Does Coughing Up Phlegm Mean You Are Getting Better


Is the weather too cold? Is your chest stuffy enough to keep you home, coughing all day with no idea if you’re getting better? We’ve all been there, and you’ve come to the right place for answers. The coughing reflex is an important defense mechanism imperative for keeping the airways and alveoli clear and healthy.1 It prevents the entry of harmful substances into the tracheobronchial tree and expels mucus or secretions.2 Coughs can either be a sign of an underlying problem or a good sign that you’re ridding your respiratory tract of waste, especially when phlegm is coughed up.

What is phlegm? (Brief)

Phlegm is Mucus in the setting of an infection or chronic health condition. It is a mixture of saliva and mucus coughed up from the respiratory tract. Phlegm isn’t usually a cause for concern, it’s the body’s vehicle for bad things when it’s trying to clean itself up.

The build-up of mucus is caused by bacteria that land on the mucus-lined surface of the lungs and are consequently trapped. However, there is always a certain amount of mucus ready to defend your body.

The severity, amount, and colour of phlegm all depend on how bad the infection is, or how much bacteria, viruses, or dust you gather through respiration. In addition, infections can cause inflammation to the mucus membranes that line your nose and your airways, subsequently causing the airway glands to produce more mucus.3

Is coughing up phlegm related to other diseases?

It’s normal to cough out phlegm in the event of a common cold, but it is a very valid determinant of diseases as well. The closer the pigment of your phlegm comes to brown, the higher your chances of having a serious illness.

Simply put, it might be related to other diseases depending on underlying conditions. The colour of your phlegm usually paints a picture of what you might be experiencing, and certain pigments might permit you to seek immediate attention from your doctor.

The colour of phlegm and its meaning

Phlegm coughed up can present in a variety of colours and textures, each a symptom of a different thing. The colour at which phlegm presents itself can be a useful indication of the condition within your lungs and other respiratory organs.4

  • Clear

Clear-coloured sputum is considered normal. An excess, however, indicates the possibility of pulmonary oedema, asthma, viral respiratory tract infections, or chronic bronchitis.5

  • Yellow

Yellow Sputum most often presents chronic inflammation, allergies, and infectious diseases. The yellowish colour comes from the presence of white blood cells such as neutrophils and eosinophils. This particular colour can indicate things like asthma, acute bronchitis, and acute pneumonia.5

  • Green

Green Mucus may indicate either a chronic infection or a chronic non-infectious inflammatory disease depending on whether the texture is purulent, which is thicker and slightly thicker or opaque, or mucoid, which may present itself as clear, white, and frothy, respectively.5 Its green colour is derived from the breakdown of neutrophils and the enzymatic release that is present within them. Green Mucus may be an indication of bronchiectasis and cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, lung abscess, or chronic bronchitis.5

  • Pink or Rusty (Red)

Red Sputum is concerning; it is an indication of blood, which can completely alter the colour of the sputum or appear part of it in streaks or spots. Blood present in your sputum may be a sign of pneumococcal pneumonia, tuberculosis, pulmonary embolism, pulmonary oedema, or Klebsiella pneumonia.5 However, it can also be a sign of a wounded throat or any bleeding wound that may have come from the irritation caused by coughing and is worth seeing a doctor for.

  • Brown or Black

This colour is particularly even more concerning, as the brown or black pigment is evidence of “old blood” that results from the disintegration of erythrocytes. It may be evidence of chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, chronic pneumonia, tuberculosis, or amoebic liver abscess [5]. This needs urgent medical attention from your doctor.

Am I getting better when coughing up phlegm?

As a vehicle for nearly all the dirt, debris, bacteria, and viruses, coughing out phlegm is a good sign that your body is clearing itself out of any foreign pathogens. So essentially, you are getting better when you cough out and rid yourself of phlegm, and this is true for every case.

From a larger perspective, needing to cough out phlegm means that your body is in the works of defending itself, and you guessed it, you are either currently infected or have a more serious underlying condition.

How long does coughing last?

Coughing is triggered when cough receptors in numerous parts of the body are stimulated.2 The duration of coughing one might experience depends on the severity of the underlying issue, a cough is classified as acute if it lasts no more than 2 to 3 weeks, or chronic if it has lasted 3 weeks or more.6

Coughing itself can also become a chronic condition, particularly last 8 weeks or longer.7

It is highly advised to record the pigment of your coughed-up phlegm no matter the duration of your cough; it might come in handy to your medical professional who is attempting to diagnose you.

Ways to manage coughs

Home remedies

  • Consume honey

Taking honey with a hot glass of tea might just help you feel better. The World Health Organization, with little evidence to support its use for coughs with upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs), has considered honey a potential treatment for coughs.8 In a systematic review and meta-analysis of 1345 unique records and 14 studies, it was concluded that honey, combined with usual care, improved combined symptoms of URTIs. Honey played the role in the slowing of microbial agents, but placebo trials on syrup were still needed.9

A randomised study by Nishimura et. al8 concluded that honey improved nocturnal coughs and difficulties in sleeping in their two-day study of 161 patients. It also showed that honey did no better than placebo syrup.

  • Stimulate your saliva with lozenges or hard candies

There are many ways to stimulate your saliva in an attempt to alleviate a dry cough. Consuming lozenges and hard candies are two of the best ways you can do that. However, there is no scientific evidence for herbal lozenges that contain zinc, vitamin C, and echinacea, apart from very few benefits, and a potential placebo effect.10

  • Hydrate yourself

Drinking fluids helps wash down your throat and hydrate your body. In times of coughs, you might want to drink warm fluids more. Things like tea, soup, or just regular hot water will do wonders for your throat and your cough.10 A study by Zanasi & Dal Negro11 found that there is a clear relationship between coughing and hydration.

Hydration is extremely important in maintaining a healthy immune system, which will inevitably fight the good fight. So, drink fluids regularly, and maintain a healthy level of hydration.

  • Gargle with salt

A clinical study has proven that simply gargling salt is an effective way to prevent URTIs among healthy people [12]. Another study showed that gargling salt with warm water showed some benefits in improving cold symptoms and reducing the duration of coughs.13


A cough that is heavy with phlegm is called a chesty cough, which is congestion in your upper airways and is dealt with differently to dry coughs. Since coughing is a symptom and an immune mechanism, it is not treated directly, and your doctor will most likely find a pathological diagnosis of a disease and treat that instead.

Dealing with chesty coughs, on the other hand, is rather straightforward. Chesty cough mixtures from brands like Benylin, Covonia, and Robitussin are the best in 2022,14 but if your particular case is serious based on the duration of your cough, darker-coloured phlegm, or any other symptoms, it is best to seek professional advice from your doctor.


Coughing up phlegm is a sign that your body is fighting off an infection, and it’s taking a bulk load of the pathogens out through this mixture of saliva and mucus. It’s generally a good thing to cough out phlegm, but the phlegm in itself is a determinant of disease, and through its colour and texture, one can find a deeper underlying issue.

There are many ways you can alleviate coughing. A cough from a common cold can be remedied at home through a number of things, but a serious case with dark-coloured phlegm and a chronic cough might need the immediate attention of your doctor.


  1. Shah, M. D., & Shah, S. M. (2001). The applied physiology of cough. Indian journal of pediatrics, 68 Suppl 2, S3–S10.
  2. Amos L. B. (2018). Cough. Nelson Pediatric Symptom-Based Diagnosis, 15–38.e1.
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, September 1). Marvels of mucus and phlegm. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved December 22, 2022, from
  4. Galan, N. (2022, June 1). Phlegm colors and textures, treatment, and when to seek care. Medical News Today. Retrieved December 23, 2022, from
  5. Mayer, L., & Bhikha, R. (2014). Changes in Colours of the Body–the Determinants of Disease. skin, 1, 270.
  6. MedlinePlus (Internet). (2020, April 17). Cough | chronic cough | acute cough. MedlinePlus. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from,than%202%20to%203%20weeks.
  7. Weinberger, S. E. (2022, October 19). Patient education: Chronic cough in adults (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from,problem%2C%20it%20can%20be%20annoying. 
  8. Nishimura, T., Muta, H., Hosaka, T., Ueda, M., Kishida, K., & Honey and Coughs Study Group of the Society of Ambulatory and General Paediatrics of Japan (2022). Multicentre, randomised study found that honey had no pharmacological effect on nocturnal coughs and sleep quality at 1-5 years of age. Acta paediatrica (Oslo, Norway : 1992), 111(11), 2157–2164.
  9. Abuelgasim, H., Albury, C., & Lee, J. (2021). Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ evidence-based medicine, 26(2), 57–64.
  10. Vann, M. R. (2020, May 18). 7 home remedies to get rid of a cough. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from 
  11. Zanasi, A., & Dal Negro, R. W. (2022). Coughing Can Be Modulated by the Hydration Status in Adolescents with Asthma. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 9(4), 577.
  12. Satomura, K., Kitamura, T., Kawamura, T., Shimbo, T., Watanabe, M., Kamei, M., Takano, Y., Tamakoshi, A., & Great Cold Investigators-I (2005). Prevention of upper respiratory tract infections by gargling: a randomized trial. American journal of preventive medicine, 29(4), 302–307.
  13. Ramalingam, S., Graham, C., Dove, J. et al. A pilot, open labelled, randomised controlled trial of hypertonic saline nasal irrigation and gargling for the common cold. Sci Rep 9, 1015 (2019).
  14. Ghelani, R. (2022, February 14). How to stop coughing: The best cough remedies. Netdoctor. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Ivan Bernardo

Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Sciences (Hons.) - BSc, University of Chester, England

I am a Published Contributing Writer for HealthCare.PH with a strong domain knowledge in the Life Sciences. I received an award from the University of Chester's Medical School for my dissertation related to Estrogen, with a foundation in endocrinology.

I'm experienced in corporate diversity work, international translation and transcription, the service industry, and medical or health communications/writing.

I am currently taking an online Astronomy course under distinguished Professor Chris Impey at the University of Stanford in a venture to be an all-around scientific mind. presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
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