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Phlegm: What is it, Diagnosis and Treatment


Phlegm: What is it, Diagnosis and Treatment

Phlegm is a layer of mucus that acts as a protective lining. The mucus layer in the respiratory tract prevents the area from drying out and becoming irritated. It is a protective structure against foreign substances such as dust and pollen entering the body from outside. The mucus layer changes color and structure for various reasons and forms phlegm. Although it is usually benign, it sometimes occurs due to a different health problem. Phlegm may increase in case of respiratory and lung diseases, irritation and infection. Therefore, sputum can give preliminary information about health status. However, home conditions, work environment and habits directly or indirectly affect phlegm formation. Although producing phlegm is seen as the body’s way of cleaning itself, it is useful to follow it carefully. When there is a change in color, structure and habit, the underlying cause should be investigated.

What is Phlegm?

There are some mechanisms that ensure airway patency by protecting the respiratory tract against foreign substances. One of these mechanisms is mucus produced by the lungs and respiratory tract. Mucus plays a role in mechanisms such as keeping the respiratory tract moist and removing foreign substances. The mixture of mucus and saliva that is coughed up, usually in case of irritation or in the presence of infection, is called phlegm. In the presence of infection, respiratory tract and lung diseases, the color and structure of sputum may vary. For this reason, sputum analysis is performed to investigate the substances excreted from the upper respiratory tract. Phlegm provides information not only about the upper respiratory tract but also the lower respiratory tract.

The consistency of sputum can vary depending on many different reasons. It may be thick, sticky or foamy. As the infection progresses, the sputum becomes darker. Phlegm caused by allergies is usually not thick. Additionally, in the morning and in case of dehydration, the sputum may thicken somewhat. Since frothy and colored sputum indicates a serious problem, consult your doctor without delay.

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What Causes Phlegm?

Phlegm is a mucus located in the throat and lungs. It has a thicker structure compared to the mucus produced in the nose and sinuses. It helps keep the respiratory tract and lungs moist and warm. However, expectoration is usually not a cause for concern. Phlegm is removed to clear foreign and irritating substances in the lungs and throat. However, if colored sputum occurs or if sputum comes out with cough when there is no disease, there may be another underlying cause. In this case, phlegm may tell you that something is wrong with your body. There are main causes of phlegm that comes with cough:

  • Infection and allergies
  • Asthma
  • COPD
  • Gastroesophageal reflux (GEHR)
  • Dry, moisture-free environment
  • Loss of fluid from the body

Apart from these, your lifestyle habits may cause phlegm and cough. Smoking, drug use and working conditions affect sputum formation.

A number of tests are performed to understand the cause of phlegm.

  • A sputum sample is taken early in the morning before eating or drinking anything. After rinsing the mouth with clean water, a sputum sample is given along with the cough.
  • Sputum induction is applied to patients who have difficulty in expectorating sputum. It is especially used in the diagnosis of airway diseases such as tuberculosis. You are made to cough by inhaling vapors of a hypertonic solution that causes you to cough, and a sputum sample is taken.
  • Another sample procedure is bronchoscopy. A sputum sample is taken from the throat with the help of a bronchoscope with a light and camera and the respiratory tract is examined.

What Does Phlegm Color Signify?

Sputum color is an indicator of bacterial infection present in respiratory and lung diseases. Sputum color detects the presence of inflammatory cells in the respiratory tract and is an easily interpreted marker. A rapid prediction of the presence of bacterial infection is provided.

  • Clear phlegm: It is normal for the body to produce mucus and phlegm regularly. Clear sputum helps moisturize the respiratory tract and contains water, protein, antibodies. If the body produces large amounts of clear phlegm, this usually indicates that the body is trying to expel allergens such as pollen. However, in some cases, it may indicate viral bronchitis, allergic rhinitis and viral pneumonia.
  • Green or yellow phlegm: Signs that neutrophils (white blood cells) are fighting an infection. Phlegm may be yellow at first and then turn green. Green or yellow sputum is seen in bronchitis, sinusitis, cystic fibrosis and pneumonia.
  • White phlegm: Usually caused by viral bronchitis, COPD, Gastroesophageal reflux and congestive heart failure.
  • Brown sputum: Rust-colored or brown-stained sputum usually indicates old blood. In some cases, it occurs after red or pink sputum. It mostly occurs as a result of bacterial pneumonia and bronchitis, lung abscess, cystic fibrosis and inhalation of toxins such as coal and asbestos.
  • Black phlegm: Also known as “Melanoptysis”. It is caused by inhalation of high amounts of black substances such as coal dust and fungal infection. In addition, smoking and smokable drugs also cause black phlegm.
  • Bloody, red or pink phlegm: Red and pink color is caused by blood. It indicates a serious problem. The possibility of tuberculosis, pulmonary embolism (clot in the lung), congestive heart failure, lung inflammation and lung cancer is considered.
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How to Treat Phlegm?

Phlegm often becomes irritating and aggravates the cough. There are some lifestyle changes that can prevent phlegm formation. In addition, there are many different methods to remove phlegm:

  1. Drinking plenty of fluids is a more important step than you think. Water is necessary for the body to cope with infection and remove toxins.
  2. Keeping the air in your home moist moisturizes the throat and loosens phlegm.
  3. Nasal spray or drops often help relieve mucus that accumulates in the nose. It thins and loosens the mucus produced in the sinuses and allows it to be removed.
  4. Inhaling steam can be good for clearing phlegm as it warms and moistens the respiratory tract. Additionally, a few drops of essential oils such as eucalyptus oil can be used to loosen phlegm.
  5. Loss of fluid in the body means lower humidity. For this reason, beverages containing caffeine such as tea and coffee should not be consumed too frequently.
  6. With the advice of a doctor, medications can be used to thin mucus and help expel phlegm.

Additionally, smoking has the potential to increase phlegm production. You can get help from your doctor on this issue.

How to Remove Phlegm in Babies and Children?

Phlegm can make it difficult for babies and children to breathe and prevent them from falling asleep. Excess phlegm can even cause nausea and vomiting. Although the normal function of mucus is to protect against infection, excess mucus accumulation can, on the contrary, cause infection. Therefore it is necessary to clean regularly:

  • A sterilized nasal aspirator can be used to absorb excess mucus. It needs to be sterilized every time it is used.
  • A nasal spray can be used to loosen and expel mucus.
  • A humidifier can be placed in children’s rooms. Machines need to be cleaned regularly.
  • A warm bath may be beneficial to soften the phlegm. Steam helps make breathing easier.
  • Care may be taken to remove potential allergens such as dust, pollen and pets from the environment.
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Water or liquid should not be poured into babies’ noses, and medication should not be given without consulting a doctor. One

Care should be taken not to give honey to babies younger than age. If the baby’s phlegm and nasal congestion become severe, be sure to consult a doctor.

How to Remove Phlegm with Natural Methods?

There are some methods used to control phlegm naturally.

  1. Gargling with warm salt water can help break up phlegm. It loosens the phlegm and facilitates the removal of foreign allergenic substances from the throat along with the phlegm.
  2. Honey is often used in the treatment of cough and phlegm. It helps moisturize the throat by loosening thick mucus. It can be consumed plain or with warm teas.
  3. Ginger, a natural anti-inflammatory, helps prevent excessive phlegm accumulation. Ginger, used in tea for cough, sore throat and phlegm, is considered one of the herbs that are effective for the airways.
  4. Curcumin, the main ingredient of turmeric, is effective in reducing infection that triggers phlegm production. It is anti-inflammatory and can facilitate mucus elimination.
  5. Broth soups are a good food against infection with their vitamin, mineral and protein content. Drinking it warm or hot helps break down phlegm.
  6. It can be said that some foods such as onion, garlic, broccoli and pineapple are good options against inflammation in the airways.

Untreated phlegm makes breathing difficult, irritates the throat and causes coughing. It negatively affects sleep patterns and even eating becomes difficult. Transient and mild phlegm is usually not a serious symptom and resolves spontaneously. However, severe and persistent phlegm may indicate another problem. In this case, be sure to consult your doctor.


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