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Phlegm is a type of mucus produced in the lungs and lower respiratory tract. It is most noticeable when a person is acutely sick or has a longstanding health condition.
Mucus forms a protective lining in certain parts of the body, even when a person is well. Mucus keeps these areas from drying out and helps to defend against invaders, including viruses and bacteria.
Though a healthy body requires some mucus, too much can be uncomfortable. Excess may be caused by:
Taking the following actions can help to eliminate excess mucus and phlegm:
1. Keeping the air moist. Dry air irritates the nose and throat, causing more mucus to form as a lubricant. Placing a cool mist humidifier in the bedroom can promote better sleep, keeping the nose clear and preventing a sore throat.
2. Drinking plenty of fluids. The body needs to stay hydrated to keep mucus thin. When a person is sick with a cold, drinking extra fluids can thin the mucus and help the sinuses to drain. People with seasonal allergies may also find that staying hydrated helps to avoid congestion.
3. Applying a warm, wet washcloth to the face. This can be a soothing remedy for a pounding sinus headache. Inhaling through a damp cloth is a quick way to return moisture to the nose and throat. The heat will help to relieve pain and pressure.
4. Keeping the head elevated. When the buildup of mucus is particularly bothersome, it may help to sleep propped up on a few pillows or in a reclining chair. Lying flat can increase discomfort, because it may feel as though mucus is collecting at the back of the throat.
5. Not suppressing a cough. It may be tempting to use suppressants when experiencing a nagging, phlegm-filled cough. However, coughing is the body’s way of keeping secretions out of the lungs and throat. Use cough syrups sparingly, if at all.
6. Discreetly getting rid of phlegm. When phlegm rises from the lungs into the throat, the body is likely trying to remove it. Spitting it out is healthier than swallowing it.
7. Using a saline nasal spray or rinse. A saline spray or irrigator can clear out mucus and allergens from the nose and sinuses. Look for sterile sprays that contain only sodium chloride, and be sure to use sterile or distilled water when irrigating.
8. Gargling with salt water. This can soothe an irritated throat and may help to clear away residual mucus. One teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water can be gargled several times per day.
9. Using eucalyptus. Eucalyptus products have used to subdue coughs and reduce mucus for years. They are usually applied directly to the chest. A few drops of eucalyptus oil can also be added to a diffuser or a warm bath to help clear the nose.
10. Not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke. Smoking and secondhand smoke cause the body to produce more phlegm and mucus.
11. Minimizing the use of decongestants. While they dry secretions and can alleviate a runny nose, decongestants may make it harder to get rid of phlegm and mucus.
12. Taking the right medicine. Medications known as expectorants can help to thin mucus and phlegm, making them easier to cough or blow out. However, check to make sure that these medications do not also contain decongestants.
13. Keeping allergies in check. Seasonal allergies can lead to a runny or stuffy nose, as well as excess mucus and phlegm.
14. Avoiding irritants. Chemicals, fragrances, and pollution can irritate the nose, throat, and lower airways. This causes the body to produce more mucus.
15. Keeping track of food reactions. Some foods can cause reactions that mimic seasonal allergies. They may cause the nose to run and the throat to itch, leading to excess mucus. Make a record of any foods that trigger an increase in phlegm or mucus.
16. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine. Both substances lead to dehydration if consumed in excess. When mucus and phlegm are an issue, drink plenty of warm, non-caffeinated beverages.
17. Taking a hot bath or shower. Time spent in a steam-filled bathroom will help to loosen and clear mucus in the nose and throat. Allowing hot water to pulse on the face can also bring relief from sinus pressure.
18. Blowing the nose gently. It may be tempting to keep blowing until thick mucus comes out. However, doing so too forcefully may hurt the sinuses, leading to pain, pressure, and possibly infection.
19. Eating plenty of fruit. One study found that a diet rich in fiber from fruit, and possibly soy, may lead to fewer respiratory problems linked to phlegm.
20. Avoiding foods that cause acid reflux. Acid reflux can lead to an increase in phlegm and mucus. People prone to heartburn should avoid trigger foods and ask a doctor about proper management.
Mucus is not usually a serious concern.
Many believe that colored mucus coming from the nose indicates a bacterial infection. However, it may instead show that the immune system is fighting a virus, or that a person is merely dehydrated.
Because yellow or green mucus from the nose does not necessarily signal a bacterial infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn that a person does not need antibiotics based on this symptom alone. Antibiotics cannot treat viruses, and overuse may cause other health problems.
Outside research has confirmed that the color of phlegm is not a good indicator of bacterial infection in otherwise healthy adults who have acute coughs.
However, coughing colored phlegm from the lungs can indicate a bacterial infection or other illness, and may need to be evaluated by a doctor.
Most causes of phlegm and mucus are minor illnesses that must be allowed to run their course.
Occasionally, excess phlegm and mucus can indicate a more serious condition. See a doctor if the problem is severe, persistent, or does not improve with rest and home remedies.
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