The not-so-polite call it phlegm, and there are a few who settle for snot. But for people in polite circles, and healthcare professionals, the word is ‘mucus’.
Whatever one may call it, when you have flu or a cold, you usually have an abundance of it. In fact, if you’re very sick, your sinuses may go into overdrive and produce the stuff as fast, if not faster, than you can clear it.
While it can be a nuisance, that gunk in your nose has a role to play in your body. The mucus forms a protective layer over the mucous membranes lining the upper airways. And as it is sticky, it traps tiny foreign particles, like allergens, pollution, and dust, and filters them out before they can reach the lung and cause serious damage.
In normal circumstances, a healthy individual makes about a quart of mucus per day. But this goes unnoticed, as we tend to swallow the secretion rather than blow it out of the nose.
An allergy or a common cold sets mucus production out of whack. When there is an irritant, whether it’s an invading virus, bacteria, or allergen, the nose and sinuses respond by increasing mucus secretion beyond the normal quota. And as you cannot swallow all this extra mucus, it stays in the upper respiratory tract and starts thickening. While this can be annoying, the excess mucus is an indication your body is doing its bit to clear pathogens and illness out of your system.
Common cold: It’s called that because it’s pretty common. Every year, a child may get it as many as ten times, but in adults, the incidence drops down to three to four times per year. There are more than 200 viruses that can cause a cold and lead to an infection. While the symptoms may vary from person to person, the most common symptoms are watery eyes, sneezing, sore throat, and a mucus discharge that is initially clear but becomes thick and translucent as the infection progresses. Eventually, the mucus leaks into the throat from the posterior nares, and this leads to the coughing up of mucus. The mucus is white in most cases, but it’s normal for the color to change depending on the severity of the infection.
Sinusitis: This condition is a rung higher than the common cold in terms of symptom severity. People with sinusitis usually present with nasal congestion and difficulty breathing, and have a yellow or green mucus discharge. These major symptoms are usually accompanied by satellite symptoms like fever, jaw pain, earache, and increased pressure in the face. Children usually tend to gag on the mucus, causing reflex coughing and vomiting.
Bronchitis: This is usually a secondary complication that arises either because of airway inflammation from a viral infection, exposure to irritants, or tobacco smoke, or because of other illnesses making bronchitis contagious. The symptoms of bronchitis mimic the symptoms of common cold. However, the white mucus may change to a yellowish green when it seeps into the airways and starts discoloring the sputum. If the condition continues over two or three weeks, produces blood, or includes wheezing, it might be a good idea to see a doctor.
Smoking: This nasty habit is another common reason for coughing up white mucus, sometimes for several weeks in a row. The mucus secretion in smokers is a response to the toxins and other irritants that you inhale along with the smoke. Another reason is because smoking can cause inflammation as well as associated dryness and swelling in the airways and the extra mucus is produced to help hydrate your parched larynx.
Tonsil stones: Standing on guard on either side of the entrance of your throat, tonsils are your immune system’s first line of defense against ingested or inhaled foreign pathogens. They are basically a collection of lymphoid tissue. Frequently a combination of debris, bacteria, and food particles get packed into the indents and ditches in the surface of the tonsils and form compacted solidifications called tonsil stones. If these stones are not immediately addressed, they can cause sore throats and subsequent dryness of the throat and mouth, which in turn leads to excess mucus production for lubrication.
Overworked vocal chords: When you overuse your vocal cords, excess throat mucus is produced in an attempt to lubricate the throat.
Gustatory rhinitis: This common condition is linked to eating and is the reason why your nose typically runs when you eat hot peppers.
Allergies: There are hundreds of allergens that can lead to irritation of the nasal cavity as well as mucosa. The irritation caused by these allergens alerts the body about the allergens and the body responds by secreting excess mucus.
Heartburn: This condition, which the medical industry refers to as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), causes stomach acid to be pushed into your lower esophagus. The irritation caused by this acid in the esophagus, leads to excess mucus production.
Mucus is mostly water and salt with proteins to fight off infection. It is usually clear, and in some cases white. In prolonged cases, the color might change taking on different hues, and this often makes people wonder if the color or consistency has any significance.
And the good news is, color is indeed significant. In fact, color is the predictive of the length of symptoms, with a darker color indicating the immune system is beginning to clear the infection. The following list is a handy guide to color significance in mucus.
Clear or thin white mucus: This is a clear indication that there is no infection or pus or blood involved.
Thick white mucus: Coughing up thick white mucus is usually an indication of GERD, but it could also happen because of drinking milk and other thick beverages, leading to a condition loosely described as white mucus throat.
Yellow and green mucus: Yellow mucus signifies that the mucus has white blood cells. Thick yellow mucus suggests infection – viral or bacterial. It is a regular symptom in acute or chronic bronchitis or bacterial pneumonia. Green mucus contains pus and suggests a serious bacterial infection.
Brown or rusty mucus: This could be because of as simple a reason as eating chocolates. But it can also be caused by smoking, severe infection, and bleeding in the respiratory tract.
Grey mucus: This is a common offshoot of air pollution, as well as cigarette or marijuana smoking.
Black mucus: This quite scary looking mucus usually happens in coal mine workers. However, one cannot rule out old blood in the respiratory tract (bronchitis, tuberculosis, emphysema).
Pink mucus: This is usually associated with allergies and is caused because of an excess of eosinophils in the walls of the bronchial tubes.
Frothy mucus: Coughing up white phlegm with bubbles might be a sign that the mucus is from the lungs (pneumonia, lung edema), but it could also be caused by GERD.
Though the production of mucus is a protective mechanism by the body, it is an irritant itself and too much of it can cause serious health problems. So it’s best to get rid of excess mucus at the earliest, before it becomes thick and infected. Here are a few ways to get it out.
It’s important to understand that while the mucus is troubling you, it should not go on to trouble the people around you. If you are working in an open office, make sure you step away from the crowds before you start loud hawking out of mucus. And to avoid the spread of infection, don’t leave soiled napkins in the office or home open. Always use closed bins. Remember, the mucus is there to help you. Making sure it’s not a hindrance is entirely up to you.