Coughing Up Phlegm: What You Should Know

Author 07.17.15
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Phlegm is a thick, mucus-like substance produced in the lower airways of respiratory system. While most phlegm has no color, green or yellow phlegm may indicate an infection, like pneumonia or bronchitis. Bloody phlegm warrants an urgent call to the doctor and may indicate a serious infection or other condition. Although phlegm is a normal part of the respiratory system functioning, some people have conditions or diseases that cause the body to produce too much phlegm, leading to discomfort, excessive coughing and, in some cases, complications.

Phlegm and COPD

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a broad term used to define certain respiratory conditions, specifically chronic bronchitis and emphysema. COPD is a common condition that affects millions of people worldwide, and smoking is the number one cause of COPD. The condition generally results in coughing, breathlessness, frequent chest infections, excess sputum or phlegm and difficulty breathing, especially in later stages.

One of the most common symptoms of COPD is the presence of excess mucus or sputum, often referred to as phlegm. In healthy individuals, phlegm is a normal way for the body to keep the airways moist. In people with COPD and other chronic respiratory conditions, however, excess mucus can result in coughing and difficulty breathing. Excess phlegm may also result in smoke, bacteria and other particles being trapped rather than expelled from the lungs, which can lead to infections.

Medications to Control Phlegm

There is currently no cure for excess phlegm or many conditions that cause extra mucus to build up in the airways. However, there are several medications available that can help control phlegm. The most common medication is guaifenesin (Robitussin), which can be purchased over the counter. Guaifenesin is a class of medications known as ""expectorants,"" which work by loosening and thinning mucus in the airways, making coughing up phlegm or mucus easier. Over-the-counter medications like guaifenesin are not meant to use long-term, however, and are generally not recommended for chronic conditions, such as COPD or chronic bronchitis. They may be used for occasional, temporary relief from COPD exacerbation or flare-ups, however.

Other medications are available by prescription only, and include combination steroid and bronchodilators, such as Roflumilast, which are used to open up airways, thin and loosen mucus, and help relieve coughing and difficulty breathing. Roflumilast is most commonly prescribed to people who have COPD, bronchitis or other chronic respiratory condition, and is not meant to be used as an emergency inhaler during sudden or severe shortness of breath. Only your doctor can determine which medications are best for you. Talk to your doctor about the medication options available to you.

Techniques to Clear Phlegm

In many cases, phlegm can be cleared from the airways by using certain techniques designed to bring the phlegm to the surface so it can be expelled. These techniques include deep coughing, done by taking a deep breath, holding the breath for a few seconds and then using the stomach muscles to forcefully expel the air through coughing. Huff coughing is another way to clear phlegm from the airways, which is done by taking a deep breath and using stomach muscles to exhale rapidly three times while making a ""ha, ha, ha"" sound. This should help move mucus up and out of the airways.

Other techniques for clearing phlegm from the lungs include inflatable vests that shake the chest area to help clear mucus, postural drainage techniques that use gravity to promote mucus drainage and special devices used to exhale into to move mucus out of the lungs.

People who live with chronic diseases like COPD or chronic bronchitis must learn ways to effectively clear mucus and phlegm from the airways, in order to avoid breathing difficulties or infections. If you have a condition, like COPD, that causes a build up of phlegm, talk to your doctor about ways to clear phlegm safely and effectively.

When to See The Doctor

Complications arising from excess phlegm can be serious and should be brought to the attention of your doctor right away. Knowing certain warning signs can make the decision of when to call your doctor an easier one.

One of the fastest ways to know if a call to your doctor is needed is to look at the color of the phlegm you cough up. Normal phlegm will be colorless and odorless, but phlegm that is green, brown or yellow may indicate a problem. Yellow phlegm can be caused by anything from a common cold to cystic fibrosis or bronchitis, and should be reported to your doctor right away. In most cases, a course of antibiotics will clear everything up within a few days. Green or brown mucus, on the other hand, may indicate a bacterial infection, and brown mucus can also be a sign of blood particles in the mucus, indicating a more serious infection.

In addition to the color of phlegm, if other symptoms are present, such as fever, weakness, fatigue, nausea or vomiting, contact your doctor right away. Receiving treatment early is often key to successful recovery, so never ignore signs of potentially serious health conditions.

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