We all produce mucus also known as phlegm or sputum to protect sensitive tissues in the airways. Sometimes, the lungs produce too much mucus, and the body attempts to expel this excess by coughing it up as sputum or phlegm. When there is a change of color in your phlegm, it can be an indication of a health issue such as a respiratory infection or lung-related disease. But most of the time, however, coughing up phlegm is not a cause for concern.

There are a number of health conditions that can cause you to cough up phlegm including:

  • Infections
  • Allergies
  • Chronic acid reflux (GERD)
  • Lung diseases like COPD or asthma

There are also lifestyle and environmental culprits that can make you produce phlegm:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking caffeine or alcohol
  • Dehydration
  • A dry climate

Coughing up phlegm could signal many things and oftentimes, its color, and consistency, can be an indication as to what could be going on health wise. Always DO check with your healthcare provider and thoroughly explain what you are experiencing. But again, know that coughing up phlegm is a good thing because it helps clear irritants, allergens, and infections out of your system.

Clear phlegm 

Coughing up clear phlegm typically means that your body is trying to get rid of allergens. But in a few rare cases, it could signal a more serious issue like bronchitis or pneumonia.

Green or yellow phlegm 

Green or yellow phlegm means that your body is in fight mode trying to battle an infection. Yellow phlegm is usually an early-stage infection, and as the illness progresses, it turns green. Yellow or green sputum can include sinusitis, pneumonia, bronchitis, or cystic fibrosis.

White phlegm 

White phlegm can signal a few health concerns like reflux, COPD, viral bronchitis, or even congestive heart failure (accompanied by shortness of breath, fatigue, or leg weakness).

Brown phlegm 

Brown, rust colored, or phlegm that is speckled with brown spots indicates old blood, and can signal health issues like bacterial bronchitis, bacterial pneumonia, lung abscess, cystic fibrosis, or the breathing in of dust or other brown materials or toxins.

Bloodied or pink phlegm 

Bloody phlegm is an indication of a more serious health issue such as pneumonia, pulmonary embolism (blood clot that travels from legs to lungs), congestive heart failure, tuberculosis, or lung cancer.

Phlegm and COVID-19 

Many folks who develop COVID-19 develop a dry cough but as the virus progresses, they might cough up phlegm as a result of an increase in mucus production.

When to see a doctor 

You should see your healthcare provider for treatment if:

  • Your cough lasts more than a week and symptoms do not improve
  • You are coughing up a phlegm that is not clear
  • You have a fever
  • You are wheezing or have difficulty breathing

If you are coughing up blood without phlegm, call your physician asap, or go to the ER pronto!