It’s never any fun feeling under the weather, but when a common cold is paired with excess phlegm, it makes matters even worse. This can lead to irritating symptoms, such as coughing, a sore throat, and breathing issues. When this happens, you’re probably wondering how to get rid of phlegm as quickly as possible. In good news, there are many at-home remedies and over-the-counter medicines you can try to treat excessive phlegm.
So, why do we get phlegm in the first place? There are many reasons why you may have phlegm stuck in your throat, and most are not a reason for concern, but sometimes it can be a sign of a more serious health problem. Understanding the causes of your phlegm can help you treat it or indicate seeking medical attention.
Read on to learn more about what exactly phlegm is, its causes, and tips to get rid of it.
Table of Contents
What is phlegm?
In simple terms, phlegm is an excessive amount of mucus. Mucus is a healthy protective lining and thin liquid that covers our respiratory surfaces, gut, intestines, and even our eyes. Mucus is essential to prevent these areas from drying out, and it protects our bodies from bacteria, viruses, and environmental agents that attack our respiratory system.
We have mucus in our bodies all the time, but it becomes noticeable and irritating when our bodies produce too much. This is what we all know as phlegm, which is a thicker mucus that can cause bothersome symptoms.
Phlegm is the body’s attempt at clearing irritants and infections from your lungs. “When activated fighting off an attack of outside invaders, or allergens, the amount of this healthy mucus increases and thickens,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., board-certified internist and integrative physician. “Then it is called phlegm. It may also be associated with inflammation.”
Typically, phlegm is somewhat clear with a cloudy or whitish tint to it. When phlegm has a yellow, green, or red color to it, it’s indicating certain infections or health conditions.
If you’re looking to get rid of phlegm and want to clear your sinuses, the first step is to identify what triggered your body to produce phlegm. That way, you can treat the underlying cause.
Causes of phlegm
According to Cleveland Clinic, bodies create more, thicker mucus when the immune system is kicked into gear due to a virus, bacterial infection, or an allergen. There are some instances where phlegm can indicate a larger, underlying health issue that should be brought to the attention of your doctor, but phlegm is mostly treatable and not a reason for concern.
Seasonal allergies are our body’s response to pollen and harmless environmental substances, which are referred to as allergens. Allergies can cause a runny nose, watery eyes, difficulty breathing, sneezing, and–you guessed it–phlegm. “Allergies again cause phlegm production because your body is in an inflammatory state and producing excess amounts of mucus as a result of the response to an allergen,” Dr. Campbell says.
Niket Sonpal, M.D., internist and adjunct assistant professor of clinical medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, says phlegm can be a result of the environment you are in, such as dry air and low humidity. The lining in your nose becomes irritated if there is not enough moisture, which can cause the body to start over producing mucus. The air tends to be drier in the colder, winter months outside and inside due to heating systems in homes.
Upper respiratory tract infection
An upper respiratory infection is caused by a virus or bacterial infection in your respiratory system. This happens when you make contact with an infected surface or person, and then spread those germs to your mouth, eyes, or nose. These infections are known as a common cold, sinusitis (sinus infection), sore throat, and laryngitis. All of these infections can cause a cough that produces phlegm.
Inflammation of the lungs (pneumonia)
Peter Ashman, M.D., otolaryngologist surgeon at ENT and Allergy Associates, LLP, says phlegm is the body’s way of using mucus to prevent infections. “It is your body’s way of shedding dead cells/tissue and to trap bacteria and viruses to prevent them from causing an infection,” Dr. Ashman says. “As such, any inflammation of the lungs or the throat will cause an increased amount of mucus and therefore phlegm.”
Pneumonia is a viral or bacterial infection of the lungs that inflames the lungs’ air sacs and fills it with fluids. The symptoms can include coughing up thick yellow, green, or brown phlegm. Seek medical attention if you think you have pneumonia and you are having difficulty breathing.
Asthma is a long-term condition that causes inflammation to the airways to our lungs, making it difficult to breathe and an increase in the production of phlegm. People with asthma have certain triggers and can seek treatment plans from a doctor.
Bronchitis is an inflammation to the bronchial tubes due to bacteria or a virus. This can cause our body to create excessive mucus and cough up phlegm.
While there are plenty of reasons to quit smoking or vaping already, Dr. Ashman says smoking can also cause phlegm. Hot smoke is a chemical irritant, which signals danger to your body and it produces extra mucus to protect itself. Also, smokers can develop chronic bronchitis or a persistent cough, which can eventually lead to coughing up phlegm.
How to get rid of phlegm
The ideal way to get rid of phlegm is to get to the root of the problem. “Phlegm is best treated by treating the underlying cause, whether it is an infection, allergies, acid reflux, etcetera,” says Dr. Ashman. If your phlegm is caused by a non-serious health issue, or a doctor recommended at-home treatments and rest to get well again, read on for methods to treat phlegm:
Considering dryness can cause an overproduction of phlegm, one of the best ways to beat phlegm is drinking loads of water. “Staying hydrated is critical to loosening up the phlegm so it can be coughed out and doesn’t plug up the airways,” Dr. Teitelbaum says. Moisture and water will break apart dried phlegm and help it move out of your respiratory system. He recommends drinking hot teas, as hot liquids are very effective at loosening phlegm, but to avoid excess sugar because it causes mucus production.
2. Humidify the air
Once again, dry air is the villain when it comes to phlegm. Moisturizing the air can help thin the excessive, thick mucus lodged in your throat. Dr. Campbell suggests using a humidifier to help you breathe easier and loosen the phlegm.
For a quick fix, Dr. Teitelbaum says you can try taking a hot steamy shower. This will also help keep your body temperature warm, which research found is ideal when fighting off an infection or common cold.
3. Saline spray
You can use nasal spray to relieve congestion, add moisture to the nose, clear the sinuses, and break up phlegm. “Using saline rinses, especially with a Neti pot, can help wash out the infections,” Dr. Teitelbaum says. “Holistic doctors can prescribe the antifungal Diflucan for six weeks, which combined with a sinusitis nose spray made by a compounding pharmacy can often eliminate chronic sinusitis.”
4. Gargle salt water
Dr. Campbell also recommends gargling salt water. This can clear the phlegm in your throat and it’s one of many sore throat remedies to soothe swelling, reduce inflammation, and calm irritation. To effectively use salt water to break up phlegm, dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water, and gargle multiple times throughout the day.
If you are looking for a long-term solution, Dr. Teitelbaum recommends an herbal extract called boswellia, which is made from the resin of a boswellia tree. Boswellia is used in traditional Indian medicine, and it can be taken orally in a pill, tablet, or capsule.
“For chronic increased lung phlegm in asthma or emphysema, once the person has been evaluated by their physician, the herb Boswellia (frankincense) can dramatically decrease the lung inflammation and excess phlegm production,” Dr. Teitelbaum says, who gives boswellia as a long-term treatment to patients with problematic asthma or emphysema.
6. OTC medicine
Over-the-counter (OTC) medicine is what most people reach for after phlegm does not go away on its own or with natural treatments. “Taking over the counter expectorants such as Mucinex can also help to thin the mucus, so it is easier to cough up,” Dr. Ashman says. Robitussin is another popular OTC cough medicine that can help you get rid of phlegm.
7. Elevate head while sleeping
If you feel phlegm stuck in the back of your throat and have a persistent cough from a postnasal drip, keeping your head elevated at night can help.
Sleeping flat on your back can cause the phlegm to pool in the back of your throat. Try sleeping with your head elevated with extra pillows to drain the phlegm from your sinuses and prevent a post-nasal drip.
8. Avoid irritants
If your phlegm is caused by allergies, try avoiding dust and pollen when possible. Clean surfaces in your home often, take allergy medications, wear a mask outside, and follow other home remedies for allergies.
Can antibiotics treat phlegm?
Surprisingly, antibiotics are not always the first line of treatment for phlegm. “For chronic sinusitis, antibiotics usually make the problem worse in the long term,” Dr. Teitelbaum says.
Research from the Mayo Clinic shows chronic sinusitis is triggered by fungal overgrowth. “And most women know that when you take an antibiotic, yeast/fungal overgrowth gets worse,” Dr. Teitelbaum says. “So, treating sinusitis with antibiotics is what makes the sinusitis become chronic.”
What does the color of my phlegm indicate?
The color of your mucus can point to signs of what underlying condition is causing the phlegm. “Problems in the lungs can cause phlegm to change color,” Dr. Sonpal says. “Green or yellow phlegm can occur with an infection, but brown phlegm might be a sign of bleeding. Typically, it is clear, thin, and unnoticeable. When someone has a cold or infection, the phlegm can become thickened and change color.”
Dr. Teitelbaum said yellow or green mucus is considered to be a “soft sign” of bacterial overgrowth, meaning it is not 100% reliable. “Clinically it likely suggests the presence of large amounts of unhealthy bacteria that need treatment,” Dr. Teitelbaum says. “Sometimes, if it is persistent for many days and comes from the lungs, accompanied by shortness of breath, it may suggest the need for treatment with an antibiotic.”
When to see a doctor
In moderate amounts, phlegm can be treated with the above remedies and OTC medications. If phlegm is causing difficulty breathing, lasts for a long time, or it is recurring, call your doctor. “Having it once in a while is not a cause of concern but if it’s a regular thing, the only way to treat it is to have a physician identify what is causing it and then treat,” Dr. Sonpal says. “If you have tried reasonable at home remedies like salt water gargles and changing your eating patterns, allergy meds. Essentially, you have already tried the routine stuff you would find in CVS.” Dr. Ashmans recommends seeing a doctor if you have a fever, shortness of breath, discolored phlegm, or a cough lasting more than two weeks.
What is the difference between phlegm and mucus?
Mucus is healthy and always present in our body, while phlegm is essentially the overproduction of mucus. Our body creates excess mucus (a.k.a. phlegm) as a response to a virus or bacterial infection.
“Mucus is a normal way for your body to coat the tissues in your throat, lungs, and gut and provide a barrier for protection against infection and irritants,” Dr. Campbell says. “Phlegm is an overproduction of mucus in an effort to clear irritants from the body.”
Dr. Sonpal says you can compare the difference in consistency between phlegm and mucus to the difference between pudding and custard: “Mucus is thin, while phlegm is thick,” Dr. Sonpal says. “Everyone has mucus, but it turns into phlegm when something chronic is going on in the body.”
Should I swallow phlegm or cough it up?
Most phlegm can be coughed up or swallowed safely, so it’s up to personal preference. “If it is swallowed, all of the irritants will be neutralized in the stomach due to the acidity regardless,” Dr. Campbell says. “You may feel slightly nauseous after swallowing a significant amount of it, however. You can also cough it up as this is your body’s way of expelling all of the irritants that are trapped in the mucus.”
Dr. Teitelbaum advises spitting yellow or green phlegm out because these colors signal the mucus is infected with billions of bacteria. “Although it is okay to swallow it and let your stomach acid kill most of these bugs, when it is convenient to spit it out instead, it can take a little load off your immune system,” Dr. Teitelbaum says. “This way billions of unhealthy bacteria go down the drain instead of your body having to do hand-to-hand combat with them. But go with what is easiest for you.”
Isabella Cavallo is a freelance editorial assistant at Prevention. She graduated from Binghamton University with a bachelor’s degree in English: Literature & Rhetoric. Isabella gained a passion for health journalism after a rare cancer diagnosis and treatment. When she’s not writing, you can find her listening to music, playing Bananagrams, or running through Central Park.