Are you coughing up phlegm and thinking that you are suffering from common cold? Watch out, for you may be having something more serious.
What is Phlegm?
The term ‘Phlegm’ comes from the Greek word ‘phlegma’ meaning inflammation. It actually means the mucus that gets accumulated in your throat and needs to be coughed out. It is a watery substance, often viscous, that varies in color and quantity depending on the sickness you are suffering from. It is produced in the mucous layer of the trachea (windpipe).
In medical terms, phlegm is known as sputum or expectorated matter, meaning coughed out substance.
Coughing Up Phlegm
When the body suffers from an infection or disorder, it causes an accumulation of phlegm in the throat. The mucus irritates the air passage and creates discomfort in the sufferer. It triggers cough which expels the mucus.
Phlegm is normally white in color. A person starts coughing up white phlegm during minor ailments. Clear white phlegm indicates the absence of pus. But the mucus may also be colored. The color of the phlegm depends on the disease causing it. Smoking, infection, air pollution or presence of blood gives a rusty or brown color to the phlegm. Asthmatic patients cough up pink phlegm.
Coughing Up Clear Phlegm
A common cold caused by a general viral infection can lead to allergic irritation of your respiratory organs and make you cough up clear phlegm. Other possible causes can be:
- Postnasal Drip
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
- Chronic Bronchitis
The clear mucus is the initial attempt of the body to wash away the invading virus. Clear phlegm indicates the absence of blood in the mucus. It can be treated without the use of antibiotics.
Coughing Up Green Phlegm
This happens when there is a bacterial infection in the lungs or the bronchi, such as Tuberculosis. It can also happen because of a post nasal drip due to a sinus infection. It can be cured by avoiding dairy products, starchy foods and excessive meat intake. Drinking plenty of pure water and herbal teas, eating spicy foods and taking hot bath can work as effective home treatments.
Coughing Up Yellow Phlegm
Infections, allergies or asthma can lead to an inflammation of respiratory tract and lead to an accumulation of inflammatory cells or leukocytes in mucus. This can cause phlegm to turn yellow. Thick yellow phlegm is a sure sign of a bacterial or viral infection. People suffering acute or chronic cases of bronchitis or bacterial pneumonia often cough up thick yellow mucus.
Coughing Up Phlegm with Blood
Blood in mucus appears as red or brown spots. Bloody phlegm can be caused due to excessive smoking or high air pollution. This can also be an indication of some severe lung infection. If there is blood in phlegm, medical attention should be sought immediately.
Causes of Phlegm
There can be a number of factors behind the production of phlegm in the mucus membrane. These can be:
When you breathe in common cold virus, the body creates mucus as a natural reaction to safeguard your airways. This irritates the throat and you have to cough up phlegm to keep it clear. There is constant phlegm ejection through coughing. A person is generally seen coughing up clear phlegm in this case. If not treated in time, it can lead to chest congestion.
There is accumulation of phlegm in chest, which can make the patient suffer from breathing difficulties.
This happens when there is an inflammation of the main airways to the lungs. In patients with chronic bronchitis, excessive phlegm is produced which needs to be coughed out repeatedly. It continues for the most part of the month.
Picture 1 – Bronchitis
Source – medtogo.com
This breathing disorder makes your lungs swell. Mucus is produced when the respiratory system is affected by germs like bacteria, virus or fungi.
Picture 2 – Pneumonia
Source – ksbe.edu
It makes your air passages swell which results in wheezing and shortness of breath. Coughing is the main symptom of this disorder. Coughing leads to the expulsion of the phlegm from the throat and provides relief.
It mainly infects the lungs and results in excessive phlegm production. It leads to severe cough. Some patients are found to be coughing up yellow phlegm. Many are also seen coughing up green phlegm. In worst cases, the patient ends coughing up phlegm with blood.
When bacteria or viruses attack the body, the immune system makes an automatic response to block the foreign substances. Mucus production is one of these responses.
This condition is caused by a genetic disorder. The air passages in the lungs are filled with sticky mucus that often leads to life-threatening complications.
This rare disorder makes the body vulnerable to bacterial infections and results in mucus accumulation in the throat.
Inhaling nicotine leads to inflammation of the respiratory organs. It also results in excessive phlegm production. There is secondary infection of lungs, sinuses and bronchi due to it.
Badly Ventilated or Toxic Areas
Working in dusty or toxic areas can make a person develop respiratory disorders. There is increased mucus production due to this.
In some cases, coughing up phlegm is associated with abdominal bloating. This happens when a person swallows the mucus instead of coughing it out. The swallowed phlegm is degraded by the bacteria in the bowel. This produces gas and results in bloating of the stomach.
How to Cough Up Phlegm
When the mucus gets thick, it is very painful to cough it out. Thinned mucus is easier to expel. There are some home remedies that you can try to thin out the phlegm. Go through these suggestions and know how to get rid of phlegm at home :
- Boil water in a bowl. Add in eucalyptus, menthol or mint. Inhale the steam deeply into your nostrils.
- Drinking hot beverages like tea can work great. It is better if you drink teas containing mint or eucalyptus. It serves to make the mucus thin and also keep chest congestion at bay. You should also drink hot soup for the same purpose.
- Apply warmth to your chest. Wrap a piece of cloth around a hot vessel and unwrap it to apply on your chest. Do this for several times to get immediate relief. If you are already coughing up phlegm, wrapping a hot towel around your neck can provide some respite. You can also buy a heating pad for this purpose.
- Eating spicy foods can also help your mucus thin out naturally. Capsicum is a natural expectorant. Adding it into your diet can help you cough out phlegm more easily.
- Gargling with salt water and spit it out. The mucus will come out of your upper throat providing temporary relief.
- Taking a hot bath will also prove useful. You should breathe in steam deeply from the water.
Phlegm Treatment by Doctors
If you are suffering from persistent coughing that expels phlegm, you should consult your doctor. An expert medical practitioner will perform a thorough physical check-up. Normally, medical tests like blood and sputum examinations, ECG, CT scan and chest X-rays are conducted to diagnose the ailment behind the cough. This also helps the doctor to know if the patient is suffering from any serious disease like lung cancer or TB.
Curing phlegm accumulation is done by curing the disease causing it. Once the phlegm inducing disease is controlled, the mucus in the air passage is also reduced automatically.
Coughing up phlegm is common. But it can lead to serious complications if not treated in time. If the person suffers from severe ailments like a lung infection or cystic fibrosis, early treatment can help diagnose and cure the problem. Even phlegm accumulation due to common cold can cause chest congestion which can be harmful in very young children. So it is necessary to treat a patient coughing out phlegm as early as possible. You never know what may be causing the problem.
Written by anirudh
on November 25th, 2010. The article was last updated on September 3rd, 2011