Coughing Up Green or Yellow Mucus: What It Means (Including Thick Mucus)

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Coughing Up Green or Yellow Mucus: What It Means (Including Thick Mucus)
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Coughing up green or yellow mucus usually means that you have some kind of a respiratory infection caused by a virus or bacteria. A yellow or greenish sputum is typical of the flu, bronchitis, sinusitis, or chest infection. Coughing up thick phlegm that is dark yellow or thick green can mean that the irritation is deep in your airways. 

Coughing is usually the best way to expel thick yellow or green mucus from your airways. Some natural remedies can help to loosen phlegm and make coughing up the colorful sticky goop easier. For example, ginger tea has amazing antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory qualities that help to reduce the severity of respiratory infections.

You don’t always need an antibiotic to treat thick yellow mucus because antibiotics don’t work for viral infections. However, if a bronchial infection is due to bacterial bronchitis or bacterial pneumonia, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to get rid of yellow mucus.

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In this article, you will find out what bringing up yellow or green mucus means. You will also learn when green or yellow phlegm is a sign of an infection.

What Causes Coughing Up Mucus and Phlegm?

A layer of mucus naturally forms in the airways to help protect the lungs and bronchi from infection and inflammation. The publication Clinical Methods says that in normal circumstances, mucus is a clear and thin fluid. Certain conditions can increase the amount of mucus, turning it into phlegm or sputum. This causes a pus-like thick fluid to form in the lungs that needs to be coughed up.1

Depending on the cause of coughing up thick yellow-green mucus, the cough could be acute or chronic. Usually, an acute cough as a sign of an infection lasts for one or 2 weeks. A persistent cough that is not connected with an infection lasts for longer than 3 weeks and could be due to allergies, breathing irritants, or chronic bronchitis.1

Where do mucus and phlegm come from?

According to Dr. Melissa Conrad Stöppler on MedicineNet, mucus lines many of the tissues and organs in the body. The purpose of mucus is to trap bacteria, irritants, or other foreign objects to prevent infection or inflammation. This thick gunk from your bronchi can be any color from bright yellow to dark green. If you have chronic coughing, you may notice very dark phlegm or blood-tinged mucus.2

This can also clog up the nasal passages and be a reason why you have yellow or green boogers.

Symptoms Associated with Coughing Up Green Yellow Phlegm

Coughing up green or yellow mucus or thick phlegm is usually associated with an upper respiratory infection. Therefore, along with the hacky, deep cough, you will probably show other symptoms along with the colored mucus.

Some symptoms of yellow green thick mucus can include:

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  • Deep “productive” cough that sounds hacky and brings up abnormally colored phlegm
  • Snot from your nose that also looks yellowish green
  • Wheezing when breathing due to mucus obstructing your airways
  • Fever due to an infection
  • Chills with or without fever
  • A sore throat caused by bacterial or viral infection
  • Body aches and/or a headache
  • General feeling of tiredness and being unwell

What Does Coughing Up Yellow or Green Mucus Mean?

Coughing up yellow or green mucus doesn’t always mean that you need to take antibiotics. Many times, the production of green or yellow mucus is because of some of the following conditions:

  • Cold or flu infection.
  • Infected sinuses (sinusitis) that cause pressure in your forehead and gooey yellow snot from your nose.
  • Chest infection due to bacterial or viral causes.
  • Lung abscess that produces green mucus.
  • Lung inflammation caused by an upper respiratory infection resulting in dark yellow or thick green mucus.
  • Chronic coughing that irritates the lungs and increases yellow or green phlegm.

Why mucus turns yellow or green

Dr. Luqman Seidu on WebMD says that mucus becomes various shades of yellow or green due to neutrophils (white blood cells) that have a green-colored enzyme. So, yellow or green mucus isn’t always a sign of a bacterial infection.3

Causes of Coughing Up Green or Yellow Mucus

Let’s look in more detail at why your cough looks bright to dark yellow or is thick green.

Cold or flu infection

One of the most common reasons for coughing up thick yellow or green phlegm is because of a cold or flu infection.

Doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that the common cold causes an increase in mucus. As germs collect in the mucus, the respiratory fluid will become thicker and turn a bright yellow or green color. Spitting up yellow or green mucus during a cold or flu infection is normal. You may also expel thick yellow or green snot when sneezing or blowing your nose.4

Other signs of the cold or flu can include:

  • A runny nose
  • Difficulty sleeping due to a blocked nose and sinuses
  • A sore throat
  • Mucus dripping down the back of your throat causing throat irritation
  • Aching and headaches

Usually, all signs of the common cold should clear up within 10 days. Doctors say that colds and flu infections are caused by viruses and, therefore, you don’t need antibiotics to clear the thick yellow mucus.

However, if a bacterial infection develops in your chest, a course of antibiotics may be needed to clear your hacky cough and prevent complications.5

To prevent colds and flu infections, try some of my hacks to boost your immune system. Very often, washing your hands frequently is enough to prevent coming down with a respiratory infection. Also read my article on how to recover faster from a flu.

Bronchitis

Bronchitis can be a complication of an upper respiratory infection and can produce a deep cough that brings up green mucus. Inflammation in the bronchi produces excess mucus that becomes thick and turns yellow or green.

According to the European Respiratory Journal, bronchitis can cause yellowish green phlegm to build up in the lungs. A study published in that journal found that 50% of people suffering from chronic bronchitis had pathogenic bacteria in green or yellow sputum samples.6

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that acute and chronic bronchitis can produce yellowish-gray or green phlegm. This can be accompanied by:7

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  • A deep cough
  • Chest pains and discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever and chills

Bronchitis is contagious if it is due to a bacterial or viral respiratory infection. Ways to help improve the health of your lungs include avoiding breathing in irritants, staying fit and healthy, and eating a healthy diet.

You can also try using essential oils to relieve bronchitis symptoms and get rid of chest congestion naturally.

Sinusitis

Bringing up green gunk in a cough may be a sign of sinusitis, especially if you also have pressure in your forehead.

Blocked sinuses occur if your nasal passages become inflamed and blocked due to an allergy or infection. Researchers from Harvard Medical School say that white blood cells thicken your nasal mucus and turn it into neon yellow snot or bright green snot. The buildup of thick mucus in your sinuses can also cause a headache behind one eye or a cheekbone pain.8

Other symptoms of blocked sinuses can include:

One of the best ways of getting rid of a sinus infection is to inhale essential oils that loosen phlegm. For example, eucalyptus oil, peppermint oil, and tea tree oil are essential oils with expectorant properties that help kill off respiratory infections. You can also try horseradish as a natural cure for sinusitis.

Laryngitis

Your larynx is your voice box and inflammation can cause a condition called laryngitis. Laryngitis can sometimes be the result of a viral or bacterial infection and can cause a green or yellow mucus cough.

According to otolaryngologist Dr. Rahul K. Shah, a complication of laryngitis is coughing up yellowish or greenish mucus. This may suggest that the infection has affected your bronchi or sinuses. Other symptoms of laryngitis can include:9

A salt water gargle is a great natural remedy for laryngitis to remove and loosen excess thick mucus in your throat.

Pneumonia

Some types of pneumonia can be contagious if caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Pneumonia symptoms include a mucus cough that looks dark yellow or neon green.

Dr. George Schiffman on eMedicineHealth says that bacterial pneumonia can irritate the lungs and cause excess mucus. The presence of bacterial pathogens in the mucus causes it to become thick yellow along with a deep, hacking cough. In some cases, pneumonia can cause dark brown sputum to be coughed up.10

Pneumonia can also cause any of the following symptoms:

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Because severe chest pains can be a sign of a heart attack, it’s important to never ignore unexplained chest pain.

Asthma

If you are coughing up yellow-colored phlegm but you are not sick, it may be because you suffer from asthma.

According to the journal BMJ Open Respiratory Research, asthma is associated with inflammation of the airways. This can cause excess neutrophils to mix with respiratory mucus and cause sputum that is yellow or green. In many cases, this resulted in patients coughing up phlegm without symptoms of infection.11

To help prevent asthma causing you to cough up mucus but no fever, you can try some of my natural remedies for asthma. Ingredients like ginger, garlic, and essentials oils help reduce asthmatic airway inflammation and can help you breathe easier.

Lung abscess

An abscess in the lung is usually caused by bacteria that causes a pus-filled sac and inflammation in the lung. This can cause yellow or dark green mucus cough depending on the extent of the bacterial infection.

According to Dr. Sanjay Sethi, who is an expert in pulmonary diseases, a lung abscess can cause a lot of foul-smelling colored sputum to be coughed up if it ruptures. The can also cause chest pains while breathing, night sweats, and a fever. Usually, antibiotics are needed to clear symptoms of a lung abscess and prevent further infection.12

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Coughing up dark green mucus is often a sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is a chronic inflammatory condition of the lungs, often as a result of smoking.

The journal Chest reports that green thick sputum is often seen in patients with COPD. In many cases, this is indicative of a respiratory bacterial infection caused by chronic coughing and loss of elasticity in the lungs. People with COPD are at more risk of developing pneumonia and other lung problems.13

Coughing Up Green or Yellow Mucus Chunks

If you are coughing up thick yellow or green mucus, you may notice that there appear to be chunks in the mucus. Mucus with green or yellow chunks is often the result of serious bronchitis infection causing very thick, clumpy mucus.

Sometimes, a lack of fluid can make the phlegm thicker and appear “chunky.”

How to Treat Coughing Up of Green Yellow Mucus or Phlegm

Bringing up greenish yellow mucus in a cough is usually a symptom of an infection in your chest or airways. Therefore, treating a yellow phlegm cough usually requires addressing the underlying cause.

However, there are some helpful home remedies that help to treat a phlegmy cough.

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  • Get plenty of rest. Resting gives your body a chance to recover quicker from the flu or viral infection.
  • Steam inhalation to loosen mucus. Put a few drops of tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil in a bowl of boiling water. Put your head over the bowl, cover with a towel, and breathe deeply for 10 minutes to loosen thick gooey mucus.
  • Chicken soup. There is actually some scientific research that chicken soup helps to cure colds quickly. A compound found in chicken soup actually has anti-flu properties and can reduce inflammation in the airways.14
  • Drink ginger tea. Drinking ginger tea with or without lemon helps to increase fluid intake and boost your immunity. In fact, studies have shown that ginger tea can help treat upper respiratory infections and ease chest congestion.15

Other Ways to Get Rid of Yellow or Green Mucus

Doctors from the National Health Service say that other ways of getting rid of purulent yellow or green mucus caused by respiratory infections can include:16

Coughing Up Mucus Every Morning

For some people, bringing up yellow or green phlegm every morning is a continual problem. What can it mean if your cough is always yellow or green in the morning?

According to doctors from the National Health Service, bronchiectasis is a condition where the airways are abnormally wide. This leads to a buildup of light yellow or yellowish-green mucus that is coughed up daily. Sometimes the phlegm can be very dark green and thick.17

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic also report that COPD produces thick yellow or green sputum on a daily basis.18

Frothy Phlegm – What Does it Mean?

Coughing up frothy sputum will not usually be a green or yellow color and is associated with potentially serious heart conditions.

For example, Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland reports that fluid in the lungs can cause phlegm to take on a pink, frothy appearance. Frothy phlegm is often associated with cardiac-related conditions because weakness of the heart muscles allows fluid to collect in the lungs. This may also cause a buildup of fluid in your ankles, shortness of breath, or chest tightness.19

Enjoying a well-balanced, healthy diet and getting enough exercise are just 2 habits that can boost your heart’s health. You can also look after your heart by including heart-friendly herbs in your diet and avoiding habits that damage your heart.

Do You Need Antibiotics if Your Mucus is Yellow or Green?

You only need antibiotics when you cough up green or yellow phlegm if the cause is a bacterial infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that blowing yellow or green snot from your nose or coughing up abnormal-colored mucus doesn’t mean you have a bacterial infection. Yellow or green mucus can be a sign of a viral infection, and in this case antibiotics won’t help your symptoms.20

When to See a Doctor

Usually, getting plenty of rest and using home remedies to loosen thick, colored phlegm is enough to treat your symptoms. After a week or two, your cough and color of mucus should be back to normal.

However, there are some symptoms which indicate that you may have a respiratory infection with complications that require professional medical treatment. Doctors from the National Health Service recommend seeing a doctor for coughing up yellow or green phlegm in the following circumstances:16

  • The color of your phlegm continues to get darker, despite treating the symptoms.
  • You experience chest pains and shortness of breath.
  • You have sharp, stabbing pains on one side of your chest.
  • You cough up pink or rusty-colored mucus.
  • A person over 65 or child under 5 shows signs of a chest infection.
  • Daily coughing up bright yellow or green mucus interferes with your daily activities.

Related articles:

Medical Sources

  1. NCBI. Cough and sputum production.
  2. MedicineNet. What is mucus?
  3. WebMD. The truth about mucus.
  4. CDC. Common cold and runny nose.
  5. PatientInfo. Common cold.
  6. Eur Respir J.2012 Jun;39(6):1354-60.
  7. MayoClinic. Bronchitis.
  8. HealthHarvard. What to do about sinusitis.
  9. eMedicineHealth. Laryngitis.
  10. eMedicineHealth. Bacterial pneumonia.
  11. BMJ Open Respir Res. 2017; 4(1): e000236.
  12. MerckManuals. Abscess in the lungs.
  13. Chest. 2000 Jun;117(6):1638-45.
  14. Chest. 2000 Oct;118(4):1150-7.
  15. J Ethnopharm. 2013 Jan; 1(9): 146-151.
  16. NHSInform. Chest infection.
  17. NHS. Bronchiectasis.
  18. MayoClinic. COPD.
  19. CHSS. How you may feel – heart failure symptoms.
  20. CDC. Cold or flu. Antibiotics don’t work for you.
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