Coughing Up Mucus: Types, Causes & Treatment

By Latifa deGraft-Johnson, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
September 6, 2022

Your body produces a lot of mucus—approximately a liter per day. Sounds gross, but mucus (the technical term for snot) is excreted by the body to protect it. 

Coughing up mucus is the body’s way of producing phlegm to get rid of harmful microbes that can spread infection.

And based on its appearance, mucus can also give a clear sign when we are fighting off harmful bacterial or viral infections. In this article, I’ll talk more about what mucus is, what its different colors can mean, and what causes excess mucus.

I’ll go over some home remedies and medications that can help if you’re coughing up a lot of mucus, and tell you when to see a doctor.

What is Mucus?

Membranes produce mucus in the nose and sinuses. The slimy substance acts as a barrier that prevents harmful bacteria, viruses, and allergens from entering the body and making you sick, and contains antibodies and enzymes to fight them off. 

If you have an allergic reaction to a food or something in the environment—like dust, pollen, or dander—your immune system will work overtime, producing mucus to help you expel the irritant.

You might also experience excess mucus production if you have bronchitis, an inflammation of your bronchial tubes. Respiratory mucus lines your mouth, nose, throat, and lungs.

However, mucus is generated in other parts of the body, including your cervix, digestive system, and urinary tract. 

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Different Types of Mucus

When your body is healthy and operating as normal, you will not notice your mucus. You will still produce it, but not excessively. It will appear as a regular, translucent color. Signs of infection occur when your mucus changes color.

Smoking or having an allergy to something in the air can cause you to overproduce mucus. Be conscious if you produce any of the following colors of mucus, as they are warning signs that your body is fighting off illness.

Having discolored mucus may not always indicate a bacterial infection, as viral infections can also produce discolored mucus.

Yellow 

You may be on the verge of a cold or infection. The yellowish tinge is caused by the production of more white blood cells that contain neutrophils. These cells rush to the site of the infection to fight it off.

Your mucus may thicken and turn slightly green as the infection develops. 

White 

Swelling or inflammation in your nose, accompanied by an overproduction of white mucus, is generally a sign you have a common cold. A stuffy, congested nose results in thick, cloudy mucus that lacks water content.

You may experience a sore throat, fever, cough, sneezing, mild body aches, and headaches with white mucus production. Thick white mucus can be a sign of a bacterial infection in your airways that require prescription antibiotics.

If your mucus is foamier in texture, this could be warning you of the following conditions:

Having continuous, foamy or solid white mucus could be signs of a more serious underlying health issue that should be checked out by a medical professional.

Green 

If your mucus turns green, your body is fighting off infection. The texture becomes thick, and you may cough up clumpy, green chunks during this period. The green color results from dead white blood cells and other waste products leaving the body.

Coughing up green phlegm is not a cause for concern, and may not necessarily require a visit to your doctor. In some cases, it could be a viral or antibacterial infection that requires medication, depending on what other symptoms you have. 

Red

Coughing up or sneezing out red mucus is an indication that there is blood in your mucus. The tissue lining of your nasal passages may be dry. This can be caused by excessive wiping, rubbing, or blowing your nose.

Red mucus is usually nothing to worry about, but if you experience regular bleeding, consult a doctor. This could be a sign of a more serious health issue such as cancer, pneumonia, or bronchitis

Reasons You Produce and Cough Up Mucus

Generally, if you are coughing up mucus without any other symptoms, there is nothing to worry about. Consider the following causes of excessive mucus production and keep track of your symptoms to see if you should consult a doctor.

Acid reflux 

Acid reflux is when acid in your stomach travels up your esophagus and sits in your throat. This causes postnasal drip and irritates the throat. As your esophagus works to clear out the acid, mucus production and chest congestion can occur. 

Allergies 

Allergies can cause itchy eyes, sneezing, wheezing, congestion, chest tightness, runny nose, and coughing.

When your body is reacting to an airborne stimulant such as pollen or dust mites, your body may produce more mucus to fight off the irritant. 

Asthma 

Symptoms of asthma include shortness of breath, chest pain, chest tightness, and coughing. The coughing can be dry, or wet with phlegm. If you cough up phlegm, this is a sign that your airways have become inflamed.

If you notice small amounts of white or clear mucus, do not be concerned. But recurring, thick mucus can be a sign of a bacterial infection; have it checked out by a medical professional.

Infections

Bacterial and viral infections such as the flu, acute bronchitis, and pneumonia can cause your airways to produce extra mucus.

The mucus may be green or yellow in color.

Lung diseases 

COPD encompasses several lung diseases that can make it harder to breathe. This includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

These lung diseases are usually caused by long-term exposure to irritants, such as cigarette smoke. In some cases, people with asthma can develop COPD.

A person with chronic bronchitis will experience inflammation of the bronchial tubes and produce more mucus. This makes it harder for your lungs to operate as normal.  

Dehydration 

When your body becomes dehydrated from a lack of water, the mucus inside of our sinuses becomes thick. Tiny hairs called cilia then have a hard time pushing the mucus through your body.

This can cause it to become stuck, and for you to cough it up. 

Dry Environment 

A dry environment, which can be caused by air conditioning or central heating, can lead to dehydration. Cold or dry air irritates the nasal passages, resulting in more mucus production.

Caffeine and alcohol Consumption 

Caffeine can cause dehydration, which results in the production of thick mucus in your lungs. All products containing caffeine can lead to dehydration, including coffee, black tea, and energy drinks.

Chronic ingestion of alcohol can cause the surface of your lungs to be damaged. The mucociliary transport system operates on the surface of your lungs, attracting mucus and removing it from your lungs.

When it is damaged, your body will have a hard time regulating mucus production.

Smoking 

Tobacco smoke can irritate the lungs and cause chest pain, wheezing, and coughing.

Long-term exposure can lead to serious health complications such as COPD, heart attack, stroke, and even death.

Home Remedies for Coughing Up Mucus 

Coughing up mucus can be unpleasant, but usually doesn’t require medication.

Home remedies can help you if you are struggling with chest or nasal congestion, coughing, sneezing, and other symptoms.

  • Drink plenty of fluids: Fluids such as water, juices, decaffeinated teas, soups, and lemon water can  ease dehydration and help thin out mucus.
  • Use a humidifier: The steam can help add moisture to the air and clear phlegm and congestion. A humidifier can also purify the air of irritants that may be causing excessive mucus production.
  • Gargle warm salt water: This may help clear phlegm in the back of your throat and soothe a sore throat.
  • Chicken soup: A study carried out in 2000 concluded that chicken soup reduces inflammation associated with sinus congestion and colds. Scientists speculate that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of chicken soup, combined with steam, work to clear the sinuses and relieve mucus production.
  • Honey: A spoonful of honey has been proven to be effective in suppressing coughs and thus relieving irritated throats. Do not give honey to children under one year old. This puts them at risk of botulism, which can cause serious illness or death.

Medications for Excess Mucus Production

There are several effective over-the-counter options for excess mucus production. These treatments can relieve symptoms such as a stuffy nose, cough, and chest congestion that can lead to your body producing too much mucus.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe stronger medications that can help clear your lungs in circumstances where your mucus production is caused by a more severe health condition, such as cystic fibrosis or COPD.

Over-the-counter medicines 

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can regulate mucus production and generally fall into the following categories:

  • Antihistamines: When you experience a runny nose, tickly throat, and chest congestion from an irritant in your environment, antihistamines can help dry up your nose and clear your airways. They come in sedating and non-sedating types. Avoid operating heavy machinery and drinking alcohol on sedating antihistamines, as they typically cause drowsiness.
  • Decongestants: Oxymetazoline nasal spray (Afrin, Sudafed OM) decongestants can help with a stuffy nose. They do this by reducing swelling in your nose and opening up your airways. You can also take phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine orally to help you breathe more clearly.
  • Expectorants: Expectorants such as guaifenesin (Mucinex) thin out the mucus so it is easier to cough up.
  • Suppressants: Suppressants work to coat the throat and soothe irritation. This can help reduce the number of times you cough and clear your throat. The active ingredient is typically dextromethorphan. 

Prescription medications

Sometimes excessive mucus production is a symptom of a more serious health condition such as a chronic lung disease, and thus requires stronger medications prescribed by your healthcare provider.

These include:

  • Dornase-Alfa (Pulmozyme): This mucus-thinning medication is used in the management and treatment of cystic fibrosis. It is suitable for ages six and up, and is inhaled through a nebulizer. Dornase-Alfa helps patients cough up sputum and clear their lungs.
  • Hypertonic saline: This is another treatment that is inhaled through a nebulizer. Hypertonic saline has a high sodium concentration that works to increase the amount of salt in your air passages and dry out your lungs. Unlike saline solutions you can buy OTC, this is stronger and generally more effective. It is suitable for ages six and up, and can be prescribed in different strengths. 
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When to See a Medical Professional

Coughs come and go, and may not always require a visit to a medical professional. However, in some cases, coughs can be symptoms of a more serious health condition.

If any of the following circumstances apply to you, speak with a healthcare professional:

  • Your cough lasts two weeks or longer
  • Your cough contains blood or foul-smelling mucus
  • You have a fever of 101˚F (38˚C) or above
  • You have difficulty breathing 
  • You notice an illness spreading throughout your entire body

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can access online urgent care with K Health?

Check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes. 

K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and is based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you cough up mucus with COVID-19?
A cough is one of the common symptoms of COVID-19. Coronavirus typically causes a dry cough, where you may not experience mucus. However, if you have other respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis or pneumonia with COVID-19, you may have a wet cough that contains mucus.
Does coughing up mucus mean you're getting better?
In most cases, coughing up mucus means your body is working to fight off an infection, and it is in the healing stages. Drink plenty of fluids to help thin the mucus.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Latifa deGraft-Johnson, MD

Dr. Latifa deGraft-Johnson is a board-certified family medicine physician with 20 years of experience. She received her bachelor's degree from St. Louis University, her medical degree from Ross University, and completed her family medicine residency at the University of Florida. Her passion is in preventative medicine and empowering her patients with knowledge.

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