as phlegm. It’s thicker and stickier than the mucus in our noses or reproductive areas. But all of our mucus is made from mucins, which Button says come in “different flavors.” Button says. Those flavors are isoforms, proteins that get instructions from the same genes to form but end up with slightly different sequences. Various isoforms will produce mucus that can be thicker or thinner.
“They say doctors pick their specialties by what they find least gross,” notes Stephanie Christenson. “I can’t take poop, but my doctor friends hate what I do because they think mucus is gross.” Christenson is a pulmonologist — someone who studies the lungs — at the University of California, San Francisco.
Mucus, she explains, is natural. “Lungs are exposed to the environment,” she notes. Each inhaled breath can bring in bacteria, viruses and more. The body needs a way to expel them and has turned to mucus. That’s why, she argues, “Mucus is our friend.”
To get invaders out of the lungs, phlegm has to keep flowing. The cells that line the lungs are covered in cilia — tiny hairlike structures. They wave back and forth, shoving the mucus up and out of our airways. When it reaches the throat, we will hack it up. Then, most of the time, we swallow it without a second thought. The stomach will later break down whatever germs it picked up along the way. Delicious!
After a cold or flu, “our bodies produce more mucus to trap and clear the ,” Button explains. If there’s too much phlegm in the lungs for the cilia to wave it all away, we cough. The rushing air rips the mucus off the lungs so we can hack it up.
In other areas of the body, mucus plays other roles. It keeps the surface of our eyes moist. Snot coats our mouths and noses to keep us safe from germs and soothe our irritated membranes. In the rectum, mucus helps to determine how quickly mammals expel their poop. And in a woman’s reproductive tract, mucus can control whether a sperm cell gets to an egg.
No matter how disgusting or gloppy it may seem, mucus is with us every moment of our lives. “If you think about what it’s doing,” Christenson says. “It’s a little bit less gross.”
WHAT CAUSES EXCESS MUCUS?
What Causes Excess Mucus?
The coughing. The congestion. And just an overall feeling of being stuffed up. It’s all thanks to mucus. Most of us think of too much mucus as a problem only during cold and flu season, but there are many reasons excess mucus in your throat can be a year-round problem, too.
What is mucus?
Mucus is part of our body’s frontline defense against infection. It’s produced by the mucus membranes that line your mouth, nose, throat, sinuses, and lungs. Mucus works with your cilia ––the tiny hairlike structures that line your airways– to get rid of airborne particles. When you think about it, there’s actually a good side to mucus: It traps and prevents dust, allergens, bacteria, viruses, and other irritants from entering your system.
What are the symptoms of too much mucus?
When mucus becomes too thick, dense, or dry, it can build up in your airways—especially in your nose and sinuses. This keeps the cilia from doing their work of transporting unwanted particles out of your body. Your body tries to expel this buildup of mucus, mostly by coughing.
The resulting symptoms of too much mucus include:
- Overall chest congestion (take a look at our article on all things chest congestion)
- A chest cough, especially early in the morning
- A wet cough
- Frequent throat clearing
What causes too much mucus?
Excessive amounts of mucus in your throat includes some familiar causes, but also some not-so-obvious ones.
Colds, triggered by the viruses you come in contact with, are one of the main causes of an overproduction of mucus. Cold viruses spread from person to person and are transferred simply by touch or fluids such as saliva. Keep in mind, cold weather doesn’t directly cause colds: the rhinovirus, the most common virus to cause colds, simply spreads more easily at cooler temperatures.
Allergies can also tell your body to produce an overabundance of mucus. This mostly happens in spring, a.k.a. allergy season, when airborne pollens trigger allergic reactions. However, other allergies, such as dust mites, are can be a cause of excess mucus throughout the whole year.
In addition to allergens, indoor pollutants such as cigarette smoke, pet fur, mold, and some household chemicals can cause mucus buildup. Environmental pollutants can trigger mucus overproduction as well—this includes car exhaust, wood smoke, or any industrial smoke.
How to get rid of too much mucus
So, what can you do? The best way to help relieve excess mucus in the throat is to take an expectorant. Medicines containing guaifenesin, an expectorant, help thin and loosen that excess mucus in your throat. These medicines get mucus moving again, making coughs more effective. Various Mucinex® products such as the Mucinex® Extended-Release Bi-Layer Tablets can help treat excess mucus. The medicine lasts for 12 hours. And for kids ages 4 to 12, there is Mucinex® Children’s.
Some mucus is good for your body, but too much of it isn’t. That’s why there’s Mucinex®.
Tag: Chest Congestion, Mucus, Remedies, Sore Throat