What your mucus says about your health

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You might think of phlegm — the liquid, gooey, or gooey stuff you sneeze, sniff in, and cough up — as a nuisance you never seem to have a handkerchief for. It may not be sexy, but slime is one of your body’s greatest defenders.

This slippery, sometimes sticky liquid comes from the mucous membranes that line your airways—nose, mouth, larynx, windpipe, and lungs. Mucus moisturizes the air we breathe and lubricates your airways. “Mucus has a protective function in trapping debris, allergens, dust, and pathogens like viruses and bacteria, which can then be expelled from the body,” says Ken Yanagisawa, MD, president of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

Meaning of slime color

You’ve probably noticed that mucus comes in a range of colors and textures when you’re sick, have a runny nose or congestion, or have a condition like a sinus infection. While slime color isn’t enough to always diagnose a disease or condition, it can point you in the right direction.

And even if you don’t realize it, slime is always there.

Thin and clear. It’s the sniffing stuff that happens with allergies. Mostly water, but packed with dissolved salts, proteins, and antibodies, clear mucus can also mean your body is in a healthy mode. Your nasal tissues produce it all the time. Most of it secretly slips down your throat and dissolves in your stomach without you realizing it.

White. Your nose might be blocked. The swollen tissue in your nasal passages slows the flow of mucus, while the loss of moisture thickens and makes it cloudier. This type of mucus ripens conditions for a cold or a sinus infection.

Yellow. A cold or infection can build up steam. Your mucus may turn yellow when your white blood cells are rushing to the site of an infection to try to fight it off.

Green. Dead white blood cells can turn your mucus green and sticky. Your immune system is on high alert. Call your doctor if it doesn’t improve within 10 to 12 days or if you have a fever. If you have sinusitis, which is a bacterial infection, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to clear it up.

Brown. You may have gotten a big whiff of something like dirt. Brownish mucus could also be stained with old blood.

It’s rare, but with chronic lung conditions like bronchiectasis or cystic fibrosis, bacteria in your lungs can cause inflammation and bleeding, turning your mucus dark brown.

It’s important to remember that yellow, green, or brown mucus can all indicate bacterial or viral infections.

Red. A red or pink tinge could mean a little harmless blood was caused by things like blowing your nose a lot or something irritating your nasal lining. In some cases, “red mucus — or bloody scabs — can be due to blood from a nosebleed or bleeding from a polyp or even a tumor,” says Yanagisawa.

Black. You may be breathing in debris that is getting clogged in your nose. A lot of dust or cigarette smoke can also blacken the mucus. And while it’s rare, it can also be a sign of a yeast infection. If you have a weakened immune system, contact your doctor.

Knowing what mucus colors can mean can be helpful, but it depends on what’s normal for your body. So be careful, advises Yanagisawa. “Any discoloration or change in consistency that is abnormal for your body should be monitored closely, and if it persists, a call or visit to your doctor should be warranted.”

slime management

The key to dealing with slime is identifying its source. For example:

allergies or colds. This thin, clear, watery mucus can be treated with antihistamines. However, be careful if you have prostate disease. Nasal sprays containing steroids can also provide relief. If you have glaucoma, you need to be careful with both of these treatments.

Over-the-counter (OTC) decongestants can also help, but use caution when using them, says Yanagisawa. They can trigger palpitations or increase your heart rate. Meanwhile, decongestant nasal sprays like oxymetazoline (Afrin) can open up your nasal passages and help you breathe better for a while, but they won’t get rid of mucus. If you use a nasal decongestant for more than 3 days in a row, the congestion can come back and set off a cycle that is difficult to break. Likewise:

  • Prescription nasal antihistamines can help when OTC medications aren’t enough. However, the bitter taste may put some people off.
  • OTC expectorants that contain guaifenesin (Mucinex, Robitussin) help break up mucus in your chest and keep your airways moist.

“For children, there are a number of nasal aspirators that can be used to safely and effectively aspirate nasal discharge and mucus,” notes Yanagisaw.

Nose, sinus or throat infections. These typically trigger green or yellow mucus. “This is best treated with antibiotics when bacteria are the culprit,” he says.

If the mucus is from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), medications such as a histamine-2 receptor blocker like famotidine are the best treatment. A proton pump inhibitor such as omeprazole may also work. Cutting out certain foods, such as chocolate, spicy foods, citrus fruits, and drinks with caffeine or red wine, may also help.

Maintaining the health of the mucus

“Phum is normal and is vital to the proper functioning of our airways,” says Yanagisaw.

To get things right:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
  • Use nasal saline mists or sprays to maintain moisture.
  • In colder weather, try a humidifier and steam.
  • Flush out excess mucus and nasal secretions with a nasal and sinus irrigation device such as a neti pot.


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