What Is Phlegm—And How Can You Get Rid of It?

In This Article
View All
In This Article
Young woman wiping phlegm with tissue

Dani Ferrasanjose / Getty Images

Phlegm—also called sputum—is a slimy, slippery substance that can be found in your throat and lungs. It is a little bit thicker than the mucus that is in your nose and sinuses. Usually phlegm is clear or white and you don’t notice it.. When you get sick, a more-than-normal amount of phlegm can build up in your nose, throat, and lungs and cause discomfort and coughing.

Phlegm has an important role to play in keeping your respiratory system healthy, as it helps to trap bacteria and other harmful particles so they don't enter your body. It consists mostly of water but also contains sugars, molecules, and proteins to help catch bacteria. Phlegm also acts as a lubricant to keep tissues from drying out. So while phlegm may seem gross and unpleasant tasting, it's an essential part of your body's natural defense system.  

What Causes Phlegm?

Most of the time, we don’t notice phlegm until our bodies start to produce too much of it due to illness. When we have an infection, our airway glands produce phlegm by creating thicker and stickier mucus to help fight it off. Allergies are another cause of excess phlegm because they cause our immune systems to overreact and produce histamine, which increases phlegm production.

Many substances can cause an increase in phlegm, such as:

Fortunately, phlegm overproduction problems are usually temporary. Once the body fights off an infection or inflammation returns to normal, phlegm production levels also return to normal.

What Does Phlegm Look Like?

Did you know that the color of our phlegm can tell us if something may be amiss with our health? Phlegm is a health indicator that can help differentiate between a minor illness and something more serious. It is essential to clarify that phlegm is not the same thing as saliva or spit—a watery liquid secreted in the mouth that aids digestion.

Normal phlegm is typically clear. However, if there are excessive amounts of clear phlegm, it may indicate a lung disease or other health issue.

Here is a breakdown of coughed-up phlegm colors and what they may indicate:

  • White: This is likely normal, but can also indicate allergies, asthma, or a viral infection. If white phlegm is accompanying other systems such as a chronic cough, itching, frequent sneezing, or wheezing, seek medical evaluation to treat the underlying cause.
  • Yellow or green: This could be a bacterial infection. You must see your healthcare provider to learn the infection type.
  • Bloody or red: This may indicate an infection or something more serious, such as pulmonary embolism or lung cancer. If you have blood in your phlegm, it is important to contact your healthcare provider immediately. 
  • Pink: This could be a sign of pulmonary edema (fluid build-up in the lungs) or heart failure.
  • Brown: Brown phlegm is common in people who smoke and bacterial pneumonia. It may also be caused by intense chronic inflammation often seen in chronic lung diseases, such as COPD or cystic fibrosis.
  • Gray: Gray, like white, can be normal and indicate no underlying cause. However, it is often seen in people who smoke and people who work in industrial areas such as coal mines.

If you have any concerns about the color or appearance of your phlegm, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider. 

How Can You Get Rid of Phlegm?

Although excess phlegm is an essential part of our immune systems, having too much mucus can create many uncomfortable symptoms, such as coughing, difficulty breathing, and even chest pain. Fortunately, there are several easy and natural ways to get rid of your phlegm quickly. 

Here are a few ways to effectively reduce your phlegm production at home:

Drink Plenty of Fluids

Drinking plenty of fluids, such as water and herbal tea, helps to reduce the viscosity, or thickness, of mucus and makes it easier to cough up or blow out. Warm fluids such as broth or hot lemon water, are especially helpful for loosening thick phlegm. 

Use a Humidifier or Vaporizer

Humidifiers are machines that turn water into a vapor that can sit in the air, creating higher humidity in the space. They can help keep the nose and throat moist, which reduces mucus and phlegm production. The extra moisture they provide also makes it easier for your body to break down and clear away excess mucus. You may want to try breathing in steam from a hot shower or humidifier to help clear your airways.

Gargle With Warm Salt Water 

The action of gargling helps to loosen and thin out the phlegm, allowing it to be cleared away easier. Gargling regularly is an easy home remedy for reducing phlegm and other throat irritations and there is even some evidence that it may even help prevent respiratory infections.

Adding a small amount of salt (a half to a three-quarter teaspoon) to the water you gargle with can help break down excess mucus.

Take an Expectorant

Expectorants are a type of medication used to thin and loosen mucus, making it easier to cough up. Expectorant medications are sold both over the counter (OTC) and by prescription, depending on the severity of your symptoms.

OTC expectorants typically contain guaifenesin as their active ingredient. These medications act on the mucus-producing glands in your throat and chest to reduce phlegm production. A common brand name that contains guaifenesin is Mucinex.

Use a Saline Nasal Spray or Wash

Saline nasal washes, also known as nasal irrigation or nasal lavage, are a natural remedy to help clear phlegm from your nasal passages. The saltwater solution draws out excess mucus and allergens that can cause congestion, irritation, and inflammation in the nose.

Talk to your healthcare provider if excess phlegm production or runny nose doesn’t resolve within three weeks or is accompanied by a fever. 

It is very important to use a saline nasal solution and not tap water, as tap water can contain bacteria and other microbes that can be dangerous if inhaled.

When Is Phlegm a Sign That You Should Seek Medical Care?

Most of the time, excess phlegm is a normal occurrence that comes with a healthy immune response. You will also notice more phlegm when you have an illness such as the common cold or flu, or if you have seasonal allergies.

However, if you are experiencing excess phlegm or occurring more commonly, you may want to see your healthcare provider. They can determine the underlying cause and suggest ways of managing your symptoms. They may recommend lifestyle changes such as avoiding triggers, increasing water intake, or taking OTC medications. 

Call your healthcare provider if you:

  • Have a persistent cough—wet or dry—that lasts more than three or four weeks
  • Have chest pain
  • Experience wheezing

Your provider may want to run additional diagnostic tests such as a blood test, chest X-ray, or lung function test to see if there are any other underlying conditions.

Call 911 if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • You have shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • If you have difficulty swallowing
  • If your face or neck is swelling or you have hives

When in doubt, see your healthcare provider to ensure that any underlying medical conditions are caught early and your symptoms are managed effectively.

A Quick Review

It is important to understand that phlegm is a normal part of our body's immune defense. An illness, seasonal allergies, or other underlying medical conditions may cause excess phlegm. 

Fortunately, there are effective remedies to help reduce phlegm at home, such as drinking plenty of fluids, using a humidifier, gargling with warm salt water, and using over-the-counter medication. If phlegm persists for over three or four weeks, or if chest pain or wheezing occurs, contact your provider. Or if excess phlegm is accompanied by shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or difficulty swallowing, call 911.

Was this page helpful?
13 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Cough.

  2. National Cancer Institute. Phlegm.

  3. National Institute of Health News in Health. Marvels of mucus and phlegm.

  4. MedlinePlus. Histamine: The stuff allergies are made of.

  5. Ramos FL, Krahnke JS, Kim V. Clinical issues of mucus accumulation in COPD. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2014;9:139-150. doi:10.2147/COPD.S38938

  6. MedlinePlus. Salivary gland disorders.

  7. MedlinePlus. Sputum culture.

  8. The Ohio State Unversity. What does the color of phlegm mean?

  9. Guppy MP, Mickan SM, Del Mar CB, Thorning S, Rack A. Advising patients to increase fluid intake for treating acute respiratory infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;2011(2):CD004419. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004419.pub3

  10. Prashanth Panta, Kiranam Chatti, Archana Andhavarapu. Do saline water gargling and nasal irrigation confer protection against COVID-19? Explore (NY). 2021;17(2):127-129. doi:10.1016/j.explore.2020.09.010

  11. MedlinePlus. Guaifenesin.

  12. MedlinePlus. Saline nasal washes.

  13. The Ohio State University. When should you see a doctor for that cough?

Related Articles