Mucus in the lungs is common in certain health conditions and needs treatment. For example, if you have bronchiectasis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), clearing mucus from your lungs is an important part of managing your lung disease.
Having too much mucus in your lungs or phlegm build-up can block narrowed air passages and make it hard for you to breathe. Increased mucus in the lungs can also lead to infections, such as pneumonia.
There are ways to treat mucus in the lungs, including controlled coughing, medications, and chest physiotherapy.
This article will go over some causes of mucus in the lungs as well as ways that your provider might want you to clear mucus from your lungs as part of your treatment.
Table of Contents
Home Remedies and Lifestyle Changes for Mucus in Lungs
You can use at-home exercises to help prevent and decrease mucus buildup in your lungs. If you have lung disease these techniques should be used regularly to loosen and remove the excess mucus from your lungs.
Controlled Coughing for Mucus in Lungs
Controlled coughing engages the chest and stomach muscles to clear mucus in the lungs. Unlike a hacking cough that uses the chest muscles more than the diaphragm, controlled coughing focuses on stabilizing the core muscles to engage the diaphragm more effectively.
There are two common methods of controlled coughing: deep and huff.
How to use deep coughing to clear mucus in the lungs:
- Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the ground.
- Wrap your arms around your stomach, and take a deep breath in.
- Keeping your lips pursed, cough forcefully while pressing your arms firmly against your stomach muscles.
How to use huff coughing to clear mucus in the lungs:
- Take a deep, slow breath to fully expand your lungs.
- Tense your stomach muscles
- Exhale three times very quickly and make a "ha" sound with each breath.
- Repeat this step, keeping your core firm, until you feel the mucus in your lungs breaking up.
- Cough deeply to clear your lungs.
Deep Breathing for Mucus in Lungs
When you do deep breathing exercises, you slowly breathe in (inhale) and breathe out (exhale) to help your lungs expand. These breathing exercises are examples of pulmonary hygiene—treatments that use physical manipulation techniques to help you cough up sticky mucus and clear your lungs.
Your respiratory therapist can teach you deep breathing techniques that you can do at home on a regular schedule to help keep your lungs clear.
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Treatment for Lung Mucus
These medications are expectorants. They have an ingredient called guaifenesin in them that thins and loosens mucus in the lungs to make it easier to cough up. They can also block the production of the main protein in mucus (mucins).
Most expectorants can be bought at a pharmacy or grocery store, but some combination drugs that have expectorants and other ingredients in them require a healthcare provider's prescription.
Prescription Medications for Lung Mucus
Mucolytics, including N-acetylcysteine and carbocysteine, are only available by prescription.
These medications work differently than expectorants. Mucolytics break the chemical bonds in mucus to help make it easier to cough up.
Chest Physiotherapy for Mucus in Lungs
Chest physiotherapy (CPT) techniques can be done manually or with a mechanical device. A CPT routine can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.
You can do some CPT techniques by yourself, but others require help from a partner, such as a therapist or a family member at home.
- Manual CPT combines chest percussion and vibration to loosen the mucus in the lungs and make you cough. To do chest percussion, a therapist or loved one will clap on your chest or back to help loosen the thick mucus in your lungs so you can cough it up. Vibration is done by placing their flat hands on your chest wall and making a shaking motion.
- Airway clearance devices are hand-held machines that use high-frequency vibration, low-frequency sound waves, and other technology to break up mucus in the lungs. They are easy to use by yourself. Some of the devices are worn like a vest, while others require you to breathe into them (like a flute).
While you are having chest physiotherapy, make sure you breathe in and out slowly and fully until the mucus in your lungs is loose enough to cough up. Your therapist will show you how to get into a position that uses gravity to help the mucus in your lungs drain.
Alternative Medicine for Lung Mucus
There are some natural remedies that may help reduce the mucus in your lungs. Keep in mind that even though they are "natural," complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies can have side effects.
CAM therapies that may help clear mucus in the lungs include:
- Warm fluids: Drinking warm (not hot) liquids can help loosen thickened mucus. Try tea, warm broth, or hot water with lemon.
- Steam: You can use a device such as a cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer to breathe in warm air. You can also take a hot shower or breathe in vapors from a pot of simmering water. These methods introduce moist air into your air passages, which helps loosen the mucus in your lungs. However, do not inhale oils because they can cause an inflammatory or allergic lung reaction.
- Honey: Honey may reduce inflammation and coughing. However, it is not clear whether honey specifically helps in coughing up mucus.
- Chinese medicine: Chinese herbs and treatments have traditionally been used to reduce mucus in the lungs. While there are anecdotal reports that they are helpful, the scientific data is not clear about the benefits.
- A few herbs—including mao huang (Herba ephedrae), tao ren (Semen persicae), and Huang qin (Radix scutellariae)—may ease the symptoms of respiratory disease.
- Qigong, a practice of breathing exercises and movements, may also help.
Ask Your Provider About CAM for Lung Mucus
CAM therapies are not safe for everyone. If you take certain medications or have certain health conditions, you may not be able to use them.
If you want to try an herb, supplement, or natural remedy to help clear mucus in your lungs, talk to your provider. They will make sure that it would be safe for you to try these treatments.
Mucus in the lungs can be part of having certain health conditions and something that you'll need to learn how to manage.
Regularly clearing mucus from your lungs is part of living with bronchiectasis and COPD. Controlled coughing, deep breathing, over-the-counter and prescription medications, chest physiotherapy, and alternative therapies help by reducing, loosening, and coughing up the mucus to prevent lung infections.
It's important that you use mucus-reducing strategies on a regular basis, not just when your symptoms act up. If you have been diagnosed with pulmonary disease, talk to your healthcare provider or respiratory therapist about the best approaches for managing mucus in your lungs.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you know if your lungs are filled with mucus?
If you have mucus in your lungs, you might have a "wet" cough or be able to hear the fluid in your chest when you breathe. You may wheeze or find it harder to breathe if there is mucus build-up in your lungs.
How do I naturally get rid of mucus in the lungs?
One way to get rid of mucus or phlegm naturally is by doing controlled huff coughing to clear your lungs.
- Sit up straight, slightly tilt your chin toward the ceiling, and open your mouth.
- Slowly take a deep breath in, filling your lungs about three-quarters full.
- Hold your breath for three seconds.
- Forcefully exhale in a slow, continuous manner.
- Repeat steps one to four at least two or three more times. Then, perform a single strong cough. This should remove mucus concentrated in the larger airways.
Is chest congestion common in COVID-19?
About one-third of people with COVID-19 have chest congestion or pressure as a symptom. COVID often causes a dry (non-productive) cough but some people have a productive cough and cough up thick mucus.
What causes phlegm?
The body makes phlegm and mucus to line the tissues and protect and moisturize them, as well as trap potential irritants and germs.
What medicine can be used to clear phlegm from the throat?
Mucus thinners (mucolytics) are over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that help thin mucus or phlegm in the airways, making it easier to cough up. Two types of mucus thinners are Pulmozyme (dornase alfa) and hypertonic saline.
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