Increase In Mucus and Change In Color

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: November 2021

A change in the mucus produced by the lungs is a very common symptom of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Mucus may also be called phlegm or sputum.1

How does COPD impact mucus production?

Healthy lungs produce a small amount of mucus every day. The function of mucus is to keep the airways healthy by trapping particles or germs and cleaning the passages that air moves through. When a person is sick or breathes in irritants, it can cause the lungs to produce extra mucus.2

People with COPD have increased mucus production because their lungs are always irritated. Chronic bronchitis is one of the main conditions that make up COPD. The other is emphysema. In chronic bronchitis, the breathing tubes in the lungs become inflamed. This causes the overproduction of mucus.3

Coughing plays an important role in removing the extra mucus. It is the body’s way of clearing out the person’s airways to help make breathing easier. It is very normal for people with COPD to have a cough that produces mucus. That is one of the criteria doctors use when diagnosing chronic bronchitis.1,3

What might a change in mucus color mean?

Changes in the color of mucus or a sudden increase in mucus production can be signs of a COPD exacerbation, or flare-up. A COPD flare-up happens when someone’s symptoms suddenly get much worse than normal.4

A change in mucus color or amount is often the first sign of a flare-up that people notice. Healthy mucus is usually clear. But during a flare-up, it might become white, yellow, green, or brown.4

Mucus that has changed color is usually a sign of an infection in the person’s lungs. Respiratory infections are the most common cause of flare-ups in people with COPD. This might be caused by a cold, the flu, acute bronchitis, pneumonia, or some other kind of infection.1,4

Can changes in mucus be treated?

The way a change in mucus is treated depends on the type of change and what is causing it. Changes in the amount or color of mucus can be a warning sign of a flare-up. If someone with COPD suspects they may be having a flare-up, they should contact their doctor.4

Treatment for a flare-up will depend on how serious it is and what is causing it. If it is caused by an infection, your doctor may give you antibiotics to treat it. Very serious flare-ups may require hospitalization.4

If mucus is too thick, it can be difficult to cough up to clear the airways. One way to thin mucus is to drink more fluids. This can help to thin out the mucus and make it easier to clear. Liquids like water and juice work the best, while alcohol and caffeinated drinks can make the problem worse. Using a humidifier or taking a hot, steamy shower can also thin mucus.1

Coughing to remove excess mucus can be uncomfortable sometimes, but it is important to clear it out. If mucus collects and builds up in the lungs, it can trap germs or bacteria that cause infections. Respiratory infections can be harmful for people with COPD.1

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