A person can use various breathing and positioning exercises to help clear the mucus or phlegm associated with a productive cough, or wet cough, in the later stages of COVID-19.

A cough is a reflex action to help clear the airways of irritants. A productive, or wet cough, refers to when the body tries to clear the airways of phlegm. This describes the thick mucous present in the respiratory passages that the body may produce in excessive quantities during a respiratory infection.

COVID-19 is a highly contagious disease that results from infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Typically, a person with COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness. In some cases, individuals with the disease may become seriously ill and require medical attention.

In this article, we will discuss how to clear phlegm from the lungs and how COVID-19 can affect the lungs.

Coronavirus data

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub for the most recent information on COVID-19.

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A cough is a common symptom of COVID-19 and the most common symptom of the early stages of infection. The type of cough that most typically relates to COVID-19 is a dry, or unproductive cough. This refers to a tickly cough that does not produce any phlegm.

However, in more severe cases, a person may develop a wet or productive cough.

If a person has a productive cough, they may have phlegm in their chest or lungs that is difficult to clear. They may also notice that their breathing is noisier than typical and that they are short of breath. It is advisable to try and clear the airways of phlegm, as this can allow a person to breathe easier, prevent coughing, and stop them from getting another infection.

There are several ways a person can help to clear phlegm. Some of these include:

  • Gentle exercise: A person should start slowly and rest when they feel tired. Activities, such as walking, can be a suitable way to get moving without putting too much strain on the body. It can also help them cough out phlegm.
  • Mucolytics: A doctor may prescribe mucolytic medications, which are also known as expectorants. These work by making mucus or phlegm less thick and sticky and therefore easier to cough up.
  • Decongestants: A person can purchase OTC decongestants. These medications shrink blood vessels in the nasal passages, allowing more air to pass through. This reduces postnasal drip, which can trigger a wet cough.
  • Maintaining hydration: A person should drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Maintaining good hydration can thin mucus, making it easier to cough up.
  • Humidifier or vaporizer: Inhaling heated, humidified air can help clear mucus.
  • Breathing exercises: Performing these exercises can help strengthen a cough, making it easier to clear phlegm.They can also help expand the lungs, making it easier to breathe.
  • Postural exercises: These exercises help encourage the movement of mucus, which can make it easier to clear.
  • Nasal spray or irrigator: A person can flush the nasal passages to help loosen and clear out thick mucus. A nasal spray delivers a fine mist to help moisturize the nasal passages. An irrigator works by flushing the nasal passages with saline solution.

Learn more about home remedies to clear phlegm and mucus.

The virus responsible for COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2, infects the cells along the airways. The infection itself and the immune system’s response to it can cause inflammation in the lungs. This results in respiratory symptoms, such as difficulty breathing. Like other respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can cause lasting lung damage.

In severe cases, COVID-19 may lead to scarring in the lungs. This can cause lung stiffness that may lead to difficulty breathing and reduce oxygen in the bloodstream. A person may experience long-term breathlessness and difficulty performing daily tasks.

A 2022 study suggests that up to 11% of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 experienced lung scarring after recovery from the illness.

Long COVID refers to ongoing health conditions a person may experience a few weeks or months after a COVID-19 diagnosis. Typical long COVID symptoms that affect the lungs include:

  • shortness of breath
  • a dry cough
  • a wet cough that produces mucus from the lungs

COVID-19 symptoms can vary from person to person and may range from mild to severe. Symptoms can appear anywhere between 2 and 14 days after exposure to the virus. Other common symptoms of COVID-19 can include:

A person will typically recover from COVID-19 symptoms at home and will not require medical attention. However, it is worth noting that older adults and those with certain medical conditions are at a higher risk for experiencing more severe symptoms.

As such, it is advisable for a person to contact their doctor if their symptoms worsen. Emergency warning signs that warrant medical attention include:

  • trouble breathing
  • persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • new confusion
  • an inability to wake or stay awake
  • pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on a person’s skin tone

A wet cough is a persistent cough that produces phlegm or mucus. A wet cough from COVID-19 typically occurs in the later stages, when SARS-CoV-2 has affected the lungs.

A person may find it difficult to clear phlegm. There are several medications, such as mucolytics, and exercises a person can try to help shift the mucus.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can vary from person to person, and an individual should stay at home to recover from the disease. However, they should contact a doctor if their symptoms worsen or they experience difficulty breathing.