Coughing up mucus can be confusing, especially if you are not sure that you’re sick. Mucus protects your respiratory system with lubrication and filtration. How do you know when coughing up mucus means something, or what’s causing it?
In this article, I’ll explore the basics of why you have mucus, plus possible reasons why you might be coughing up white mucus. I’ll also cover what different colors of mucus could mean, as well as medications that could be helpful. I’ll also help you know when you need to see a medical professional.
What is Mucus?
Mucus is a protective substance found in many areas of the body. It can be common in the respiratory tract, where it is called sputum. Mucus is made by glands at all times, whether you are sick or not.
Your body produces as much as a liter of it per day. It contains water, salt, epithelial cells, and dead white blood cells.
Mucus acts like a barrier against illness and other pathogens—it lubricates and protects tissues in the body by trapping germs, dust, and other particles that could cause illness or need to be removed.
When you do get an illness, like a cold, mucus can contain higher levels of white blood cells as your body addresses the infection. But there are other reasons why someone might cough up mucus besides illness.
Possible Reasons Why You Are Coughing Up White Mucus
The presence of mucus alone does not mean that you are sick. The color of mucus alone is not diagnostic either (green mucus does not necessarily mean that it is due to a bacterial infection).
Below I will cover possible causes of increased mucus production. Either of these conditions can increase mucus production in the respiratory tract.
The mucus production that comes from allergies is typically enough to cause discomfort, but not serious enough to cause breathing problems.
While allergies can resolve when the trigger goes away, such as at the end of pollen season, asthma is a chronic condition that causes narrowing and swelling of the airways in the lungs. Asthma can also lead to an increase in mucus production, which can also make it harder to breathe.
If you have asthma and notice an increase in mucus, or you try to breathe and find that it is hard, seek medical care. Excess mucus production in asthma can interfere with quick-action medications reaching the lungs, which could make an asthma attack more serious.
Not everyone with asthma or allergies will cough up white mucus, or any mucus at all. But if you notice these and have other symptoms of either condition, it could explain your mucus. See a medical provider for a diagnosis.
Influenza, COVID-19, or other upper respiratory viral infections can cause increased mucus production. While the mucus from these illnesses tends to be limited to the nose and throat, you may cough mucus up as your body tries to eliminate it.
Since the nasal cavity drains down the throat, it is possible to cough mucus up that does not actually come from the lungs (we call this “post-nasal drip”).
Other signs that coughing up mucus could be related to an upper respiratory infection include:
Symptoms of viral upper respiratory infections tend to resolve within a week, or at least improve. If you are not better after a week, or your cough worsens, you have shortness of breath, chest pain or fevers over 101 Fahrenheit, see a healthcare provider.
While the common cold can last for up to three weeks, if you are getting worse or want to make sure you do not have a different infection, a healthcare provider can help to guide your treatment plan.
Bronchitis is an illness that happens when the air passages of the lungs become inflamed. They produce mucus, which can lead to chest pain and breathing problems. Bronchitis is sometimes referred to as a “chest cold.” It typically lasts for up to three weeks.
Other symptoms of bronchitis include:
Seek immediate medical care if you are having difficulty breathing or severe chest pain.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
COPD is a chronic condition that affects the lungs. Smoking is a major risk factor for developing COPD.
- Excess mucus
- Shortness of breath
- Problems taking deep breaths
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
GERD is a chronic disorder that affects that gastrointestinal tract.
It happens when stomach contents get regurgitated up into the esophagus, leading to heartburn or other symptoms of acid reflux. It is a commonly diagnosed disorder that affects around 20% of people in the U.S.
Coughing up white, foamy mucus can be a sign of GERD, along with other symptoms like acid reflux, heartburn, belching, or chronic cough.
Pneumonia can be caused by a bacteria or a virus. Coughing up white mucus can be a sign of pneumonia or other bronchial infections. In some cases, you can develop pneumonia after other upper respiratory viral infections.
If you have an illness that does not get better after 7-10 days, you start to feel worse, or you cough up mucus and have shortness of breath, chest pain, or fevers over 101 Fahrenheit, see your medical provider for an exam. Viral pneumonia can resolve on its own, but pneumonia caused by bacteria requires antibiotics.
Pulmonary edema can be caused by problems with the heart or lungs.
For example, heart failure is a common cause since fluid that normally is pumped by the heart backs up into the lungs. The fluid in the lungs can result in difficulty breathing.
Pulmonary edema affects more than 1 million people every year following heart problems, and about 190,000 people are diagnosed with the condition following other types of lung injury. Mucus that is coughed up because of pulmonary edema is usually white and foamy or frothy.
What the Color of Mucus Means
The color of mucus alone is not enough for a medical provider to diagnose what is causing it. However, there are some general categories of mucus colors that may give your doctor an idea of what tests to order.
Any time that white mucus is accompanied by coughing, fever, or other signs of illness, you should check in with a medical provider.
While white mucus is most likely to be caused by a common viral infection, do not ignore it if symptoms worsen, or if you cough up mucus but do not otherwise have signs of illness.
Yellow mucus is most commonly found with infections. As the immune system fights whatever sickness you have, it sends increasing levels of immune cells. As they accumulate in the mucus, they turn it from white to yellow.
Yellow mucus often comes with other signs of sickness like fever, coughing, sore throat, or congestion.
Green mucus is often associated with yellow mucus. Sometimes it turns green after being yellow, which can be a sign of increased immune activity against an illness.
Contrary to some internet myths, green snot does not automatically mean that you have a bacterial infection or that antibiotics will cure you.
If you have yellow or green mucus for more than a week or two, tell your healthcare provider.
Coughing up mucus that is red or pink can be alarming. It is usually a sign of bleeding somewhere in the nasal cavity or respiratory tract.
Call your medical provider if you notice red or pink mucus, unless you have recently had a bloody nose that has already resolved. If you get frequent bloody noses, see a medical provider.
While most commonly specks of blood are due to bleeding vessels in dry mucous membranes, in rare cases, red or pink mucus could be a sign of a serious illness, like a lung infection or cancer.
Home Remedies for Coughing Up Mucus
Coughing up mucus is uncomfortable. In some cases, there are no easy medications to clear the cause, and you need to wait for your body to heal. In other cases, it may be a side effect of a chronic condition.
If you have a viral illness, some over-the-counter medications or home remedies may help with mucus.
- Pain relievers, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- Saline nasal washes
- Drinking hot tea with honey
If you have mucus from chronic conditions, the best way to manage it at home is to avoid lifestyle or environmental triggers, like:
- Avoiding tobacco smoke exposure
- Reducing exposure to pollutants, chemicals, or allergens
- Minimizing triggers, like stress, that can worsen asthma
Medications for Excess Mucus Production
In some cases, your medical provider can prescribe medication to help with excess mucus production. This depends on what is causing it and other health factors.
Excess mucus production from illness can respond to over-the-counter (OTC) medicines called expectorants that help clear mucus from the lungs.
A common over-the-counter expectorant is guaifenesin (Robitussin, Mucinex).
If you have excess mucus production from other health conditions, like COPD, cystic fibrosis, asthma, or other related conditions, your medical provider may prescribe a type of medication known as a mucolytic. These reduce the amount of mucus that is made in the lungs.
Carbocysteine and N-acetylcysteine (NAC) are only available with a prescription.
When to See a Medical Professional
If you start coughing up mucus and it does not seem to be associated with a cold or the flu, contact a medical provider.
If you have a cold or other viral infection, and you are not better within 7-10 days—or are feeling worse—see a medical provider.
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Frequently Asked Questions
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Upper respiratory tract infection. (2021).
Chest cold (acute bronchitis). (2021).
COPD: Symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. (2021).
Gastroesophageal reflux disease. (2022).
Bacterial pneumonia. (2021).
Pulmonary edema. (2022).
Common cold. (2021).
Mucolytic medications. (2022).