What Causes Excess Mucus Production?
What is Mucus?
Mucus, informally referred to as snot, is a thick liquid that serves as a form of lubrication and hydration within the body.1 This substance is produced by cells known as goblet cells, which line the surface of all organs that become exposed to the outer environment, such as the trachea, reproductive organs, the nose and the upper eyelid.1,2,3
What does it do?
Mucus has different functions for various body parts; for example, mucus helps to keep the eyes moistened, and it consists of several different immune system proteins known as antibodies, which help to combat any bacteria in the air.3,4 Mucus acts as a barrier to certain particles, so they are unable to penetrate the mucosal tissues – these tissues are effectively situated in places where harmful microorganisms can enter the body.5,6
Is Mucus the Same as Phlegm?
Although both phlegm and mucus are made from the same components, phlegm is thicker and more sticky than mucus, since phlegm is mucus produced from the lungs.3 While phlegm and mucus have slightly different roles, the two substances work together to catch and discard the germs present when a person has a common cold or influenza.3 During illness the body produces excess mucus as there are more foreign microorganisms in the body.3
Causes of Excess Mucus Production
Acid reflux is the backwards flow of what the stomach consists of into a person’s throat or oesophagus.7 One type of reflux known as laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) occurs usually during the day and can cause symptoms of constant throat clearing, a chronic cough, finding it hard to swallow, hoarseness and a higher amount of throat mucus and postnasal drip.7,8 Cleveland Clinic informs us that postnasal drip is when there is a build-up of extra mucus, leading to the mucus dripping down the back of a person’s throat.9
Substances that induce an allergic reaction are called allergens.10 These allergens can lead to a condition called allergic rhinitis, which is when the nose becomes irritated and there is an increase in mucus production.10 The snot produced from the nose when triggered by allergies can also become thicker, and a person may see pale yellow mucus being produced.10 There are different types of allergic rhinitis; one which takes place seasonally is commonly referred to as hay fever, which is a reaction to pollen. Hay fever normally takes place in autumn and spring when pollen is in the air.10 Other symptoms of allergic rhinitis include a person’s eyes and nose becoming itchy, sneezing and a runny nose.10 As the common cold has similar symptoms, people can find it hard to differentiate whether they have a cold or are just experiencing an allergic response.10
Respiratory mucus plays a role in managing the body’s immune response, and mucus also displays molecules that can prevent pathogens from functioning.11 Bronchitis is a respiratory infection in which the patient coughs up thicker mucus than normal as the condition is caused by viruses that the immune system needs to eradicate.12 Other symptoms of bronchitis include thick mucus that may be discoloured or even contain streaks of blood, chest pain and coughing.12 While acute bronchitis may leave a person with a persistent cough for several weeks, chronic bronchitis is defined as having continuous episodes of bronchitis, and usually results in having to see a medical professional.12 Chronic bronchitis is a condition involved in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – lung conditions that make breathing harder.12,13
Catarrh is a build-up of mucus in the back of the throat, sinuses or the nose.14 This condition is normally developed in response to some irritants or infection, leading to the lining of the nose and throat becoming swollen.14 It can also result in a continuous cough, a sore throat and a runny nose.14 The sensation of built-up snot can be frustrating for some people as it can feel difficult to clear the mucus.14
Asthma is a condition that also negatively impacts respiratory health and the bronchi, causing them to become inflamed.15 When patients come across a substance that triggers their asthma, then the respiratory airways become narrow, and the level of phlegm produced is higher.15 Coughing up phlegm could be an indicator of worsening asthma if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as shortness of breath and wheezing.16
Effects of Excess Mucus Production
People who smoke resultantly can experience mucus becoming built-up in their bronchioles, which triggers the tissues and causes a person to cough.17 Continuous coughing to take away the build-up of phlegm may impact the bronchioles’ smooth muscle, which can become enlarged and consequently, even more mucus glands may form.17 A constant higher level of mucus can also put too much strain on the alveoli, which are tiny air sacs in the lungs, leading to their collapse.17 With some diseases, the mucus cannot be transported properly because it gets stuck, which can cause issues with breathing.17
Common colds, asthma and bronchitis are all examples of what can cause morning coughing.18 Since all these conditions lead to an excess of mucus production, phlegm that accumulates overnight will inevitably be coughed up the following morning.18,19 Even a regular amount of mucus may seem like an excess amount, as when a person wakes up in the morning with a dry mouth or throat, mucus production will soon return to normal after having decreased during the night.19 Postnasal drip during the night can also lead to continuous dry cough in the morning.19
What Can You Do About Excess Mucus Production?
Decongestants, as either an oral tablet or a nasal spray, are effective at decreasing swelling within the nose.20 Mucolytics are a type of medicine that allows you to cough up more phlegm as they lessen the thickness of the phlegm.21
Oxymetazoline is a nasal spray that aids in reducing swollen blood vessels in the nose.22 It is important to be careful when using this nasal spray, as it is one of the most addictive medications and can lead to people experiencing hallucinations and losing touch with reality.22 This nasal spray, which is a topical nasal decongestant, can congest the nose if it is used for a long period, which is also why it’s important to use the spray in moderation, as the medication will lose its effect if it has been made to cure congestion, and instead eventually ends up causing it again.22
Having a higher intake of water can aid with regulating normal mucus production and can also help with postnasal drip.20 A good marker of being hydrated to a decent level is if your urine is pale. Additionally, having a humidifier in the house can moisten the throat and nasal passage.20 Gargling with salt water can also calm down an irritated throat and remove mucus.20 Eucalyptus in different forms is beneficial as it can make the mucus in a person’s chest looser.20
When to See a Doctor
If your cough or your child’s cough is still lingering over a few weeks, then it may be time to get in touch with a doctor.23 If you have a fever or have fainted, then it is important to contact a doctor soon.23 It is crucial to get emergency care if you or your child are finding it hard to breathe or swallow, your chest is hurting, or you are choking or vomiting.23
Ultimately, excessive mucus production can be caused by several reasons, and the best course of action would be to visit a medical professional and find the root of the cause if conditions like postnasal drip and persistent coughing are affecting your daily life, and you cannot determine the underlying cause. Idealizing your home so it is free of anything that might trigger the conditions which cause excessive mucus is also a good idea, as having a good night’s sleep is important for many other reasons apart from alleviating excessive mucus production in the morning.
Dressing suitably in the winter and taking appropriate precautions against infection will all play a part in soothing your respiratory system. Remember to be careful when selecting which type of medication is best for you, and consult with others if needed, as commonly known side effects of some medications may be mentally challenging to deal with.
- Rama Bansil, Bradley S. Turner, The biology of mucus: Composition, synthesis and organization, Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, Volume 124, 2018; Cited Jul 2022. Pages 3-15, Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addr.2017.09.023.
- Physiopedia. Goblet Cells [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.physio-pedia.com/Goblet_Cells
- Science News for Students. Explainer: The benefits of phlegm, mucus and snot [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/explainer-benefits-phlegm-mucus-and-snot
- Prospan Arabia. What Is The Difference Between Mucus and Phlegm?[Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://prospanarabia.com/what-is-the-difference-between-mucus-and-phlegm/
- Leal J, Smyth HDC, Ghosh D. Physicochemical properties of mucus and their impact on transmucosal drug delivery. Int J Pharm. 2017 Oct; Cited Jul 2022. 30;532(1):555-572. Available from: doi: 10.1016/j.ijpharm.2017.09.018.
- C.J. Field, INFECTION, FEVER, AND NUTRITION, Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition), Academic Press, 2003; Cited Jul 2022 Pages 3307-3315. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-12-227055-X/00635-0.
- ENT and Allergy Association. Reflux [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.entandallergy.com/service/vas/reflux
- Yılmaz T, Bajin MD, Günaydın RÖ, Ozer S, Sözen T. Laryngopharyngeal reflux and Helicobacter pylori. World J Gastroenterol. 2014 Jul; Cited Jul 2022. 21;20(27):8964-70. Available from: doi: 10.3748/wjg.v20.i27.8964.
- Cleveland Clinic. Postnasal Drip: Symptoms and Causes [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/23082-postnasal-drip
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Rhinitis, Nasal Allergy, Hayfever [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.aafa.org/rhinitis-nasal-allergy-hayfever/
- Zanin M, Baviskar P, Webster R, Webby R. The Interaction between Respiratory Pathogens and Mucus. Cell Host Microbe. 2016 Feb; Cited Jul 2022. 10;19(2):159-68. Available from: doi: 10.1016/j.chom.2016.01.001.
- Mayoclinic. Bronchitis [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bronchitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20355566
- NHS. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease-copd/
- NHS. Catarrh [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/catarrh/
- NHS Inform. Asthma symptoms and treatments - Illnesses and conditions [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/lungs-and-airways/asthma
- Asthma UK. Phlegm, mucus and asthma [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/understanding-asthma/symptoms/phlegm-mucus-and-asthma/
- Nursing Times. The physiology of mucus and sputum production in the respiratory system [Internet]. Jun 2003; cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.nursingtimes.net/clinical-archive/respiratory-clinical-archive/the-physiology-of-mucus-and-sputum-production-in-the-respiratory-system-10-06-2003/
- Pain Assist. Morning Cough: 8 Common Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.epainassist.com/chest-pain/lungs/morning-cough
- Hyfe Blog. Morning Cough: 7 Common Causes and How To Treat Them[Internet]. Apr 2022; cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://blog.hyfeapp.com/morning-cough/
- Cleveland Clinic. Phlegm and Mucus: How To Get Rid of It [Internet]. May 2022; cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/mucus-and-phlegm-what-to-do-if-you-have-too-much/
- NHS. Carbocisteine [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/medicines/carbocisteine/
- 12 Keys. Nasal Spray Addiction Treatment [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.12keysrehab.com/help-center/nasal-spray-addiction-treatment/
- Mayoclinic. Cough When to see a doctor [Internet]. Cited Jul 2022. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/cough/basics/when-to-see-doctor/sym-20050846