Most people will experience a cough at times. Sometimes, a cough may simply be a reaction to an irritant in the throat. Other times, it may be a symptom of a short-term or long-term health condition.
Some coughs produce mucus. The color of the mucus can sometimes indicate the cause of a person’s illness.
In this article, we outline some potential causes of coughing up white mucus, along with their associated treatments and home remedies. We also offer advice on when to see a doctor.
There are several potential causes of a cough that produces white mucus. We outline some examples below.
A person who is having an asthma attack may experience the following symptoms:
Coughing up white mucus is not an immediate cause for concern. However, coughing up a lot of mucus may lead to a worsening of asthma symptoms. The reason for this is that excess mucus can clog up the airways, making it more difficult for a person to breathe.
Once a doctor has diagnosed asthma, they will likely prescribe an asthma inhaler. The inhaler typically contains a bronchodilator, which is a medication that helps relax the muscles around the airways. This relaxation makes it easier for a person to breathe during an asthma attack.
The following home remedies can lessen the severity or frequency of asthma symptoms:
- avoiding irritants or allergens, such as:
- taking antihistamines to help control allergies
- trying relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga, or mindfulness, to reduce stress-related symptoms
Upper respiratory tract infections
The symptoms of a URTI begin as soon as 10–12 hours after infection with a virus and can last up to 3 weeks.
The common cold and flu share a number of symptoms, including:
- a cough that may be productive or nonproductive
- chest discomfort
- a sore throat
- a runny nose or stuffy nose
- muscle aches and pains
A flu vaccination will reduce a person’s risk of developing the flu.
If a person already has the flu, their doctor may prescribe antiviral treatment to shorten the length of flu symptoms and reduce the risk of complications. Antivirals are most effective when people take them within 48 hours of symptom onset.
The common cold typically goes away within 7–10 days. In the meantime, the following over-the-counter (OTC) medications may help alleviate the symptoms:
- OTC pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen
- decongestants to relieve a blocked nose
- OTC cold medications containing a combination of pain relievers and decongestants
People should note that decongestants are not suitable for use in children.
Bronchitis is the medical term for infection and inflammation of the bronchi within the lungs. The bronchi are the main airways that lead from the trachea into the lungs.
Most cases of acute bronchitis are viral and develop following a URTI. However, people may also develop bronchitis after exposure to the following irritants:
- polluted air
The symptoms of bronchitis include:
- a cough that produces clear, white, or yellowish mucus
- difficulty breathing
- a sore throat
- a runny nose
A doctor may prescribe steroids or beta-2 agonists to help reduce inflammation of the airways. These medications should help a person breathe more easily.
OTC cough suppressants may help reduce the frequency or severity of coughing episodes. Sucking throat lozenges may also help alleviate any throat soreness resulting from prolonged coughing.
The following lifestyle changes may also help reduce the severity and duration of bronchitis symptoms:
- quitting smoking
- avoiding pollutants
- avoiding exposure to known irritants or allergens
- receiving regular vaccinations for the flu and pneumonia
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic lung condition that makes it difficult for a person to breathe. The condition can involve one or more of the following:
- thickening and inflammation of the airways
- damage to the tiny air sacs (alveoli) that exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide
- loss of elasticity within the airways and alveoli
- overproduction of mucus within the airways, which can worsen breathing difficulties
People typically develop COPD following prolonged exposure to lung irritants. The most common lung irritant in the United States is cigarette smoke. However, prolonged exposure to pipe and cigar smoke can also cause COPD.
People who have regular exposure to high levels of the following may also be at increased risk of developing COPD:
- air pollution
- chemical fumes
Some possible symptoms of COPD include:
- a persistent or productive cough
- shortness of breath, especially after physical activity
- a wheezing or whistling sound when breathing
- tightness in the chest
The type of treatment for COPD will depend on the severity of the disease. Possible treatment options include:
- Bronchodilators: Medications that assist breathing by relaxing the muscles around the airways.
- Steroids: Medications that assist breathing by reducing airway inflammation.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation: A program that helps people manage chronic lung conditions. It may consist of the following:
- physical exercises
- breathing exercises
- health education
- advice on symptom management
- Oxygen therapy: Delivery of extra oxygen into the body via a mask or nasal prongs. Oxygen therapy helps people with COPD receive enough oxygen for their body’s needs.
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): Doctors have also used CPAP to treat mild cases of COPD. Positive airway pressure pumps air from a small bedside machine through a tube and into a mask that covers the nose, mouth, or both while a person sleeps.
If a person has severe COPD, their doctor may recommend surgery to remove all or part of the damaged lung. However, a doctor will typically only recommend surgery if medications and lifestyle changes have not helped with the symptoms of COPD.
There is no cure for COPD. However, people can take the following steps to help manage the symptoms at home:
- stopping smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
- receiving regular vaccinations against the flu and pneumonia
- performing gentle exercises to maintain muscle strength
- following a meal plan to maintain a moderate weight
The color of a person’s mucus can sometimes provide insight into the cause of their illness. The table below gives an overview of the different colors of mucus and what they could indicate.
People should see a doctor if they experience any of the following:
- a severe, persistent, or worsening cough
- a cough that produces blood-tinged mucus or mucus of an unusual color
- any other worrying symptoms
After diagnosing the cause of a person’s symptoms, a doctor can provide appropriate treatments.
A person who is experiencing severe breathing difficulties should phone 911 immediately. This symptom could indicate an underlying medical condition that requires urgent treatment.
There are many potential causes of a cough that produces white mucus. The most common cause is a URTI. As long as a person is otherwise healthy, the symptoms of a URTI should go away on their own within a week or two.
However, people should see a doctor if their cough persists, worsens, or occurs alongside other worrying symptoms. In some cases, an ongoing productive cough can signal an underlying medical condition that requires treatment or careful management.