Phlegm is the thick, sticky stuff which hangs around the back of the throat when you are sick. A lot of times mucus and phlegm are used interchangeably, but phlegm is actually a different substance.
While mucus is produced by mucus membranes, phlegm is produced by the lungs and respiratory system. In fact, phlegm production not only protects but also supports the respiratory system. The body gets rid of phlegm through post nasal drip, which is experienced during flus, sinusitis and when inhaling irritants.
The mucus membranes line the mouth, nose, throat, sinuses and lungs. When a person is healthy, the mucus produced is thin and therefore not as noticeable. But when you get sick, the mucus becomes stickier so it can trap dust, allergens and bacteria. As the mucus thickens significantly to trap these foreign substances, it becomes known as phlegm. And when it becomes so thick, it can be hard to get rid of phlegm.
Causes of Phlegm Buildup
- A persistent cough can cause phlegm buildup in the throat. It often accompanies colds, and other infections of the upper airways. Phlegm producing cough is often called a chesty cough and is not a dry cough.
- Allergies can also stimulate the production of mucus. This is due to the irritation at the back of the throat.
- Asthma can make the mucus turn dry and hard, due to labored breathing to some extent. Also, inflammation of the bronchial tubes triggers more mucus production.
- Heartburn can lead to moremucus production in the throat. This is because stomach acid irritates the throat and the mucosal lining starts to produces thick phlegm to protect it.
- Upper respiratory infections can lead to excessive throat mucus which can make it difficult to get rid of phlegm. In this case, the body produces more phlegm to trap and destroy the germs. The phlegm produced in an infection will be colored yellow, green or brown.
- Laryngitis is an inflammation of the vocal cords. This causes excess mucus production as well as a constant need to clear the throat.
- Smoking is another cause for too much phlegm in the throat. The irritation to the throat results in mucus production that causes smokers to cough constantly.
- Cold weather can also cause mucus to thicken.
The presence of phlegm indicates a constant need for clearing the throat. It can also be followed by difficulty breathing, feeling weak, and sometimes a fever. The only way to get rid of phlegm that collects in the throat is by coughing.
However, sometimes just coughing is not enough to get rid of phlegm.
The Color of Phlegm and Your Health
The phlegm you cough up can be of different colors which is an indication of your health. And while your primary concern is to get rid of phlegm, you also need to know what is causing it.
- White or gray phlegm can be in indicator of an upper respiratory infection. It could also be sinus congestion. When mucus becomes too thick and dries out, it can be seen as a white discharge. Gray phlegm can tell you that your body has too many resins and tars from smoking or you have inhaled a lot of dust or soot.
- Green or yellow colored phlegm can point to a viral or bacterial infection. It could also be a lower respiratory tract infection. The color comes from blood cells called neutrophils which contain a green protein. These cells go to the site of the infection making the phlegm green or dark yellow in color.
- Brown phlegm could be the sign of too much smoking. It indicates an accumulation of tar, resin and other cigarette matter that comes out with the phlegm. Sometimes phlegm may be brown because of having foods like coffee, chocolate or red wine.
- Pink phlegm gets expelled when a person suffers from pulmonary edema. This condition is also known as fluid in lungs and can be an indicator of blood. Here the blood shows up in small amounts, usually as a streak or stain.
- Bloody phlegm is a health hazard and should be treated with medical attention. Blood found in the phlegm is a benign sign of bronchitis. It could also indicate problems like pneumonia, tuberculosis, cancer or pulmonary embolism.
Just remember that phlegm is a healthy part of the respiratory system. But when it starts to make you feel uncomfortable, you want to find ways to thin it or completely get rid of phlegm.
There are several common home remedies to help clear the throat and get rid of phlegm. These natural treatments can provide symptomatic relief as well as treat the underlying cause for too much phlegm.
Humidify the Air
Keeping indoor air moist can help you minimize, if not completely get rid of phlegm. You may also know that steam can aid with clearing phlegm and congestion. The aim here is to prevent dryness of the throat that can cause a lot of discomfort.
Try to strike a good balance in your indoor air. You want to soothe your throat without turning your home into a tropical jungle.
Instead use a humidifier with a cool mist and keep it running all day long. A humidifier can also be very beneficial at night and help you sleep better.
Just make sure to change the water regularly and clean the humidifier to prevent it from sprouting mold.
Take a Hot Shower
Steam inhalation is a safe and effective way to get rid of phlegm. To do this you can take a steam shower every day. Turn shower to hot and stay in closed bathroom for a few minutes. The steam will help break up the mucus and give you some relief from congestion and phlegm buildup.
Targeted Steam Inhalation
To get more localized results from steam, use a bowl and a towel. Fill the bowl with very hot water and lean over it. Place a towel on top of your head and inhale the vapor. The towel helps keep the vapor trapped inside letting you inhale steam and clear out any blockages.
Inhaled steam will also loosen throat mucus and help you get rid of phlegm.
Certain essential oils can help you get rid of phlegm. These oils can also be used with the steam method described above. Simply put in a few drops of the oil into the bowl of hot water and inhale.
Or, you can use oils which inhibit bacterial growth associated with respiratory infections. Some choices to use can include cinnamon bark, lemon grass and thyme essential oils. Peppermint oil is also a good consideration to get rid of phlegm as it can act as a natural decongestant.
Some of the features of essential oils to get rid of phlegm include antiseptic, antiviral and decongestant features. Essential oils can also provide expectorant and soothing properties to get rid of phlegm.
Essential oils can be used in a few different ways. One way is to diffuse the oil. To do this you can get a diffuser from a drug store or add a few drops of oil to a hot bath to release the scent. The second is steam.
You can also use essential oils to get rid of phlegm by applying them topically. To do this, mix the oil of your choice with a carrier oil like coconut or jojoba. The carrier oil will help dilute the essential oil and limit any risk of irritation.
Apply the diluted oil to your chest and repeat as needed.
Caution: Always carry out an allergy test before using any essential oil. Apply the diluted oil to the inside of your forearm. If you do not experience any irritation within 24 hours, it is safe to use it elsewhere.
Use a Neti Pot
A neti pot is a plastic or ceramic pot that is used for nasal irrigation. This is a method which uses a salt and water solution to flush out nasal passages. The same can also help with getting rid of phlegm. Using this technique is believed to help with relieving congestion.
The neti pot operates by thinning out mucus and expelling it out through the nasal passages. To use, fill the pot with a saline solution. Some neti pots come with prepared saline solutions or you can make your own.
To make a saline solution, mix 1 teaspoon of salt into 450 ml of distilled water.
Pour this solution into the neti pot and tilt your head at a 45 degree angle. Start the flush by inserting the neti spout into the upper nostril and pour the solution in.
The water flows through the nasal cavity and streams out of the lower nostril. Repeat on other side. Do this daily for a few days to get rid of phlegm and congestion.
Apply a Warm Compress
Another way to get rid of phlegm involves using a warm compress. A warm compress can help loosen mucus further and assist it in draining out the nose.
To use a warm compress, wet a small towel with very warm water. Lay this on the eyes, nose and cheeks and leave for a few minutes. The heat from the towel should help loosen the mucus.
Repeat this procedure a couple of times every day to get rid of phlegm.
Drinking more liquids can definitely help with thinning mucus and getting rid of phlegm. More fluids in the body can help the mucus keep flowing. This can be achieved by drinking a lot of warm fluids.
Water is also especially beneficial as it can reduce congestion by loosening mucus and phlegm.
Choose from a variety of beverages like clear juices and broth to chicken soup. Take care to stay away from caffeinated drinks as they will dehydrate you instead.
Gargle With Salt Water
Gargling with warm salt water can help you get rid of phlegm which hangs at the back of the throat. Gargling may even be effective at killing germs lodged in throat and soothing the throat.
To make a salt water gargle, add half a teaspoon of salt to one cup of warm water. Take a sip and gargle without swallowing the salt water. Repeat as needed.
Lemon Tea with Honey
You can buy lemon tea or make some yourself at home. The acidity of the lemon is helpful in breaking up mucus and adding in the honey will help soothe the throat.
To make the tea, use two teaspoons of lemon juice stirred into one cup of warm water. Add in a little honey and stir before drinking.
Honey has many medicinal qualities that make it a beneficial home remedy for treating an irritated throat and eliminating phlegm. It also has antiseptic potential to get rid of infections faster.
Honey can be used by itself as a treatment to get rid of phlegm, or it can be combined with others. For example, you can add honey to a cup of warm water and drink it up. This drink will thin out the mucus and also soothe the throat.
Or you can make a honey syrup by adding a pinch of black pepper to one tablespoon of honey. Have this remedy two times every day to let the pepper treat a throat infection. At the same time, honey will soothe the inflamed mucus membranes.
Ginger acts as a natural decongestant and is used widely to treat throat and respiratory tract infections. To get rid of phlegm using ginger, make a ginger tea.
To prepare tea, add a teaspoon of sliced ginger to one cup of boiled water. Let the mixture steep for about 10 minutes and add in some honey. The honey will improve taste as well as add healing potential. Drink this soothing ginger tea a couple of times every day to loosen mucus.
If you can tolerate it, try chewing raw ginger slices or add ginger into your cooking. Chicken soup with added ginger can be very effective for getting rid of phlegm.
Eating chillies or spicy food is a natural way to relieve inflammation that causes excess mucus to form. Chillies have a spicy compound known as capsaicin that possesses antioxidant and decongestant properties.
The heat from cayenne pepper can help the body release mucus buildup. Cayenne pepper has a warm and stimulating effect that can clear nasal passages and the throat.
To use, mix 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper with an equal amount of grated ginger. Add in one tablespoon of honey and apple cider vinegar. Add in two tablespoons of water and mix all ingredients well.
Take this mixture by spoonful throughout the day to get rid of phlegm.
You can also spice up your cooking by adding in more chillies or sprinkling cayenne powder on top of recipes.
Using onion to make a throat tonic can also help you get rid of phlegm faster. Onion possesses excellent antibiotic and anti-inflammatory qualities to help treat the throat. Plus, it can also act as an expectorant that relaxes throat muscles.
In addition, onion can boost the immune system and expedite the healing process. However, the taste of onion can be very strong and pungent, so add in some sugar to make the throat tonic.
To use onion as a remedy, finely chop one small onion. Toss the chopped onion with two tablespoons sugar and let the mixture sit for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the mixture will have developed a liquid texture.
To treat phlegm accumulation, take one tablespoon of this tonic as needed a couple of times every day.
Garlic has recognition as an expectorant in alternative medicine. It is also a good supplement to take in general. The best way to use garlic is to have it raw for maximum benefits. If it is too unpleasant to eat raw, use it generously in your cooking.
Use Eucalyptus Oil
Another way to get rid of phlegm is to use eucalyptus oil. This works because the oil helps to loosen the mucus so you can cough it out easily.
To use eucalyptus oil, you can inhale vapor by using a diffuser or a balm containing this ingredient. Chest rubs like Vaporub have eucalyptus oil. Rubbing it on the chest can help ease coughs and potentially help you get rid of phlegm.
If you are a smoker, and suffer from excess phlegm, you should stop smoking. Smoking dries out the vocal chords and in an attempt to replenish lost moisture, the body creates more phlegm. Plus, irritants from smoke prolong phlegm presence and slow down the recovery process.
Smoking also damages the lungs’ clearing system and makes it more difficult to get rid of phlegm. If you cough up gray or brown phlegm, it is your body eliminating resins or tar accumulation from smoking.
Adjust Your Pillows
Sleeping with your head elevated can help minimize the discomfort of congestion and excess phlegm. Positioning the head in an elevated pose can relieve the congested nasal passages and help you sleep better.
When you sleep in this position, you will stop the phlegm from lodging in the throat and causing you to cough.
Now there is some debate about drinking milk when trying to get rid of phlegm. Some people believe that drinking warm milk may help with loosening the phlegm, but others do not agree.
This is because when you experience a lot of mucus buildup in the throat, it becomes harder to expel it. It is important to know that milk has a lot of fat content in it which can make mucus thicker and even more irritating.
That is why it is best to stay away from dairy.
Avoid Trigger Foods
Foods, especially those rich in salt and oil should be avoided. Due to their dehydrating nature, these foods trigger mucus secretion in the body and may make it harder to get rid of phlegm.
Other foods to avoid include refined sugars, tofu and chocolate based edibles. Carbonated beverages, caffeinated drinks and alcohol need to be avoided as well since they increase mucus production. If you suffer from acid reflux, these types of foods can irritate the respiratory and digestive tracts.
Certain irritants such as household cleaners, paint fumes, ammonia and cigarette smoke can all irritate the nose and throat. This irritation can result in increased mucus production. They can also cause other respiratory problems such as a burning sensation in the mouth or constant coughing. Plus, irritants can also trigger headaches and yellow or brown mucus.
Another factor to consider is allergies. If you have allergies, mucus production may be stimulated as a response. It is important to remove the source of the allergy by regularly vacuuming your home and keeping bedding clean.
Use an Expectorant to Get Rid of Phlegm
An expectorant is a cough medicine that is unlike a cough suppressant. Instead of subduing a cough, an expectorant loosens the phlegm and induces you to cough. This action helps cough out the collected phlegm.
Expectorants are typically used in combination with other over-the-counter or prescription medications to treat common ailments. Make sure to drink fluid as well to help loosen mucus when you decide to take an expectorant cough medicine.
When Should You See A Doctor?
You should make an appointment with your doctor when uncomfortable phlegm occurs regularly. Phlegm buildup may happen due to a number of other health conditions such as acid reflux, allergies or even asthma. Plus, several lung diseases including chronic bronchitis can trigger phlegm buildup.
Also, if you experience too much phlegm along with coughing up blood, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest pain, it is time to get medical help.
Contact your doctor if the amount of phlegm increases dramatically, and you get worried about how much phlegm you have.
Just remember that your body produces mucus at all times and having some phlegm is not a concern. But when you notice excess phlegm, the reason is some kind of sickness. When you recover once again, the mucus should go back to normal.