Types of Mucus: What the Color of Your Mucus Tells About Your Health

Types of Mucus: What the Color of Your Mucus Tells About Your Health
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The mucus in your nose, mouth, throat, and lungs is usually a clear, colorless thin fluid that helps to keep tissue in your airways moist. The color and consistency of mucus secretions can tell a lot about your health. If you have an infection, the color of mucus can change to a green or yellow color and become a lot thicker and stickier. If you cough a lot or you have a serious respiratory infection, the color of mucus can turn brown, pink, or even red.

The production of mucus in your airways plays a key role in keeping you healthy. Mucus helps to remove germs and trap bacteria before they can start to do damage. When you get an upper respiratory infection, mucus goes to work to help get rid of the bugs. You may find that as the infection gets worse or better, the color of the phlegm or mucus you cough up changes. It can start off clear and white, before turning yellow and then green.

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In this article, I am going to examine what the color of mucus can tell about your health. Along with the other symptoms of green, yellow, white, brown or pink mucus, the color of mucus can help to identify what is causing the thick mucus to appear.

What is Mucus and Why the Color of Mucus is Important

Everyone produces mucus and it is an important fluid to help prevent respiratory infections and irritations.

Dr. Luqman Seidu on WebMD says that mucus is produced by the tissue in the mouth, sinuses, nose, throat, gastrointestinal tract, and lungs. Mucus is important because it contains enzymes that kill off germs and bacteria. Mucus becomes sticky and gooey and changes color as the enzymes in your mucus go to work if you have an infection.1

According to Dr. Seidu, your body produces from 1 liter to 1.5 liters per day of the sticky clear substance. Even though the color of mucus changes when you get an infection, your body usually doesn’t produce more. We think that there is more mucus because of the changes in its consistency.1

Other reasons why mucus consistency and color can change are due to irritation, allergic reactions, or respiratory infections that cause you to cough up mucus.

Why does mucus change color during an infection?

Dr. Seidu explains that your body sends out white blood cells during an infection as a defense mechanism. These bacteria-busting cells contain a green enzyme, and when there are many white blood cells, the phlegm or mucus will turn yellowish-green color.1

If your nose dries out because of too much blowing your nose or rubbing it, some small blood vessels in your nose could break and bleed. The old blood can mix with your already green-colored mucus to turn phlegm brown or other shades of color.

Let’s look at what the color of mucus can tell about your health.

Clear Mucus with No Color

Clear mucus with no color is a good indication that your upper respiratory system and digestive system is in good health.

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According to Dr. Jonathan Hern, who is an ear, nose and throat specialist at Frimley Park Hospital, healthy mucus is clear, thin, and watery. This thin clear fluid helps to keep your sinuses, throat, and nose moist and healthy. Clear mucus with no color also helps to humidify the air we breathe to prevent irritation in your respiratory tract.2

What Yellow or Green Mucus Means

Coughing up yellow or green mucus usually means that you have an infection in your lungs, sinuses, or upper respiratory tract.

Dr. Jonathan Hern who was quoted earlier, says that the color of mucus caused by an infection is usually yellow or green. However, it’s a misconception that green mucus means a bacterial infection. Viral infections, more often than not, result in green or yellow mucus.2

Here are the most common health conditions that cause you to cough up yellowish-green mucus.

Bronchitis

Coughing up yellow or green mucus or blowing yellow snot from your nose is often a result of bronchitis.

Bronchitis is inflammation of your upper respiratory system and that irritates the mucus-producing tissue in your bronchial tubes. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that bronchitis usually results in a cough with thickened mucus. The mucus (or sputum) can be a yellowish-grey or green color.3

Other symptoms of bronchitis include chest discomfort, fatigue, and shortness of breath along with common cold symptoms. The cough may last for several weeks after you got rid of the infections.

There are many natural remedies for bronchitis that can help you stop coughing up yellowish-green mucus. For example, garlic is a natural antibiotic that is an effective natural remedy for chest infections. You can also try some of my great essential oils to relieve bronchitis symptoms or these foods to cleanse your lungs.

Sinus infection

You might have yellow or green snot from your nose or cough up greenish phlegm if you have a sinus infection or sinusitis.

Your sinuses are located in the center of your forehead and at either side of your nose. Your sinuses are usually filled with air and are lined with tissue that produces mucus.

Dr. Carol DerSarkissian on WebMD says that an infection or allergies can lead to sinusitis. This results in thick, yellow phlegm and snot from your nose that smells bad. Along with blowing yellow mucus from your nose, you will usually have a headache, pain around your forehead, and a blocked-up nose.4

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Some natural treatments you can make at home for sinus infections include inhalation with essential oils to clear your nasal passages and break up green mucus. Also, horseradish and grapefruit seed extract (GSE) are effective treatment for sinusitis as they both unblocks your nose and kills off microbes that cause yellow/green sinus mucus.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a potentially serious lung infection that can cause you to cough up thick yellow or green mucus.

Doctors from the National Health Service (NHS) report that pneumonia is usually caused by bacterial or viral infections. Tiny sacs in your lungs become inflamed and fill up with fluid. This will cause phlegm that is a yellowish green color and possibly even brown mucus. Other signs of pneumonia include difficulty breathing, fever, rapid heartbeat, and a general feeling of being unwell.5

Pneumonia can also cause severe chest pains on your left side or right-sided chest pain, depending on which lung is infected. If you suspect you have pneumonia, it’s important to get proper medical attention as it can become a life-threatening condition.

Cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited medical condition that can cause chronic coughing where a person brings up greenish-yellow phlegm.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that a defective gene causes mucus to become sticky and thick. This can block up tubes and airways in the chest. The main symptom of cystic fibrosis is a thick mucus and cough. People with cystic fibrosis often have repeated lung infections and a chronic blocked-up nose.6

Doctors also say that cystic fibrosis puts a person at greater risk of developing other respiratory infections like pneumonia, bronchitis, or sinusitis.

How to get rid of yellow or green mucus caused by an infection

Having bronchitis or a sinus infection can be frustrating when you constantly cough up thick yellow or green-colored phlegm.

According to Dr. Neha Pathak on WebMD, a nasal saline rinse is one of the best ways to get rid of thick nasal mucus. Salt acts as an antimicrobial agent and also helps to reduce the thickness of the mucus.7

How to get rid of thick yellow or green mucus naturally:

This is how to make your own remedy to reduce the thickness of yellow/green snot. For this, you will need a neti pot to irrigate your sinuses.

  1. Mix 1 teaspoon salt with 2 cups of warm water that has been boiled and cooled (this is to prevent infections from tap water).
  2. Tilt your head at a 45-degree angle over a sink.
  3. Gently pour the saline solution into your nostril.
  4. The liquid should flow out of your other nostril.
  5. Blow your nose to get rid of excess liquid.
  6. Repeat with the other side.
  7. Repeat at least 2 times a day until your sinus infection has cleared and you no longer have thick mucus in your sinuses.

Dr. Jayakar Nayak, who is an ear, nose and throat specialist at Stanford Medical University Medical Center, says that you can rinse your nasal passages with a saline solution as needed. It is nearly impossible to overdo the saline nasal rinsing to get rid of yellow or green snot.7

The Causes of Brown Mucus

Brown mucus is usually caused by the same reasons as yellow or green mucus, however, the brown color comes from old blood.

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According to Dr. Luqman Seidu on WebMD, brown mucus that you cough up or blow out your nose often happens if your respiratory passages are dry. The irritation in your nasal passages from rubbing or blowing your nose can cause slight bleeding. Brown mucus happens when some old blood mixes with the yellow mucus in your nose.1

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronis obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is one lung condition that can result in coughing up brown phlegm.

According to the journal Respiratory Medicine, COPD causes an increase in quantity and thickness of sputum. The bacterial infection that often accompanies COPD usually results in bringing up mucus that is yellow to brown in color.8

There are many reasons to strengthen the health of your lungs. Being active, enjoying a healthy diet, and stopping smoking immediately are just some ways that you can boost your lungs’ health and help avoid lung disease.

Why Mucus Can Be White Color

Sometimes you might notice that mucus can be a thick white color. What does it mean when you cough up or spit out white mucus?

First signs of bronchitis

One of the first signs of bronchitis is white mucus that starts to clog up your airways along with an irritating cough.

According to doctors from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, bronchitis usually starts off as a dry cough. You may also have other symptoms like a fever, aches in your lower back, and a sore throat. However, if the bronchitis is caused by a viral infection, you might cough up small amounts of white phlegm.9

Bacterial sinusitis

Rather than cause green phlegm, doctors from WebMD say that white snot is usually a sign of a bacterial infection that has affected your sinuses.2

Gastroesophageal disease (GERD)

Stomach acid that irritates the lining of your esophagus can result in coughing up whitish mucus as well as having a feeling of something stuck in your throat.

Stomach juices that escape back up your esophagus create a condition called gastroesophageal disease (GERD) and result in acid reflux. According to the journal Annals of Thoracic Medicine, the increase of acid in your airways causes coughing and mucus secretion.10

Dr. Jennifer Robinson on WebMD says that excess throat mucus is a common symptom of reflux.11

Congestive heart failure (CHF)

Congestive heart failure happens when the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. In some cases, people with congestive heart failure frequently cough up white mucus.

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According to the American Heart Association, CHF results in bringing up white mucus because of excess fluid in the lungs. If you have chronic coughing, you may also notice white mucus that has tinges of blood. Other symptoms of CHF are shortness of breath, tiredness, lack of appetite, and increased heart rate.12

Because your heart is located on the left side of your chest, you should never ignore left-sided chest pains. Some ways to care for the health of your heart are exercising, healthy diet, and cutting out stress as much as possible.

What Does Pink or Red-Colored Mucus Mean

Coughing up pink or red-colored mucus usually means that there is some blood mixed in with the mucus.

Any health condition that results in chronic coughing can damage and irritate your airways, resulting in pink-tinged mucus. Sometimes the mucus could be pink or red depending on the amount of blood in the mucus. You could cough up blood-streaked mucus when you have pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, or sinusitis.

Lung cancer

If you persistently cough up pink mucus, you should visit your doctor for a chest examination. The website Cancer.net says that some of the signs of lung cancer are persistently coughing up phlegm, coughing up blood, and a cough that won’t go away. You may also experience unintentional weight loss and/or chest pains.13

You can help keep your lungs healthy and reduce your risk of developing lung cancer by regularly consuming garlic.

Reasons for Mucus that is Black Color

Sometimes you may even notice that you cough up or blow out your nose that you have black secretion.

Fungal infections

In rare occasions, fungal sinusitis can cause black mucus to appear when you blow your nose or cough. According to Dr. Charles Patrick Davis on MedicineNet, some types of fungal infections that affect the sinuses can result in dark, black-like fluid from your sinuses.14

Breathing in black dust

The Journal of Cytology reports that black-colored mucus can be the result of breathing in black dust. This condition often affects coal workers or others who work in heavy industry where black dust is present.15

Smoking

The Journal of Cytology also says that people who smoke crack may frequently cough up blackened mucus.15

When to See a Doctor for Abnormal Mucus

Usually, there is nothing to worry about if you have yellow, green, brown, or even occasional pink mucus. Generally, the conditions that cause abnormal mucus with a strange color resolve themselves in 1 to 2 weeks, and the color of your mucus should return to normal.

However, in some cases, you should see your doctor if thick, discolored mucus persists and you can’t get relief. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic and WebMD recommend seeing a doctor for thick mucus in the following circumstances:16, 17

  • Your symptoms last for more than 10 days and natural remedies don’t give any relief.
  • You blow yellow or green mucus from your nose and have sinus pain or a fever.
  • You have blood in your nasal mucus after a head injury.
  • You cough up large amounts of blood-tinged mucus.
  • You have difficulty breathing and a persistent wheezing cough.
  • You cough up green mucus from your lungs (not from your nose) which lasts for longer than 2 days.
  • You have a high fever and signs of yellow mucus from your lungs.
  • The coughing up of thick mucus causes you to vomit.

Read my other related articles:

Medical References

  1. WebMD. The truth about mucus.
  2. WebMD. The truth about mucus.
  3. MayoClinic. Bronchitis.
  4. WebMD. When a cold becomes a sinus infection.
  5. NHS. Pneumonia.
  6. MayoClinic. Cystic fibrosis.
  7. WebMD. What your mucus says about your health.
  8. Resp Med. 2005 Jun;99(6): 742-747.
  9. Cedars-Sinai. Bronchitis.
  10. Ann Thorac Med. 2009 Jul-Sep; 4(3): 115–123.
  11. WebMD. Laryngopharyngeal reflux.
  12. HeartOrg. Warning signs of heart failure.
  13. CancerNet. Lung cancer.
  14. MedicineNet. Sinusitis.
  15. J Cytol. 2013 Oct-Dec; 30(4): 274–275.
  16. MayoClinic. Nasal congestion.
  17. WebMD. Pneumonia – when to call a doctor.
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