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COPD Lexicon: Sputum Terms To Know

No one wants to talk about sputum. But, as a respiratory therapist, it’s something we deal with. As a person with a chronic lung disease, it’s probably something you deal with too. So, I thought it would be neat to define some sputum terms. Here we go!

Sputum terms

Mucus. A sticky substance. It’s used to lubricate airways. It’s also used to trap inhaled pathogens and particles. COPD may cause increased production of it. Lung infections also cause it to increase. 

Pathogens. These are germs. They include respiratory viruses and bacteria. Most are filtered by your nose. But, some make it into your airways. They are trapped and balled up in mucus. It’s brought up to your upper airway to be swallowed. They are destroyed by stomach juices. You may also expectorate them.

Infection. You have an abnormal amount of pathogens in your sputum.

Expectorate. To spit up.

Irritant. They include microscopic particles in the air you inhale. They may include tiny wood particles, such as in wood fire. They may also include chemicals from fumes and other air polutants.

Microscopic. Too small to be seen.

Sputum. The term for mucus once it enters your upper airway. People with COPD may produce more than normal amounts of it. Your doctor can help you determine what is normal for you. It can be various colors.

Phlegm. Another term for sputum.

Secretions. Another term for mucus in your airways.

Scant. You have very little mucus. This is normal.

Copious. You have lots of mucus. This is abnormal. It may obstruct airways and cause flare-ups.

Clear. This is the normal color of mucus.

White.  This is a common color of mucus in asthmatics. It’s white due to increased number of eosinophil.

Eosinophils. A type of white blood cell. They cause airway inflammation in asthma. They will be present in sputum during asthma and COPD flare-ups. They are very responsive to corticosteroids.

Neutrophils. A white blood cell that causes airway inflammation in COPD. They will show up in sputum. They are not very responsive to corticosteroids.

Colors of Sputum

Yellow sputum. A common color of COPD sputum.

Brown sputum. It may indicate a type of bacteria is present in your lungs. Colorful sputum usually indicates pneumonia. If you observe this color, you should call your doctor.

Pneumonia. A lung infection usually caused by a bacteria.

Green sputum. It may indicate a type of bacteria is present in your lungs. Again, it may indicate pneumonia. You should call you doctor.

Red sputum. Another color that may indicate pneumonia. You should call your doctor. It may also be red-tinged. 

Sputum induction. It’s when you produce a sputum sample.

Sputum sample. It should be from your lower airway. You should spit it into a sputum cup.

Sputum cup. It’s what you expectorate a sputum sample into. They are small containers made of plastic. They’re sterile containers. So, make sure to be careful not to touch the insides of them. Make sure you close the lid tightly. This is usually done in a doctor’s office or hospital setting.

Antibiotic. It’s a medicine used to kill bacteria. A lab technition can run tests to see if there is bacteria in your sputum. They will learn what bacteria it is and what antibiotic kills it. You may then be prescribed that antibiotic by your doctor.

Norma flora. Good bacteria. We all have good bacteria in us. They help to keep us healthy.

Narrow Spectrum Antibiotic. It’s a type of antibiotic that only kills specific pathogens. This is the ideal type of antibiotic. It will make sure that norma flora is not wiped out.

Broad Spectrum Antibiotic. It’s a type of antibiotic that kills a variety of bacteria. If you are unable to produce a sputum sample, a doctor might prescribe one. It’s not ideal, but it may still help you feel better.

What to make of this? Well, this is probably more than you wanted to know about sputum. But, it’s nice to know this stuff when you have a chronic lung disease. The more you know, the better equipped you are to live better and longer with COPD.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • WillDoe
    1 year ago

    Thanks, John, for your article about sputum.
    I just came from seeing my pulmonologist yesterday… Antibiotics and prednisone, again. (Living in HUD housing, I come down with a ‘spectrum’ of things!)
    I was asked about my ‘mouth hygiene’ and, they were very impressed that I was using Listerine twice a day, and suggested that I begin using it four times per day. I plan on doing this.
    Also, it ran through my mind that I am no longer that healthy to begin with. COPD is an immediate liability. My lungs are in a much weaker state, now. Also, my living arrangements leave something to be desired.
    My point is to prevent the color spectrum of sputum is to PREVENT INFECTED LUNGS!
    The Best!
    (Oh! 2 months, 3 weeks and 2 days since I’ve smoked!)

  • John Bottrell, RRT moderator author
    1 year ago

    Hi. WillDoe. Congrats on quitting! That’s a major accomplishment. Keep it up! Glad to here you found the article helpful. John. Site Moderator.

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi WillDoe and thanks for sharing your situation so candidly with the community. We know you’re dealing with your own challenges in managing your COPD condition and appreciate the fact you found John’s article to be so helpful. You appear to have a good understanding of COPD for yourself (and others).
    Congrats, too, on being smoke-free for 2 months, 3 weeks and days. You’re making good progress. Keep up the good work! Leon (site moderator)

  • madank
    1 year ago

    THANK YOU for this. Very informative and useful!

    Ma Dank
    From Kansas

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    It’s our pleasure, madank. John is a very prolific and well versed writer in our community. We’re lucky to have all the published material he contributes. We appreciate you taking the time to let us know.
    All the best,
    Leon (site moderator)

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