I am sure most of you would have coughed once in a while to find a gooey and sticky substance coming out of your mouth it is kind of disgusting, isn’t it? Well, this stuff has a name phlegm. When our throats produce phlegm, it isn't generally a good feeling but, at the same time, it could be an indication of something more severe. So, in this article, we cover all that there is to know about phlegm what is it, why it is sometimes overproduced, how to get rid of it, and when should you see a doctor?
What is phlegm?
Normally, some mucus is produced by the cells in the upper respiratory tract and lungs. This mucus is used by the body to trap dust, irritants, germs, and other particles. But when there is an overproduction, often due to inflammation or infection, then we see a type of thick mucus it is called phlegm.1
An interesting fact is that different phlegm colors can indicate different things:2
This is normal and just shows that your nasal passages and blocked and your airways may be inflamed which causes the phlegm in the upper respiratory tract to become thick and white.
This is an indication that your body is currently fighting against a mildinfection. This is caused due to the white blood cells (immune system cells that help the body fight infections) getting trapped in mucus giving it a yellowish tinge.
Green phlegm or mucus usually shows that the body is in the process of fighting a serious infection.
This is a very severe warning sign and could be due to blood in your mucus. Furthermore, it could indicate that you might have a disease like tuberculosis or pulmonary embolism. If you notice red phlegm or mucus, consider it an emergency and get yourself checked out by your physician.
This could also be something to be cautious about as this stage before red phlegm. It would be best to check with your healthcare practitioner as soon as possible.
This is extremely serious and calls for immediate action as it might indicate a fungal infection. It is pertinent that you go to or consult your doctor immediately and more so if you’re immunocompromised
Causes for the overproduction of phlegm
Infections such as bronchitis, sinusitis, or pneumonia and diseases such as COPD, cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, or asthma can cause the production of phlegm production, but it can also be stimulated by environmental allergies.3
More phlegm can be produced due to an increase in nasal secretions. For example in the case of an allergic reaction, excess nasal secretions can overflow into the throat causing too much phlegm. Acid reflux is another propelling factor for increased phlegm production. This often happens when the contents in the stomach which are acidic in nature flow back into the throat. 3
Excess mucus in the airways is referred to as Catarrh and can lead to many symptoms that include:4
- A constant feeling that your throat is blocked and that you need to clear it
- Blocked or runny nose
- Persistent cough and/ or throat irritation and burning
Ways to get rid of phlegm in the throat
Home remedies are always the simplest things to try out when you need to get out of a mild illness. For excess phlegm build-up, it might be useful to do these things:4
- Staying away from allergens and irritants
- Instead of regularly clearing your throat, try taking sips of cold water instead
- Saline nasal rinses are especially useful- you can either buy them from the pharmacy or make it at home using half a teaspoon of salt and approximately 550 mL of water
- Avoid dry, warm, and humid environments
- Drink plenty of water
While home remedies can be very useful, in some cases you might need to use medications to get better. Medications for catarrh can be of two types:
Take over-the-counter medicines
- Decongestants are an excellent form of mediation for the removal of excess phlegm. They come in multiple forms be it nasal sprays, drops, tablets, syrups, or flavored powders. A prominent example is Sudafed
- Anti-histamines are great symptom relievers too but depending on which type you take they can make you feel sleepy and drowsy. There are some that can make you sleepy like chlorphenamine, cinnarizine, diphenhydramine, etc. The “non-sleepy” ones are acrivastine cetirizine, fexofenadine, etc
- Steroids are anti-inflammatory medications that come in many forms: inhalers, nasal sprays, injections, creams, etc
A potent example of a prescribed medication that would help clear phlegm is Carbocisteine. This is a type of mucolytic and helps you expel the phlegm by making it less thick and sticky. It is only possible to obtain the medicine by prescription and comes in the form of capsules, syrup, or liquid.5
When to see a doctor?
You should see a doctor if you have tried the above remedies and medications, but the situation still doesn't get resolved this might indicate a more serious underlying issue
To summarize, phlegm is, primarily, a thickened version of mucus that normally arises due to issues in the upper respiratory tract. Different phlegm colors can indicate different levels of disease severity, so it is important to pay attention to the color of your phlegm. Finally, home remedies may be enough to get rid of excess phlegm but in case it's persistent you should see your doctor and seek advice on the use of over-the-counter medications and prescription medicines to treat the issue at hand.
- https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/phlegm [Internet]. www.cancer.gov. 2011 [cited 2022 Oct 2]. Available from: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/phlegm
- Yellow, red, green. What color is your phlegm? [Internet]. www.geisinger.org. Available from: https://www.geisinger.org/health-and-wellness/wellness-articles/2017/09/11/20/37/yellow-red-green-what-color-is-your-phlegm
- Phlegm [Internet]. Voice and Swallowing Doctor | Sunil Verma, M.D. 2016 [cited 2022 Oct 2]. Available from: https://throatdisorder.com/throat-disorders/phlegm/
- Catarrh [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2017. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/catarrh/
- NHS. Carbocisteine: medicine used for treating people with COPD and cystic fibrosis [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/medicines/carbocisteine/