Increase in mucus and change in color

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

Healthy lungs produce a small amount of mucus every day. Its function is to keep the airways healthy by trapping irritants 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. For instance, cigarette smoking can cause a person’s lungs to produce extra mucus as a reaction to the irritating smoke.

COPD can cause two kinds of changes in a person’s mucus:

  • Increased mucus production
  • Change in mucus color

How does COPD cause increased amounts of mucus?1,2

Chronic bronchitis can cause the lungs of a person with COPD to produce more mucus than usual. In fact, a long-term cough that produces mucus is one of the symptoms that helps a healthcare provider diagnose a person with the disease.

If a person’s lungs produce more mucus that usual, it can cause a cough that is worse. The 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.

Changes in mucus can also be a sign that a person with COPD might be having an acute exacerbation. An acute exacerbation is also called a COPD attack or “flare-up.” This happens when a person’s COPD symptoms suddenly get worse.

What does a change in the color of mucus mean?1

When a flare-up happens, the patient’s lungs might start producing even more mucus than usual. Mucus that is usually clear may also change color. It might become:

  • White
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Reddish

Mucus that has changed in color is usually a sign that there is an infection in the person’s lungs. This might be caused by acute bronchitis, pneumonia, or some other kind of infection. It is important for people with COPD to cough up their mucus into a tissue in order to check for changes in its color.

Can changes in mucus be treated?1

How 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 for a flare-up, so patients should consult with a healthcare provider about the best kind of treatment in such cases.

If the mucus is too thick, it can be difficult to cough up in order to clear the airways. One way to treat this problem 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 caffeine drinks can actually make the problem worse.

Though coughing to remove excess mucus can be uncomfortable sometimes, it important to clear it out. Mucus that collects and builds up in the lungs can become infected. Respiratory infections can be harmful for people with COPD.

If the patient’s increase in mucus or change in mucus color is caused by an infection, then it is the infection that needs to be treated. A healthcare provider will usually prescribe antibiotics for this.

Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: July 2015.
View References
  1. American Thoracic Society / European Respiratory Society Task Force. Standards for the Diagnosis and Management of Patients with COPD [Internet]. New York: American Thoracic Society;2004 [updated 2005 September 8].
  2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “What Are the Signs and Symptoms of COPD?” Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd/signs [Accessed 2 February 2015.]