Getting To Know The Real Function Of Mucus

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. May 7th 2016

Call it phlegm, mucus or sputum; regardless of the name you use, everybody has it. You may not give much thought to mucus until it is being produced in excess. Mucus, which is found in the lungs and respiratory track, is often referred to as sputum and helps keep the tissues underneath moist. Some mucus production is normal, but an increase in mucus development can be a symptom of various illnesses. Additionally, mucus is normally clear, but in certain instances it can become green, yellow and cloudy. Continue reading to find out want your mucus color can tell you.

Mucus Color And Disease

While mucus is normally clear to a cloudy white color, it can change colors if an infection is present, but mucus color alone is not the best indication of the type of infection. For instance, you may have heard you can tell what type of infection you have by the color of your mucus.

One of the most popular beliefs is that green mucus always indicates a need for antibiotics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while the presence of green mucus often is a sign of an infection, it does not always mean it is a bacterial infection, which requires an antibiotic. Green mucus alone is not the best way to determine the need for antibiotics. A sputum analysis needs to be done to confirm the type of infection present.

Mucus may also become yellow if an infection is present. As a response to an infection in your respiratory track, white blood cells increase. According to Harvard Medical School, the cells can cause the mucus to change to a yellow color. Sputum may also become brown or rust colored, which is often an indication of old blood in the lungs or respiratory track.

Is Mucus Helpful Or Harmful?

It’s not uncommon to think having mucus means you are sick, but you are always producing mucus, and you probably just don’t notice it. Although it can be annoying to cough up mucus, it does have a useful purpose. Mucus helps keep tissues in the nose, lungs and throat from becoming too dry. It also filters and humidifies the air you breathe. Mucus also helps trap bacteria before it can lead to an illness.

While mucus does serve a purpose, too much can cause problems. In some instances, excess mucus production can block the airways and lead to shortness of breath. For example, in an asthma attack, excess mucus is produced, which contributes to problems breathing. In illnesses and diseases that cause an increase in mucus production, such as cystic fibrosis, it may be difficult to get mucus out of the lungs. Chest percussion is often needed, which involves pounding on the back to assist in draining the mucus and allowing it to be coughed out.

Sputum Characteristics

Sputum color is only one factor to look at when determining the type of infection or illness present. Other characteristics are equally important and need to be evaluated such as the following:

  • Amount: It is normal to produce about 10 to 100cc per day of mucus. Production in excess of that may mean an infection. Additionally, certain diseases, such as COPD and cystic fibrous, often cause an increase in mucus production.
  • Odor: Mucus should normally be odorless. If it has an offensive odor, it may mean the presence of pus and be an indication of an infection.
  • Viscosity: Viscosity refers to the thickness of mucus. Mucus should be thin. It can become thick with various infections, like pneumonia.

What Is Sputum Analysis?

Sputum analysis is a common diagnostic procedure performed to test mucus for various types of infections. It is helpful to decide what type of treatment will be most effective. An analysis can also detect the presence of cancer cells.

A sputum sample can be obtained in a few different ways. The easiest and least invasive is to have a patient cough up some mucus into a sterile cup. If the patient is unable to cough, sputum can be suctioned through a catheter or bronchoscope tube inserted into the lung through the nose.

Once obtained, the sample is analyzed to determine if any disease causing organisms are present, such as bacteria, viruses or fungus. Establishing what type of organism is in the sputum can help doctors make a diagnosis of illnesses, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and bronchitis.

It’s normal to cough up a little mucus occasionally, but there are some instances, where mucus production regardless of the color should be evaluated by a doctor. If you have a cough and mucus production that won’t go away after two or three weeks without a known cause, you should see your doctor. Also, if you are coughing up blood, pink or brown mucus, a medical evaluation is needed.


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