Mucus: Causes of White, Yellow, Brown, Grey, Black Phlegm

Colors of Mucus  (Phlegm, Sputum)

Phlegm may be clear (white), yellow/green, brown, grey, black, pink, orange, containing red streaks, or frothy.

Phlegm is mucus (sputum) coughed up from the chest. It reveals inflammation in the respiratory organs below the vocal cords (voice box, windpipe, bronchi and lungs). From the color and density of phlegm, and accompanying symptoms, its cause may be suspected.

Clear or Thin White Mucus

Clear or cloudy (white), thin and translucent mucus means there is no (or not much) pus or blood in it. Causes of clear white phlegm include:

  • Acute viral bronchitis (chest cold) is inflammation of bronchi (airways between windpipe and lungs), sometimes affecting persons with common cold, influenza or other viral respiratory infection. Low-grade fever, runny nose, itchy throat, hoarseness, wheezing and initially dry and then productive cough with clear mucus may last from several days to several weeks. Mucus can, in some days, turn to yellow or green (1).
  • Acute bronchitis caused by irritant gases (environmental or occupational) resembles viral bronchitis but usually there is no fever.
  • Former smokers with chronic bronchitis may cough up white phlegm. White mucus in chronic bronchitis does not require antibiotic treatment (1).
  • Asthma

Thick White Mucus

Main causes of thick, non-translucent, white mucus:

  • Drinking milk or other thick drinks can make originally clear mucus thick. Milk may cover the back of the throat, but milk itself does not cause mucus.
  • In gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gastric acid may back up from esophagus into the windpipe and throat. Burning stomach, chest (behind the breastbone), and throat, and coughing up white, thick, often frothy mucus are main symptoms. Often, white mucus is the only symptom in GERD.

Yellow and Green Mucus

Mucus is yellow, when it contains inflammatory cells, mainly leukocytes. Thin yellow mucus can result from any cause of inflammation of respiratory tract: infection, allergy, asthma, irritation.

Thick yellow mucus speaks for infection – viral or bacterial. It is a regular symptom in acute or chronic bronchitis or bacterial pneumonia.

Green mucus contains pus (white blood cells mixed with bacteria) and suggests serious bacterial infection. It may be produced in chronic bronchitis, acute bacterial bronchitis, bacterial pneumonia, atelectasis, cystic fibrosis.

Brown or Rusty Mucus

Brown mucus can be due to:

  • Chocolate, cocoa or other foods that stain mucus brown
  • Smoking – from resins and tars in smoke
  • Inhaling dust or smog
  • Infection, especially in chronic bronchitis
  • Blood, arising from the lungs, bronchi, windpipe or voice box

Grey Mucus

Grey mucus can be caused by air pollution , cigarette or marijuana smoking.

Black Mucus

Black mucus can be due to:

  • Smoking marijuana, cigarettes, cocaine or other substances. It is not possible to reliably say, if someone is smoking marijuana or cigarettes on the basis of the smoker mucus color. A smoker who has quit smoking may cough up mucus (black or other colors) for several days or weeks after quitting (4).
  • Air pollution
  • Coal workers pneumoconiosis or anthrosilicosis (black lung disease)
  • Fungal (mold) lung infection, like allergic broncopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA), causing bronciectasis (3)
  • Old blood (5) from COPD (bronchitis or emphysema), tuberculosis, cancer or other bronchial or pulmonary disorder

NOTE 1: vomiting black liquid is a symptom of bleeding from the stomach and has to be checked by a doctor as soon as possible.

Blood in Mucus

Blood in mucus appears as red strikes, brown mesh or obviously red blood.

Pink Mucus

Pink mucus in asthma contains eosinophils (a type of white blood cells appearing in bronchial wall in certain allergies).

Frothy Mucus

Frothy mucus originates from lungs. In pneumonia or lung edema, fluid washes some surfactant (a substance that keeps lung vesicles dilated) from vesicular walls into inflammatory fluid and makes it frothy. Frothy mucus may be also caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Related Articles:

References:

  1. Acute bronchitis (merck.com)
  2. White mucus in chronic bronchitis does not require antibiotic treatment (pulmonaryreviews.com)
  3. Allergy to molds (Aspergilus) and black mucus (chestjournal.chestpubs.org)
  4. Mucus after quitting smoking (quittersguide.com)
  5. Black mucus can be from old blood in the bronchi or lungs (emphysema.net)
About Jan Modric (249 Articles)
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  • Annette Morgan

    I should say she has never smoked anything all her life, she is 45

  • Ryma Sen

    my phlegm was rusty color i don’t smoke i don’t know what the reason behind it someone help me how to cure this ill?

  • Crystal

    I’ve been coughing up thick thick yellow cold and this has been going on for about two months now it happens mainly in the mornings it then is really thick and a lot and there’s no other symptoms just this do I need to see a doctor or is there something I can do at home?

  • Sue Dobell

    My husband has severe emphysema and has started to cough up white mucus… is this part of the emphysema getting worse…

  • Nusrath Rohaiyah

    hi,

    the mucus (mouth) from my chest sometime are in brown or rusty color even if i dont have cough. i do have sinus problem and i dont smoke. It happens rarely. there is also sometime little black particles in the phlegm. what does this means?

  • Hi Nusrath. You would probably need to undergo further diagnostic investigations, like a sputum test, to identify the cause. As you can see from the article above, there are many possible causes of the phlegm. It could be from the nose or from the lower airways and even the lungs. There is no way to say for sure. You should consult with a doctor who can assess you. Once the diagnosis is reached, the appropriate treatment will be then prescribed.