Understanding Mucus in Your Lungs
Last updated: August 2021
Mucus in the lungs is known as phlegm or sputum. It is a common symptom in chronic lung diseases such as COPD (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema), cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, NTM lung disease, or asthma.
Roles of mucus
Immune response and clearing airways
In undamaged airways, oxygenated air moves easily through tubes, helped along by tiny hairs that line the airways called cilia. Mucus has an important role in your lung’s immune response because it traps irritants in your airways and helps allow your body to expel them through coughing. This helps protect you from infection. You can see how this works in our new animation that explains how a cough works, and the important part that mucus plays in clearing your airways from smoke, germs, dust, and chemicals.
More than just an unpleasant nuisance, mucus that collects in your airways can make breathing more difficult and increase your risk of infection, which can further damage your lungs. Living with a chronic lung disease means you are likely experiencing an excess of this thick and sticky fluid in your lungs. Learning more about how to prevent, treat and manage symptoms, including mucus can help improve your overall lung health.
When to seek help
“Many people living with COPD, especially those who smoke and may not have yet been diagnosed with COPD, develop progressively more cough and mucus and initially discount it as ‘normal, smoker’s cough’,” says Irina Petrache, MD, Chief of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at National Jewish Health. “Coughing up mucus is not normal, and it should raise the alarm that something is wrong.” She suggests patients consider use a diary to record when coughing up mucus starts to track how long it goes on. If it persists for more than a few weeks, Dr. Petrache recommends you seek answers from your doctor as to what may be causing it.
If you are experiencing excess mucus production, there are steps you can take to help prevent and clear the mucus in your lungs. Discuss these options with your healthcare provider to find a strategy that works for you, and together you can monitor the results.
Cough it up. Controlled coughing loosens mucus and helps it move through the airways. Uncontrolled coughing fits may trap mucus in your airways.
Postural draining. You can lie down in different positions to help clear the mucus.
Quit smoking. Smoking produces thicker mucus and increases the amount of mucus in the airways. Nicotine, the addictive chemical found in cigarettes, paralyzes the cilia or fiber-like cells that help move mucus out of your lungs. Some people experience more mucus after recently quitting smoking because the cilia are now able to do their job more effectively.
Keep hydrated. Water helps keep your mucus thinner.
Watch your dairy intake. Some people may find that their mucus becomes thicker when consuming dairy products, like milk or ice cream.
Prevent lung infections. Ask your healthcare provider if you are up to date on vaccines that prevent infectious respiratory diseases such as flu and pneumococcal pneumonia.
Talk with your healthcare provider about airway clearance methods. This can be done using manual chest physical therapy, airway clearance devices, or handheld positive expiratory pressure devices.
Working with your healthcare team
Your healthcare provider may recommend medication. Discuss the types of over-the-counter or prescription medications that may help you clear mucus. It is important to have a frank and open conversation with your healthcare provider about your mucus production and any other symptoms of your chronic lung disease. It can help to write down your questions before your appointment and hand them over. You may also find it useful to print out Getting Ready for Your Next Office Visit to jot down your questions in a more formal way.
Living with chronic lung disease can be challenging. The American Lung Association has a wealth of resources available to help you. You can attend a Better Breathers Club meeting to get support from others dealing with similar issues. By joining the Better Breathers Network, you have access to information that may help you better manage your lung disease. You could also join an online support community on Inspire to connect with others at all hours.
The American Lung Association HelpLine online or at 800-LUNG-USA is staffed by medical professionals who can answer questions you have about symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and management of your chronic lung disease.
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