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All about mucus and phlegm

All about mucus and phlegm

Do you suffer from mucus and phlegm overproduction on a regular basis? Is it affecting your daily activities and exercise?

Excess mucus and phlegm can be a problem, it can leave you short of breath and it can be very disruptive to your daily routine.

About mucus and phlegm

The body naturally produces a lot of mucus and phlegm to provide the body’s internal tissues with a protective layer and to keep it moisturized and hydrated. The mucus is also produced to trap bacteria and viruses to help stop infection and is in fact produced every day. You have tiny hairs in your nose and lungs called cilia which traps dead cells, debris, bacteria and other invading microorganisms in the mucus. It does this so it can then be coughed up and removed from the lungs.

However your body can over produce them when you have a cold, respiratory infection, inflamed respiratory tract, various sinus conditions or irritations from foreign substances, various infections or you suffer from asthma, allergies or other health issues. Often smoke, dust, air pollution and pets can add to the issue also.

Mucus is a thinnish secretion produced by mucous membranes that are found in the nose and sinuses, while phlegm is a thicker substance that is found in your throat, lower respiratory tract and lungs. Collectively these are known as sputum.

Thin clear coloured mucus is normal and generally means you are fighting a minor infection, if it is white and thicker, then you could be fighting a stronger infection or be suffering from inflamed airways with thick phlegm also being present. The white comes from white blood cells and if these are foamy/frothy could be a sign you may be suffering a medical condition affecting your lungs, such as pneumonia. A thick yellow or green mucus or phlegm means you have a respiratory infection and the darker the yellow and green the more serious the infection is. It’s usually green earlier on in the infection and yellow further along your infection period.  If you have a more reddish coloured mucus/phlegm you may have blood in it and should seek medical advice and see a doctor. As a side note brown or black mucus/phlegm can come from air pollution or from smoking.

Generally speaking excess mucus isn’t always a sign of a major health issue. Most often any excess production should be resolved within a few days. Having said that if you have persistent excess production that just won’t go away and you can’t clear if from your lungs then you could be suffering from a number of health issues, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) such as bronchitis or emphysema of which are just two examples. There are other diseases that can also affect over production of mucus and phlegm and are also often a genetic condition such as Cystic fibrosis and various neuromuscular conditions.

Mucus after a workout

Do you get mucus after working out? Some people can suffer from respiratory irritation due to the increase in oxygen requirement. This could be down to cold dry air entering your lungs, especially through your mouth that triggers an excess of mucus production as your body tries to compensate for the drying out of that moist protective layer as mentioned above.

An increase in your breathing rate could also increase your breathing in of irritants and allergens and/or if you suffer from allergies make the matter worse by affecting an already inflamed and irritated respiratory system.

Finally you could be over doing it and placing your immune system under stress and if you have an underlying illness or medical condition, create inflammation in your airways causing excess mucus/phlegm production.

If you do suffer from excess mucus following your workout, try to stay hydrated and keep an eye on the affects of exercise and if necessary seek medical advice.

However there should be no reason to give up on exercise if either managed or sorted out properly, you just need to become smarter and find ways or types of exercise that suits any underlying issues you may have/be suffering from.

If you have times of the day or week that you are worse, then avoid these times, choose the right activity, duration and intensity for how you feel and be flexible. However if your symptoms are more severe and affecting your lower respiratory system such as your lungs, you could have a respiratory illness and you should seek medical advice.

Shortness of breath

Excess mucus/phlegm can lead to difficulties in breathing and you may also experience wheezing. The difficulty to breath can be down to the respiratory system becoming irritated and inflamed, with swelling and narrowing of the airways, and/or your sinus becoming congested with excess mucus. Also your lungs can become filled with phlegm reducing its ability to take in enough oxygen.

This can be for a number of reasons, such as bronchitis, asthma or even exercise induced asthma (now known as bronchoconstriction) or emphysema or various lung diseases. Hayfever and other allergies can also be attributed to causing irritation in the airways also (Inhalers may be required, seek medical advice, also see hayfever article here).

There are many other medical reasons that you can suffer from a shortness of breath. The above is related to mucus/phlegm. If you feel that it may be caused by something else such as anaphlaxier, pneumonia, chest pain, anxiety, excess weight for example, then it is best to seek medical advice as soon as possible.

If you do suffer from shortness of breath from excess mucus or phlegm then you need to remove the excess produced to provide relief (see next section below). If you get shortness of breath while working out, try breathing in through your nose and out slowly through pursed lips. Try to stick to exercises that you are in the upright position for the majority of the time. Do a proper warm-up and cool down routine. Workout in a comfortable environment. Stop exercising if your breathing means you can’t talk without struggling to do so. If you are wheezing, coughing, have chest pain, feel ill, stop exercising.

One item that may help you to measure if you are getting enough oxygen in your blood is a pulse oximeter which tests how much oxygen is being sent to areas such as your ears, fingers etc. Another item you can use is a spirometer to check your lung capacity and function. (Always purchase an approved or recommended product).

What can you do to reduce or treat over production of mucus and phlegm?

The following is a comprehensive list of popular ideas to help with over production of mucus/phlegm. They are in no particular order and some may not apply to your situation.

  • Depending on how severe you’re suffering, i.e. you are fighting an infection or cold, you may need to stop working out. You need to rest and recover to fight an infection and you may need to seek medical advice to diagnose any issues and get the correct medication.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water to replace lost fluids and to reduce the thickness of the mucus which can help mobilize it. Drinking warm fluids may help to elevate the temperature in your chest, which in turn can help loosen some mucus as well. However avoid caffeine drinks as these can dehydrate you instead. Why not try herbal teas, soups and broths.
  • Gargling salt water can help clear mucus and phlegm and help to soothe the throat.
  • Try steaming. Fill a bowl with hot water and with your face about 12” above the bowl breathe in the vapours for a few minutes. Take care not to go too hot with the water and end up scalding yourself.
  • Use a saline nasal spray to rinse and hydrate your nasal airways.
  • Use expectorants to help loosen mucus.
  • Try using a decongestant if you have a stuffy nose and having breathing issues. However be aware that these may not be ideal if you have mucus and phlegm in the throat and chest. Use them just to help you with breathing difficulties.
  • If you suffer from morning coughs, try sleeping with your head slightly elevated. This will help reduce the chances of getting a post nasal drip.
  • Try controlled coughing. Couching is a natural occurrence that helps the body remove mucus and phlegm. Sit with your feet on the ground and place your arms across your stomach. Take a deep breath and cough out as you press against your stomach with your arms. Another method is to tense your stomach and exhale out quickly 2-3 times, followed by coughing to remove the mucus. Do not perform this if you are getting pain or get any real discomfort doing it.
  • An alternative to coughing is huffing. Take a deep breath and breathe out through your open mouth at the same time as tensing your stomach muscles. Do 2-3 rapid exhales.
  • If coughing is not causing pain use a cough medicine that encourages coughing rather than a suppressant. As mentioned coughing is a way to help rid the body of excess mucus/phlegm.
  • Try doing chest percussions. Tapping your chest and back can often help loosen the mucus.
  • Use a humidifier to provide additional moisture in the air, which will reduce the chances of irritation that dry air can cause, especially at night. Alternatively to a quick fix with dry air, you can steam up your bathroom with a regular hot shower or a bath or place a warm damp hand towel over the face. Warning – if however you suffer from allergies, you must avoid the formation of mold and in fact may need a dehumidifier if you are living in damp conditions.
  • Maintain a clean house/environment to reduce dust and irritation from foreign particles and germs and bacteria. Don’t use items with strong odors, such as perfumes or air fresheners. Keep cleaning products with strong chemicals to a minimum as these may be affecting you. Try using air purifiers and cleaners.
  • If you have hayfever, then take the appropriate medication. Some of the effects of hayfever can lead to irritation and a running nose and post nasal drip with excess mucus being produced and a dry cough developing to rid your body of the excess mucus.
  • Keep a diary of what you eat, as some foods may actually exasperate the issue.
  • Try the numerous inventive ways to help clear mucus and phlegm from your lungs, such as the Bubble PEP technique.
  • Try breathing exercises that will help mobilise the mucus. There are also exercises that combined with breathing techniques can also help mobilize the mucus (look these up on the internet for more specific details). These include postural drainage (this is mostly carried out in the lying position to help drain the mucus from your lungs).
  • Warm up and start your exercise routine slowly. Workout in a clean and comfortable environment.
  • If you run outside, you could try wearing a runner’s mask to keep irritants down and to help reduce cold air intake.

Finally, while mucus can be swallowed and neutralized by your stomach acid, it will be a better and healthier option if you can to blow it out or cough it up and spit it out.

When to see a doctor

If you have mucus/phlegm with a cough or cold that is persistent and going on for a period of time exceeding 2 weeks then it may be advisable to seek medical advice. If you have a chesty cough, yellow or green mucus, a temperature, feel ill, wheezing, short of breath, chest pain, aching body, fatigue or coughing up blood. You could have Bronchitis, Pneumonia or be suffering from any number of viruses, infections or diseases – seek medical advice.