Do you wonder about mucus colors and what they mean? Are these symptoms of a more serious illness? How can you get rid of mucus? This article will talk about mucus from the nose, throat, and lungs, including the different mucus colors and their treatments (if needed).
But before we go to that, it’s worth thinking why our bodies produce mucus to begin with.
- 1 What You Need to Know About Mucus
- 2 Different Mucus Colors and their Meaning?
What You Need to Know About Mucus
The first thing you need to know is it’s completely normal. Everyone has this slimy stuff, even those who are healthy. In fact, most people produce enough mucus to fill a teakettle, or around 1 to 1.5 liters daily.  It lines the wet surfaces of different areas of the body, like the mouth, nose, sinuses, throat, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and reproductive tract, among others.
Mucus has different names depending on where in your body it’s produced. Here are 4 common terms used to refer to mucus in the nose, sinuses, throat, and lungs:
- Snot – the mucus that comes out of your nose and sinuses.
- Postnasal drip – the mucus that drains from your nose to the back of your throat.
- Phlegm – the mucus that’s secreted by your lower airways, excluding your nasal passages. This usually accompanies an upper respiratory infection, like a cold or flu.
- Sputum – This is what you call mucus once you cough it up. Sputum, which comes from the lungs, contains pus, blood, and/or microbes (bacteria, viruses, and fungi).
What are the different important functions of mucus? There are three:
It prevents your upper and lower airways from drying up
Mucus warms, cleans, and moistens the air you inhale to ensure your airways work properly. Dryness could cause different discomforts, bleeding, and changes in the consistency and amount of the mucus. This happens due to:
- Dry environment: A dry environment means that a location has minimal precipitation (which includes rain, hail, and drizzle) and a humidity level that falls below 40%. This type of environment stops your airway tract to moisturize the air you inhale, which in turn causes dryness and irritation. This impairs its ability to filter foreign materials that goes into your nose with the inhaled air.
- Medicines: Examples of these medicines are antihistamines (Allegra D), pain relievers for migraine or headache relief (Excedrin), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (Aleve), and motion sickness medication (Avomine).
- Nasal decongestant spray overuse: Nasal sprays are normally effective in easing a stuffy nose. However, if you use them for more than three or five days, they could cause rebound congestion. This causes you to keep using these sprays, which in turn leads to further dryness and nasal blockage.
- Sjögren’s syndrome: One of the common symptoms of this autoimmune disease is dryness of the eyes, mouth, and other body parts. In Sjögren’s syndrome, a person’s antibodies, which kill invading microbes, attack the salivary and tear glands, preventing them from producing the normal amounts of secretions.
- Not drinking enough fluids: Insufficient fluid intake, or dehydration, could cause dryness of the skin, mouth, throat, and nose. To ensure you stay hydrated, drink at least 2.2 liters (9 cups) of water or other fluids daily. 
It traps air irritants and small organisms
Mucus works similarly to flypaper. It filters and captures allergens (dust and pollen), microbes (fungi, viruses, and bacteria), chemicals (silica), and other small particles that might irritate and damage your respiratory tract, specifically your lungs.
The cells that produce mucus are called goblet cells. According to a study published in the European Respiration Journal, goblet cells produce mucins that are responsible for capturing and transporting inhaled particles.  Mucins are a type of carbohydrate proteins (glycoproteins) that lubricate or protect the external and internal surfaces of the body.
It protects your airways from infection-causing microbes
Mucus is your body’s natural “air purification system,” specifically designed to guard the delicate tissues of your nose, sinuses, throat, lungs, and mouth from microscopic, infection-causing microbes.
Here’s how it works:
- When you inhale through your nose, the sticky mucus traps bacteria, dust particles, and other irritating substances.
- But it’s more than just a sticky and thick substance. It also contains antibodies (also known as immunoglobulins) that help your immune system to detect and attack invaders (like bacteria, fungi, and viruses) before they can cause an infection.
- The mucus also becomes watery and increases in amount.
- It’s the work of your cilia, the tiny hair-like projections that line your respiratory tract, to sweep the dead cells, microbes, allergens, and other particles down the throat, where they’re either coughed up or swallowed into your stomach for recycling or excreted in your feces.
Different Mucus Colors and their Meaning?
Most doctors don’t depend on the color of a snot or phlegm to diagnose a disease. According to Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the consistency and color won’t tell if an infection is viral or bacterial, or if there’s an infection at all. In the case of seasonal allergies, for instance, the color and consistency of the mucus could change even when there’s no infection. 
However, doctors usually use the color of mucus to predict the duration of symptoms of common respiratory infections. It also tells them that your immune system is doing its job in clearing irritants, allergens, and infectious agents that you inhale. 
So, what is the meaning of your snot or phlegm color? And how do you get rid of it?
Most healthy people have clear mucus. It’s normal—if it doesn’t come with other symptoms, such as excessive mucus. Clear mucus is composed of water (95%), blood proteins, glycoproteins (also called mucins), salts, and lipids (fats). 
But, there are respiratory illnesses that may cause clear mucus. Take non-allergic rhinitis with nasal eosinophilia syndrome (NARES) as an example. NARES shows symptoms that are consistent with allergic rhinitis, but it’s not due to allergens. This condition is a type of non-allergic rhinitis that affects approximately 7% (and more) of adults. 
The main cause of non-allergic rhinitis with nasal eosinophilia syndrome is still unknown. However, there are things that might trigger it, such as the following:
- Changes in hormone levels
- Exposure to environmental irritants, such as cigarette smoke, smog, and exhaust fumes
- Deviated or crooked septum (the thin wall that divides your nasal passages into half) and other deformities of the nose
- Nasal spray overuse
- Certain medications, such as beta-blockers (for high blood pressure), aspirin, and ibuprofen
- Effect of drinking alcoholic beverages
One of the symptoms of NARES is a clear and watery discharge that’s excessive in amount. It may also cause nose congestion, sneezing, and postnasal drip. Patients with this condition usually have negative skin prick test, although the nasal discharge contains eosinophils, which play a significant role in allergies and asthma.
Your doctor may diagnose you with non-allergic rhinitis if the symptoms mentioned above are present and laboratory tests are unable to suggest an obvious cause, such as an allergy.
To distinguish it from an allergic rhinitis, your doctor may suggest the following laboratory tests :
Skin Puncture Test
In a skin puncture test, also called skin prick test or scratch test, a healthcare provider will prick your skin and expose it to as much as 40 substances at once. The test site in adults is on the forearm, while it’s on the upper portion of the back for children.
What to expect:
- Generally, a nurse will perform the skin puncture test and the doctor interprets the results. A trained allergist can do both.
- After disinfecting the site (forearm or upper back), the nurse will create a series of marks on the patient’s skin then places a drop of the allergen solutions next to each mark. Next is he or she pierces the skin using a small lancet, allowing the allergen to be exposed to the body’s antibodies.
- The patient will wait for 15 minutes for an allergic reaction. It’s positive if the mark (or marks) becomes red and itchy.
- It may hurt a little, but in general, it’s painless. There’s hardly any bleeding because the lancet doesn’t penetrate deep into your skin’s surface.
Blood tests measure the amount of specific antibodies (immunoglobulin E) that trigger allergy symptoms. With blood testing, it might take several days before the result comes out.
What to expect:
- Blood tests don’t determine the severity of an allergy. But, doctors carry this test to know if a patient is experiencing an allergy attack.
- Diagnostic laboratories use different blood test brands. Thus, the test results may not be the same because of the differences in the brands’ scoring systems.
How to Get Rid of It
As mentioned, it’s the normal mucus color, so you don’t have to seek medical treatment. If you think you have non-allergic rhinitis, ask your doctor how you can manage its symptoms. In the case of non-allergic rhinitis with eosinophilia syndrome (NARES), your doctor may reduce the swelling and mucus by prescribing anti-allergy meds and/or leukotriene-receptor antagonists (drugs that prevent airway inflammation). 
Here are other ways to control the symptoms of non-allergic rhinitis:
- Stay away from triggers.
Mild cases of non-allergic rhinitis will usually benefit from this measure. As much as possible, avoid spicy and/or hot foods and alcoholic beverages (wine and beer). NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), birth control pills, high blod pressure meds, antidepressants, erectile dysfunction meds (Viagra and Cialis), and tranquilizers are just some of the meds that could trigger non-allergic rhinitis.
- Take oral decongestants.
Decongestants ease nasal congestion caused by allergies and upper respiratory infections (flu, colds, and sinusitis) by shrinking the inflamed membranes of the nose. Examples of oral decongestants are phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine and Afrin) and pseudoephedrine (Sinutab, Sudafed, and Afrinol).
- Use nasal sprays to reduce inflammation and mucus.
If oral decongestants don’t work, your doctor may prescribe antihistamine nasal sprays that provide short-term relief from nasal congestion, sneezing, itching, and runny nose. Examples of prescription antihistamine nasal sprays are olopatadine hydrochloride (Patanase) and azelastine (Astepro, Astelin, and Astelin Ready-Spray). If those still don’t provide relief, another option is over-the-counter corticosteroid nasal sprays, such as triamcinolone (Nasacort) and fluticasone (Flonase).
- Wash out mucus and allergens through nasal irrigation.
Nasal irrigation, also called nasal douche, helps people with sinus problems or allergies to manage their symptoms. It’s supposed to thin out nasal mucus and help the body to flush out irritating and infectious agents from the nose and sinus passages. If used in moderation, people with non-allergic rhinitis may greatly benefit from it.
Here’s how you do nasal irrigation:
- Lean over toward the sink and tilt your head sideways (around 45 degrees downward), so the squeeze bottle, syring bulb, or neti pot is on the top.
- Close your left or right nostril.
- Place the tip of the syringe bulb or squeeze bottle or the spout of a neti pot in your nose. Remember: The spout or tip shouldn’t go inside your nose for more than one finger’s width (around 2.22 cms).
- While keeping your mouth open, pour the saline solution to let it through your nasal passages then drain it out of your nostril or mouth. Don’t swallow it. But if you accidentally swallow some of the solution, it won’t hurt you.
- If you plan to make your own saline solution for nasal irrigation, make sure to use freshly boiled, sterile, or distilled water to prevent infection.
White mucus is uncommon, and it could mean different things. In most cases, it could signal the beginning of an infection, specifically a cold, dehydration, or allergy.
The inflammation damages your nose hair cells (cilia). This causes swelling inside your nasal passages, thus preventing proper mucus flow and causing your airway to lose moisture. The dryness could change the consistency and color of your nasal mucus, which becomes thick and cloudy (or white). 
Other possible causes:
- Acid reflux – The stomach acid that backs up from your stomach and esophagus (food pipe) reacts with the nasal mucus that’s at the back of your throat. This results to its foamy and white appearance.
- Allergies – Thick and white nasal mucus might indicate inflammation of some sort. When you have an allergy, your body reacts by releasing antibodies, which in turn triggers inflammation.
- Dairy products – Dairy products don’t directly cause white mucus. However, the fat in dairy products causes mucus to become stickier and thicker, which makes it more difficult to expel. The longer it stays in the body, the more it becomes thicker and more densed, which makes it appear whiter. Study shows that A1 milk, which is common in cow’s milk in Europe, triggers increased mucus production in the respiratory tract. 
How to Get Rid of It
- Drink enough liquids every day.
Getting enough fluids, especially when you have any upper respiratory tract infection (cold, sinusitis, or flu), will help you avoid dehydration. And in theory, fluids help in thinning and loosening mucus in the airways. Hot liquids, like chicken soup and warm water, are especially more helpful in breaking down and expeling mucus. 
How much is enough? It depends on your age, gender, activities, and health status. Aim for 2.2 liters of liquids per day if you’re a female. If you’re a man, aim for 3 liters.
- Keep the nasal passages moist by using saline spray.
Nasal sprays are salt solutions that provide relief for dry and irritated nasal passages caused by overuse of intranasal decongestants, dry air, allergies, and upper respiratory infections. Since it doesn’t contain medications, you can use them as often as you need.
- If you’re using two nasal sprays, don’t use them simultaneously. Wait for at least 2 minutes between sprays.
- Make sure to clean the tip of nasal spray bottle with hot water and clean tissue to avoid contamination.
Yellow mucus could mean that your body is under attack by a pathogen (virus, bacterium, or other disease-causing microorganism). To protect itself, the body responds by sending white blood cells to the site to kill off the pathogenic invader. After they finish the job, the body gets rid of them with your mucus, and during the process, give it a yellow tinge.
According to Zocdoc.com, dark yellow mucus might mean you have a sinus infection. If it’s pale yellow, it could be due to dry air, allergy, or polyps. Thick yellow mucus might mean you have a cold.
Coughing up yellow mucus may also indicate a bacterial or viral bronchitis (inflammation of the tubes that carry air to and from your lungs), pneumonia, or lung cancer. Aside from being yellow in color, chronic bronchitis may produce thick mucus that could block the airways. People with pneumonia may produce more yellow, sticky mucus than those suffering from bronchitis.
Yellow mucus doesn’t necessarily mean you need to take antibiotics. The best thing to do is to wait and see if there are improvements in your mucus color or consistency within one to two weeks. If after two weeks you don’t see improvements, contact your family doctor or ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor.
Yellow mucus that persists for many days could progress into rhinitis. It could also cause the sensitive tissues of your nasal passages to become susceptible to the attack of bacteria and viruses.
How to Get Rid of It
To treat yellow mucus, the first goal is to identify the exact cause. You don’t have to do this yourself. Schedule a visit to your family doctor or ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor, who will determine the cause of your yellow-tinged snot or phlegm before giving the appropriate treatments (if necessary).
The second goal is to ease the symptoms, which you can do through certain medications and natural remedies. Your doctor may recommend that you take antibiotics (if your symptoms last 10 or 14 days), antihistamines, decongestants, and medications for reducing the inflammation. 
Here are a few ways to relieve the symptoms that come with the condition:
- Get extra rest, especially when you’re not feeling well. Sleep or de-stressing will allow your body to fight off the infection that’s making you sick.
- Drink the recommended amount of liquids each day. Dehydration promotes dry respiratory tract, causing increased production of mucus.
- To loosen congestion, you could also use a humdifier or vaporizer to add moisture to the air you breathe.
- Have hot (non-scalding) showers or breathe in steam to loosen yellow phlegm or snot.
- Take sips of warm or lukewarm drinks. They’ll help open up congested sinuses and loosen thick mucus, so they’re easier to cough up or sneeze out.
- Perform regular nasal saline irrigation to get rid of irritants inside your nose and to ease congestion.
Contrary to popular belief, bacteria don’t cause mucus to turn green. For instance, when sinusitis-causing bacteria enter your nasal passages, your body sends white blood cells to the area to repel these invaders. These white blood cells produce an enzyme called myeloperoxidase, which is responsible for its green color. 
Bottom line: Green mucus is not due to bacteria.
Green mucus also means that your immune system is fighting so hard to kill these disease-causing organisms. The more of these cells are present in the area, the greener or the more yellow the phlegm or snot will be.
If your mucus remains green for more than 12 days and other symptoms appear (fever and nausea), schedule a visit to your doctor. Persistent green mucus might suggest that you have sinusitis, pneumonia, or bronchitis.
How to Get Rid of It
Finding out the root cause is important to determine the appropriate treatment. According to a research published in the European Respiratory Journal, researchers discovered that doctors often prescribe antibiotics to patients with green or yellow snot unnecessarily. 
Green mucus could be a symptom of a bacterial infection. However, even if the cause is bacteria, Dr. Michael Tam says that you’re better off not taking a course of antibiotics, unless the infection is serious.  Prescription antibiotics will not help improve symptoms of acute respiratory infections, like the common cold and cough. What’s more, they have adverse effects. 
Once the upper or lower respiratory infection clears up, the production of green or yellow mucus will most likely stop. To manage the symptoms, there are many over-the-counter medications and natural remedies you can use. Go to your doctor immediately if you experience breathing difficulty, extreme drowsiness, confusion, chest pain, blood-tinged mucus, and rapid breathing.
Red or Pink Mucus
The red or pink hue in your sputum or snot could be blood from damaged blood vessels. The inside of your nose, specifically the anterior portion of the nasal septum, is a common site of nose bleeding because it has a rich supply of blood vessels. These blood vessels could rupture and bleed due to congestion, blowing the nose too hard, nose picking, infection (sinusitis), allergies, and loss of moisture.
There are many reasons why someone coughs up blood-tinged sputum. The most likely culprit is an airway or lung infection, such as acute bronchitis and pneumonia. Other possible causes are tuberculosis, pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung artery), parasitic infection, chest trauma, and cancer.
How to Get Rid of It
- Treatment depends on the cause and associated symptoms. If you’re coughing up or sneezing out excessive amounts of red or pink mucus, see your doctor quickly.
- Avoid picking your nose because it might scrape or cut the inside of your nose.
- If you need to blow your nose, make sure to press one of your nostrils then blow your nose gently into a tissue.
- Use decongestants (oral or spray) to clear your nose of irritants and infection-causing microorganisms and to relieve swelling and pain.
- You could inhale steam or use a humidifier or vaporizer to relieve congestion and keep your airway moist.
- Saltwater rinses could also help clear your nasal passages, restore moisture, and ease inflammation. You could buy them without prescription or make one yourself at home. Just mix 240 mL of distilled water or boiled tap water. Once it cools down, add 2.5 g salt and 2.5 g baking soda to the water. Mix thoroughly until the salt and baking soda has dissolved.
Brown or Black Mucus
Coalmine workers and smokers may have black mucus. Sometimes, black mucus indicates a serious fungal infection. For instance, some diabetics may have dark black phlegm or snot due to mucormycosis, which is a life-threatening fungal infection that could lead to the destruction of soft tissues. If you have black mucus and you’re a diabetic, you should see your doctor immediately.
On the other hand, brown mucus from the nose might be due to dried blood, cigarette smoke and chemicals (like tar and resins), dust, heavy air pollution, and other environmental irritants. Brown phlegm could be a symptom of bronchitis, so you should see your doctor if you have it.
Brown mucus tends to be worse among chronic smokers who are trying to quit. This happens because the microscopic hair cells in the lungs try to get rid of the mucus that has accumulated throughout the years.
Other chronic lower respiratory problems that produce dark-colored mucus include:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Lung cancer
- Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis (CWP)
How to Get Rid of It
- If your snot or mucus is dark brown or black, or stained with blood for no obvious reason, it’s always a good idea to see your doctor as soon as possible. He or she will carry out more thorough and precise laboratory tests to help him or her determine the exact cause and to prescribe the proper treatments.
- Quit smoking. Smoking could damage your lung’s mucus lining because of the different chemicals in cigarette. After you quit, it’s normal to cough up black mucus (or other mucus colors) for a few days or weeks.
- Eliminate some foods, drinks, and dietary supplements that cause excessive and dark-colored mucus in the body. Examples are coffee, iron supplements, red wine, chocolate or chocolate-based food, and dark sodas (Coca Cola).
- Avoid environmental irritants, such as smog, dust, and cigarette smoke, to control your cough and production of phlegm. This is especially helpful in people suffering from chronic bronchitis.
- Treatment for simple and complicated coal worker’s pneumoconiosis is symptomatic, which eases the symptoms only and not the underlying cause.
- For bacterial pneumonia, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics. These drugs are generally effective if you take them during the early phase of the disease. However, people with chronic bronchitis might not benefit from antibiotics, unless a lung infection comes with it.
- Mucormycosis is a serious infection that requires prompt medical treatment. Doctors may prescribe antifungal medications, like isavuconazole, posaconazole, or amphotericin B.
The color of your mucus might sometimes say something about what’s going inside your body, but it’s not always a cause of concern. If you’re worried about the color of your snot or phlegm, you should consult your family doctor or an ENT doctor to evaluate the exact cause and receive the appropriate treatments. In most cases, your doctor will look for other symptoms—fever, body pain, congestion, confusion—and suggest diagnostic tests to know if the cause is a virus, bacterium, allergy, and so on.
Whatever you do, don’t self-medicate because it might do more harm than good. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics contribute to the rise of antibiotic resistance. And medical experts and studies have shown that antibiotics are not always necessary, even if a bacterial infection is present.
So, what do you think? Don’t forget to share your thoughts and reactions in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your ideas on the mucus colors.