Coughing Up Excessive Phlegm (Mucus, Sputum) from the Throat

What Is Phlegm?

Phlegm (pronounced flem; from Greek phlegma = inflammation) is an informal name for mucus coughed up from the throat. In this article, a term phlegm will be used only for mucus produced in the mucous layer of bronchi and windpipe (trachea). Medical term for phlegm is expectorated matter or sputum.

Phlegm appears as thick, jelly-like fluid of various colors and consistency, depending on the cause.

Phlegm is composed mainly from water and glycoproteins secreted by mucous glands.

Colors of Phlegm

Clear phlegm means there is no pus or blood in it. Yellow or green (not translucent) phlegm is mucus mixed with pus. Rusty or brown phlegm may be due to smoking, air pollution, blood or infection. Blood in phlegm may appear as read streaks. Pink phlegm may be from asthma. Frothy phlegm originates from the lungs. Read more about phlegm colors.

Symptoms Caused by Phlegm

Phlegm may irritate the lower airways and trigger cough. Cough and constant movements of tinny hairy-like projections (cilia) in the lining of the lower airways push phlegm into the throat, from where it can be coughed up or swallowed. Swallowed mucus is degraded by bowel bacteria that produce gas, what may result in abdominal bloating.

Acute Diseases with Phlegm

Phlegm may be produced in the following acute diseases:

  • Chest cold (acute bronchitis) - an infection of the windpipe (trachea) or airways that lead to the lungs (bronchi). It is often preceded by a common cold. Itchy throat, coughing up clear phlegm and moderate chest pain during coughing are main symptoms, which usually resolve within two weeks. There is usually no or only moderate fever.
  • Influenza (flu), including swine flu, can present with clear phlegm, high fever, runny nose, sore throat, headache and muscular pains.
  • Bacterial pneumonia, coughing up yellow or green frothy phlegm, high fever and rapid breathing are main symptoms. In viral pneumonia, dry cough is characteristic, though.

Chronic Diseases with Phlegm

Coughing up phlegm may be a long lasting problem:

  • In chronic bronchitis, mostly caused by smoking or air pollution, coughing up thick phlegm is the main symptom. In severe bronchitis, phlegm may obstruct the bronchi, resulting in lack of oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia), reflected in bluish lips and skin around the mouth (cyanosis).
  • In tuberculosis, yellow or green phlegm, often with blood, may be coughed up. Low grade fever, coughing, low appetite and generally feeling ill are main symptoms that usually lasts over 3 weeks.
  • In asthma, an allergic inflammation of the bronchi, a small amount of clear or pink phlegm may be produced and coughed up along with difficult breathing.
  • Certain types of lung cancer produce mucus. Chest pain, coughing up blood or yellow phlegm, low appetite and losing weight are main but late symptoms.

Phlegm in Small Children

  • Acute viral infections, like chest cold or influenza are main causes of coughing up phlegm in small children.
  • A baby with cystic fibrosis, a rare genetic disease, can cough up thick yellow or green phlegm, and have blocked nose, diarrhea, and respiratory infections shortly after birth and later in life.

Does Drinking Milk Cause Phlegm?

Drinking milk does not cause phlegm, but it may make it thick and thus hard to expel.

Other Causes of Mucus in the Throat

Mucus produced in the nose or peri-nasal sinuses and dripped down the throat is informally called post nasal drip or, medically, catarrh.

Bacterial infection of tonsils or epiglottis (membrane that covers the voice box during swallowing) usually causes high fever, strong pain in the throat, enlarged lymph nodes in the neck and white-yellow pus that covers tonsils and the throat walls.

About Jan Modric (249 Articles)
Health writer
  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Sweet_Dreamer

    You very likely have bronchitis, which is more frequently seen in smokers, especially about a bout of the flu/cold. This recurrence of the cold may actually be the persisting infection and you need to see your doctor as soon as possible for antibiotics. Green mucus usually indicates a long standing infection. With smokers, a bout of bronchitis following the cold or flu can last for months. Medical attention is necessary. You also need to verify why, if it really was a flu followed by a cold, you have these recurrent infections. Smoking of course does increase the likelihood but there could be other causes of impaired immune functioning.

  • Harshi

    Hello Doc!
    I have coughing problem since many years, like more than 10 years. I am currently 22. While coughing, there is almost every time some sputum (salty-tasting) which is TRANSPARENT most of the times. sometimes it is significant in quantity, sometimes just a trace.
    The irritation in the throat is CONSISTENT, tickling, itching, sometimes inflamed. I keep trying to clear my throat.
    Needless to say, nothing has worked out. Even ENT specialist failed.
    There is a slight difference in my right and left the NOSTRIL sizes (ENT spec. told me). But I don’t think that’s the problem.
    Any clues, sir?

  • Frank

    My wife had gastric surgery in Nov 2010, the cancer has metasticied to lungs and several lymp nodes. The only problem she is currently having is eating, she coughs up a slimy clear liquid with her meals, which she is able to keep down about 30%. In order for her to beat the cancer she has to be able to eat more and keep it down. Can you tell me what is the cause of the slime and how to fix?

  • Ric07

    Hi, last night I woke up feeling quite sick with a sickly burning taste/feeling in my throat.. After glass of water I felt quite phlegmy and preceded to bring it up, it was a clear colour at first, but then my throat started bringing up it’s own mucus/phlegm without effort and when I spat that out it was unmistakably dark brown coloured. I brought a fair amount of this up and have continued too till now. What could this be, I have never experienced this colour mucus before n am curiously concerned. Thanks. Rick

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Carl

    It sounds like a case of acute bronchitis that could be totally unrelated to the surgery, although it can be contracted while in hospital (nosocomial). Since the sputum has subsided, it is fair to assume that the antibiotics worked. The cough can persist for a period of time afterwards (weeks) and will subsequently subside. You should follow up with your doctor to confirm this and exclude other respiratory conditions like pneumonia. There is no reason to assume that it is related to the anesthesia just yet given that you had the typical symptoms of bronchitis.

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Harshi

    This sounds like post nasal drip but would not have been missed by the ENT. Since you do not mention any symptoms with the airways or lungs, it is reasonable to assume that the problem lies either within the nasal cavity or mouth and esophagus. In terms of the latter, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux) due to acid reflux can cause many of these symptoms. It can cause a constant irritation of the throat and lead to mucus production. From what you describe the irritation does not seem to involve the airways but it is important to keep conditions like asthma and chronic bronchitis in mind. I would advise that you seek a second opinion from another ENT.

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Frank

    While there may be excessive mucus production in the airways, this sounds like pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs). You can read this article on the condition and certain medication may be prescribed by her doctor if it is appropriate. Remember that once metastases occurs to the lungs, liver, brain, etc then the approach to management has to be very careful and overlooked by her oncologist. This is a very delicate stage so please do not try any treatment without first discussing it with her doctor. Read more on fluid in the lungs, different types of sputum and sputum color and meaning.

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Ric07

    This sounds like a case of acid reflux (burning feeling) and excessive mucus and saliva is associated with it. The dark brown mucus is however a possible cause for concern since you do not report any symptoms of an infection and this could be the sign of bleeding, most likely gastrointestinal bleeding. Often though it is just related to something you ate (especially chocolate/cola) with an acute case of acid reflux. However it is best to be cautious and see your doctor even though you have not experienced any other symptoms.

  • Dasha

    Hi,
    For the last couple of weeks I’ve been pretty sick. It started with just a bit of clear phlegm, nothing serious. No sore throat, no nothing. Then, had some really intense stressful stuff go on about two weeks before March break, start feeling a bit under the weather. I get over the stress, I start feeling better. March break comes along, and for any teen that means staying up late, partying; you know the deal. The Saturday before school started, my throat started getting sore, couldn’t sleep at night due to a stuffy nose. Monday I didn’t wear my contacts because my eyes felt irritated. A friend of mine actually remarked that they seemed a bit red. Tuesday, felt a bit better, wore my contacts, and at work after school, I notice my eyes are irritated again. I go home, wash my eyes with tea, then put aloe on them and go to sleep. I wake up in the morning with one eye sealed shut, a bit of a fever, sore throat, stuffy nose, and a bit of an ear infection. Needless to say, I’ve been home since then. The eye infection, sore throat, and stuffy nose were the only things that stayed – oh, and I’m pretty sure it’s bacterial. Delicious amounts of greenish phlegm everywhere. Now, I’m developing a dry cough and there’s small streaks of blood in the phlegm. Help? Oh and my routine several times a day includes gargling with saltwater, running saltwater down my nasal passages to clear the phlegm, (there’s so much that comes out), and washing my eyes with organic black tea, and water and sodium bicarbonate. If there’s anything I should do to aid in my recovery, please let me know. I rarely ever get this sick and it’s been about 8 years the last time that I’ve gotten this poor. Thank you.

  • aliza

    hi, i have been suffering with a chronic cough for approximately 8 months. It started as a dry cough only when i wake up in the am, but now it has progresed to a clear mucus cough that only starts at night and lasts about 3-4 hours. I have been treated for asthma as well as sinus. I have taken different antibiotics, nasal spray and allergy meds which are all futile in alleviating my symptom. I am totally fed up as my doc does not really know what is causing my cough.any suggestions is greatly appreciated.

  • ruth

    Hi Doc,

    I just want to ask if the symptoms I have is similar wd Bronchitis..I have sputum expectorated not by coughing but by only spitting it out. It comes from my throat. When I’m stressed from work or have no enough rest or laugh very hard, my throat get itchy associated wd continuous(paroxysmal) and unproductive cough. It lasts for days until I’m well rested again. More importantly, the sputum from my throat has red streaks and I’m sure it’s not from my lungs because I didn’t cough. Please help me determine my condition. It has been bothering me for a long time since last year…

    -Ruth

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Dasha

    Hopefully at this point you have sought proper medical attention. You need to see your doctor because the original infection may have recurred or an new infection is setting in which from your report is progressing. Please stop with the “home remedies” like washing your eye with black tea and so on. You need proper medical attention, medication and monitoring. Failure to do so can lead to very serious complications, that could cost you your eyesight or progress to septicemia (blood poisoning) or even an infection in the brain (encephalitis) and/or linings (meningitis). I hope this highlights how a “simple” infection can be life threatening without proper medical attention. These “home remedies” that you are using may actually worsen the condition.

  • Dasha

    Actually, the home remedies made me better. I did in fact go see a doctor, and it was viral. In my area TONS of people were getting sick with something nasty. If I had taken antibiotics it would’ve caused much worse side effects.

  • Camilla

    Hi, recently I have been coughing up small little blood in my phlegm whenever I woke up in the morning. It started since last yr December while I was having cough. And this yr Feb I start having cough n there goes again. blood in phlegm. And during April. This morning I clear my phlegm and I saw redish brown in it. But after I drank water it has no more blood coming out. I m now 23, non smoker. Pls advice. thanks.

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Aliza

    You have not mentioned if you are a smoker or not. If you are, then you need to be assessed for COPD which is a common cause of a persistent cough in smokers. From the symptoms you describe, both allergic rhinitis and asthma could be a cause. Chronic sinusitis is another possibility. In terms of allergic conditions, rhinitis and asthma, it will not resolve overnight even with medication. The prescribed medication is there to limit the extent of the symptoms and prevent acute exacerbations as part of chronic management. This means that the condition may not be able to be “cured” but just managed. It may reduce the intensity of the symptoms but not alleviate it entirely. Finding the root cause would be helpful, although if you have a family history of atopy (allergic rhinitis/asthma) or structural problems like a deviated septum, the options are very limited. You should see an ENT specialist if it is sinusitis or allergic rhinitis and then follow up with a pulmonologist (lung specialist) if it is asthma. Your doctor can refer you to the appropriate specialist

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Ruth

    Yes, this could be related to bronchitis but what may be a more likely cause here is acid reflux. This also causes mucus in the throat (spat out, not necessarily coughed up), more like to occur with stress, cause itchiness of the throat and so on. You should see an ENT specialist to first exclude other throat and nasal conditions before taking it further.

  • jo

    I was told I have anemia I’m coughing and its with colored phlem.my veins are showing through my skin very clearly.I’m now on second day of rx for iron when will veins disappear. My dr has me goin for chest xray due shotness of breath..could this b symptoms of cancer?