Phlegm: What colors of phlegm mean for our health?


What is Phlegm?

Phlegm is a liquid secreted by the mucous membranes of mammals. Its definition is limited to the mucus produced by the respiratory system, excluding that from the nasal passages, and particularly that which is expelled by coughing (sputum). Phlegm is in essence a water-based gel consisting of glycoproteins, immunoglobulins, lipids and other substances. Its composition varies depending on climate, genetics, and state of the immune system.

What The Color Of Your Sputum Says

Colors of phlegm mean for our health?

White or Grey Phlegm

Coughing up white or gray phlegm is often an indication of an upper respiratory tract infection or sinus congestion. Dr. Steve Okhravi, an emergency physician and founder of DocChat and Emergency Medical Care, says this type of phlegm drains from the sinuses. “Normally, your sinus doesn’t drip, but when there’s inflammation, either viral or bacterial, it can cause a drip from your sinus into your throat,” he told Medical Daily in an email.

You might have heard consuming dairy products can cause white mucus to develop. This isn’t true. However, dairy can make it thicker, and therefore more troublesome for the body to drain. This causes the mucus to stagnate and dry out, leading to a white discharge. Meanwhile, coughing up gray phlegm may be a sign that the body is trying to get rid of resins or tars that accumulated from excessive smoking or inhalation of large amounts of air pollutants like smog or dust.

Green or Dark Yellow Phlegm

A thick and dark yellow phlegm may be a sign of a viral or bacterial infection, sinus infection, or lower respiratory tract infection. Typically, this occurs when the immune system sends white blood cells, known as neutrophils, to the area of infection. These cells contain a green protein, which, when present in large quantities, turn the mucus into a greenish hue.

A 2011 study published in the European Respiratory Journal, however, found that green or yellow phlegm does not always signify an infection. After some tests, researchers found only 59 of every 100 samples of green phlegm contained bacteria while only 46 out of every 100 samples of yellow phlegm contained bacteria. “Contrary to popular belief, having greenish mucus does not necessarily mean you have a bacterial infection,” Exline said.

Brown Phlegm

People who smoke tend to produce more brown phlegm, which often comes out combined with saliva in a grainy texture. Excessive smoking can cause phlegm to turn brown because of all the resin, tar, and other particulate matter in cigarettes, which the body tries to cough back up, according to Exline.

When cigarettes aren’t the culprit, people may cough up brown phlegm because of the foods they’re eating, including chocolate, coffee, and red wine.

Pink Phlegm

Pink-colored phlegm is anything but pretty. Coughing up pink phlegm is an indicator of pulmonary edema, also known as fluid in the lungs. It can also be a sign of bleeding when seen in small amounts, which show up as a stain or streak. This type of phlegm can also have a frothy texture, which usually occurs in people with pre-existing heart problems, according to the UK’s National Health Service.

Bloody Phlegm

Blood found in phlegm is known as haemoptysis, while streaks of blood in phlegm is a benign sign of bronchitis. Coughing up a significant amount of blood could also be a sign of tuberculosis, pneumonia, cancer, or pulmonary embolism, Okhravi said. If there’s excessive bleeding, more blood than phlegm, or it doesn’t stop, you should seek medical attention immediately because it could mean you’re dealing with a more serious health problem.

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