Coughing up white mucus can indicate several conditions, including upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs), asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Mucus from the chest is responsible for protecting against microbes, and is often white or clear in color when it is healthy.

Occasionally coughing up white mucus may not be a sign anything is wrong. However, a person may produce more mucus, or see more of it, if they have an illness that causes a cough. Doctors call this a productive or “wet” cough.

Smoke exposure is a risk factor of some of the conditions that cause this symptom. In fact, because smoke is an irritant to the lungs, avoiding smoking may help relieve a cough from any cause, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Keep reading to learn about the conditions that can cause someone to cough up white mucus, along with the symptoms and treatments for each.

Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.

A woman on the street wearing a face mask while coughing into her hand.Share on Pinterest
ArtistGNDphotography/Getty Images

Many conditions can cause someone to cough up white mucus. Here are a few of them:

URTIs

URTIs include any infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, pharynx, larynx, sinuses, and large airways. Some examples of these illnesses include the common cold, influenza (flu), and COVID-19.

Viruses and bacteria cause URTIs, resulting in increased mucus production as the body tries to get rid of them. Other symptoms may include:

  • a cough
  • sneezing
  • runny or blocked nose
  • headache
  • low grade fever
  • tiredness

Depending on the illness, the symptoms may last a few days or up to 3 weeks.

If someone could have COVID-19, it is vital that they stay at home and follow the advice of their local health authority. The local health authority will have information on getting tested.

Treatment

For viral URTIs, there is no cure. However, in most people, they are benign and get better on their own. There are over-the-counter (OTC) medications that can help reduce the symptoms while a person recovers, including:

  • pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)
  • combined cold and flu medications, which may contain ingredients to treat multiple symptoms at once

A pharmacist or doctor can advise on the best option for an individual.

For bacterial URTIs, doctors prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics are not appropriate for viral URTIs, but for severe cases, doctors may use antiviral medications to help the body fight the infection.

Getting the flu vaccination every year can also help prevent flu from occurring.

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic condition of the lungs that causes narrowing and inflammation of the airways. It also causes an increase in mucus production in the air passages, which may decrease airflow while breathing. This especially affects breathing out, according to a 2021 research article.

The symptoms of asthma include:

Many things can trigger asthma symptoms, including:

  • stress
  • allergens
  • tobacco smoke
  • air pollutants

Treatment

Treatment for asthma may include a bronchodilator, such as albuterol (Ventolin), an inhaled steroid, such as beclomethasone (Qvar), or a combination.

  • quitting smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke
  • using a vacuum with a HEPA filter to regularly clean carpets and floors
  • preventing mold growth in the home or workplace
  • scheduling outdoor activities for days when the air quality is good

Bronchitis

Bronchitis is inflammation of the major air passages of the lungs. It causes swelling and mucus production. Some refer to bronchitis as a “chest cold.”

The potential symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • coughing
  • fever
  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • general feeling of chest discomfort

Common causes include:

  • viral infections
  • pollutants
  • allergens

Treatment

Treatment for bronchitis depends on the cause. If it is due to a viral infection, it may get better without treatment. OTC cough medications may help relieve symptoms.

Other options include beta agonists to reduce wheezing or steroids to reduce inflammation if the condition is ongoing.

Home remedies may include:

  • hot tea
  • ginger
  • honey

Lifestyle modifications also play an important role in helping prevent recurrence. These include:

  • quitting smoking
  • avoiding pollutants and allergens
  • getting the flu and pneumonia vaccines to help prevent these infections

COPD

COPD is the name for a group of chronic conditions that block airflow and result in breathing problems. Symptoms include:

  • excess mucus production
  • shortness of breath
  • frequent wheezing or coughing
  • trouble taking a deep breath

Exposure to tobacco smoke is a major COPD risk factor, note the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Treatment

There is no cure for COPD. Medical treatment may involve supplemental oxygen and medications. Drug options include:

  • Bronchodilators: These are medications that open the airways. They may include beta-2 agonists, which relax muscles surrounding the airways, or anticholinergics, which prevent tightening of muscles surrounding the airways. An example of a beta-2 agonist is formoterol (Foradil), and an example of an anticholinergic is Aclidinium (Tudorza Pressair).
  • Steroids: These are anti-inflammatory medications that reduce mucus production and swelling. They come in the form of an inhaler. An example is beclomethasone (Qvar).
  • Combination: These are a combination of two or three of the above types of medications. An example is budesonide and formoterol (Symbicort).
  • Antibiotics: These are an option if a bacterial infection is present.

The CDC also recommends:

  • quitting smoking
  • enrolling in pulmonary rehabilitation, a comprehensive program that helps people improve their quality of life
  • physical exercises
  • getting the flu and pneumonia vaccines

Mucus color can help doctors diagnose conditions. The below table shows what different colors of mucus indicate.

Mucus colorIndications
ClearThis usually suggests no illness, but large amounts may indicate lung disease.
Gray or whiteThese also suggest no illness, but higher amounts may indicate lung disease.
Dark green or yellowThis often suggests a bacterial infection, but yellowish-green may indicate cystic fibrosis, an inherited condition that causes mucus to accumulate.
PinkThis may suggest fluid buildup in the lungs.
BrownThis occurs frequently in individuals who smoke and commonly indicates black lung disease, a condition related to coal dust exposure.
RedThis may signal lung cancer or suggest that a blood clot has broken loose in another part of the body and reached the lungs.

Some people may wonder if the texture of the mucus they cough up can also help with diagnosing the cause of their symptoms. However, no specific conditions are especially associated with frothy white mucus, nor solid white mucus. Mucus can vary in consistency.

Many conditions can cause excess mucus or a cough. A person should contact a doctor if they:

  • are coughing up an unusual amount of white mucus
  • have a severe cough or persistent wheezing
  • their mucus changes color
  • have a cough that lasts longer than 8 weeks, even if they are not coughing up mucus

However, if someone could have COVID-19, they should not attend a healthcare facility without calling ahead first.

If someone develops any of the following symptoms, dial 911 or the local emergency number immediately:

  • difficulty breathing
  • difficulty speaking due to severe shortness of breath
  • blue or white discoloration of the lips or nails
  • confusion
  • changes in consciousness

Mucus from the chest is often white. If a person occasionally coughs some up, it may not be a sign they have a medical condition. However, a persistent cough that produces mucus may indicate someone has an infection, asthma, or something else.

A cough is also a common symptom of COVID-19. If someone may have COVID-19, they should seek information on getting tested.

Because this symptom can occur for many reasons, it is important to speak with a doctor about any new or unusual symptoms, particularly if they do not ease on their own.