Phlegm and mucus serve a purpose but having too much is uncomfortable. Our specialist from the Department of Respiratory Medicine at Sengkang General Hospital (SKH) shares various remedies that can help.
Mucus and phlegm are similar, yet different.
"Mucus is a secretion produced from the lining of the nose, sinuses, throat and lungs. We all produce mucus which is our first line of defence against viruses and bacteria, dust and allergens. In healthy individuals, mucus is thin and virtually unnoticeable,"
Dr Jonathan Goh from the
Department of Respiratory Medicine at
Sengkang General Hospital (SKH), a member of the
"Phlegm, on the other hand, is thicker and made by the lower respiratory tract such as throat and lungs when there is an infection or inflammation," he added.
The problem comes when you fall sick. You will notice your mucus becoming thicker and start coughing up phlegm. To avoid build-up, there are ways for you to get rid of excess phlegm and mucus.
12 Ways to reduce phlegm and mucus
1. Hydrate constantly
Drinking plenty of water, especially warm water, can help thin out mucus and loosen congestion in the lungs, making it easier to cough up and clear excess phlegm. In hot and humid climate Singapore, aim to drink at least eight glasses of water daily.
2. Gargle with salt water
Gargling warm salt water can help clear phlegm and can even help soothe a sore throat. Here’s what to do:
Mix a teaspoon of salt into a glass of warm water
Sip a bit of the mixture and tilt your head back slightly. Let the mixture wash into your throat without drinking it
Gargle for 30 to 60 seconds then spit it out
3. Use a saline nasal spray or rinse
For patients with
allergic rhinitis, using a saline – which is a salt water solution – nasal spray or nasal rinse can help to clear the sinuses.
4. Take over-the-counter remedies
Decongestants can reduce the mucus flow from your nose. This mucus isn’t considered phlegm but it can lead to chest congestion. Decongestants work by reducing swelling in your nose and opening up your airways.
Mucolytics and expectorants are a group of medications that works by thinning and loosening mucus and phlegm, making it easier to expel. The main ingredient to look for is guaifenesin, which helps to get phlegm up and out.
5. Avoid certain foods as they may increase phlegm and mucus production
Such foods include:
Dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter and cream
Caffeine and alcohol (dehydrate the body)
6. Use a humidifier
Using a humidifier can help your body moisturise your throat and nasal passages, helping to reduce mucus and phlegm production.
7. Inhaling steam helps make you feel better
Inhaling steam can help to loosen mucus and clear phlegm. You can inhale steam by filling a bowl with hot water, drape a towel over your head, lower your head close to the water but avoid making direct contact with the water, and breath in the steam. It won’t kill the virus responsible for your infection but can make you feel a little better.
8. Drink herbal tea
Herbal teas like ginger, mint, and chamomile can help soothe the throat and reduce inflammation. Drinking these teas can help reduce phlegm production and make it easier to clear the excess phlegm.
9. Use nasal drops
Nasal drops can help clear mucus from your nose and sinuses, making it easier to breathe and reducing phlegm production. You can find these drops at your local pharmacy.
10. Do not suppress cough
Coughing is a defense mechanism for our body to remove phlegm. Suppressing cough conversely leads to phlegm buildup which may result in worsening of symptoms.
11. Get plenty of rest
Getting plenty of rest can help your body fight off infections that can cause phlegm production. Make sure to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
12. Continue to exercise
Exercise can help improve lung function and reduce phlegm production. Regular exercise can help increase blood flow and oxygen levels, making it easier to clear the excess phlegm from your lungs and throat.
Causes of phlegm and mucus buildup
Smoking irritates the respiratory system causing the body to produce greater amounts of phlegm.
Chronic lung disease
Lung diseases such as
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and
asthma can cause excess phlegm production on the lungs.
Infection or inflammation of the sinuses (also known as
sinusitis) lead to increased mucus production, which then flow back down the back of the throat.
Inflammation of the bronchus by a virus or bacteria can cause excess mucus and phlegm production and difficulty breathing.
Reflux of stomach fluids and occur with or without heartburn can cause phlegm buildup.
Allergic rhinitis causes the body to produce more mucus as a response to allergens in the nose and upper airway
What do the colours of phlegm and mucus mean
Clear or white
Clear or white phlegm is normal and indicates that your respiratory system is functioning properly. It is produced in small amounts to keep your airways moist and to help trap and remove bacteria and other irritants from your lungs.
Clear mucus means its normal, although allergies (allergic rhinitis) can also be present. Other symptoms associated with allergies (allergies rhinitis) include:
However, white mucus means you are congested and possibly having a nasal infection or cold. The white mucus comes about as swollen inflamed tissues in your nose are slowing the flow of mucus, causing it to lose moisture and become thick and cloudy.
Yellow phlegm is usually due to inflammation of the airways, or it may be a sign of an infection. Both viral and bacterial infections can cause this, such as the common cold or bronchitis. Yellow phlegm can also be a sign of smoking or exposure to other irritants in the environment.
The yellow color occurs due to proteins produced as a response to inflammation or infection deposited in the mucus.
Green phlegm is often associated with bacterial infections, such as
pneumonia or bacterial sinusitis. Green phlegm can be a sign of a serious respiratory infection and may require medical attention.
Green phlegm is caused by dead white blood cells and is reflective of your immune system working hard to fight off an infection. If you are feeling unwell with green phlegm even after about 2-3 days, you may want to see a doctor to see if it is a bacterial infection you have, requiring a round of antibiotics to treat.
Brown or rust-Coloured
Brown or rust-colored phlegm is often associated with smoking or exposure to other irritants, such as pollution or dust. It can also be the result of old blood which may be a sign of lung cancer or tuberculosis.
If you are producing brown or rust-colored phlegm and you are a smoker, it is important to speak with your doctor.
Red or pink
Red or pink phlegm can be a sign of bleeding in the respiratory system. It can indicate a serious condition, such as
tuberculosis (TB), or
pulmonary embolism. Blood in your mucus will tinge it pink or red.
Blood may flow a bit if you have blown your nose a lot or if you have been coughing very violently. A few specks of blood or a pinkish hue mucus isn’t usually a serious concern, however if you are expectorating large or frequent amounts of red or pink phlegm, it is essential to seek medical attention immediately.
However, if it is a child that is experiencing nosebleeds, especially if the child is under two years of age, it is better to consult a paediatrician.
It can be difficult to diagnose a disease just by the colour of your phlegm and the above is only a guide, hence your doctor will also take into consideration other symptoms such as presence of fever, difficulty breathing or chest pain to come to a diagnosis.
The above tips are some ways to manage phlegm and mucus. If you are concerned about the colour of your phlegm or mucus, or are experiencing other symptoms, such as fever, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, do consult your doctor for evaluation and treatment.
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