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Phlegm Color Meaning

Troubled due to the constant phlegm you are coughing up? The following write-up on phlegm color meaning provides information on what the color of phlegm says about the health of an individual.
Batul Nafisa Baxamusa
Last Updated: Mar 12, 2018
Phlegm refers to congealed mucus that is secreted by the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract. Most of us tend to confuse the terms mucus and phlegm. While mucus is a normal protective layer around the mucous membranes of the respiratory, visual, auditory and gastrointestinal tract, and is made up of essentially glycoproteins and water, phlegm is a specialized type of mucus that is produced in the respiratory tract during an infection or disease.
The term phlegm is derived from the word phlegma (Greek) which means inflammation. Along with the electrolytes and salt that are present in the mucus, the phlegm also contains bacteria, virus, dirt, blood components and the dead inflammatory cells that may be produced due to the infection. Once the phlegm traps these unwanted invaders it then removes it from the respiratory tract by cough.
Coughed up phlegm is also termed as sputum. The phlegm is usually produced in the bronchial tubes, lungs, throat passages and other parts of the respiratory tract other than the nasal cavity. The secretions in the nasal cavity are referred to as nasal mucus. The phlegm can be a sign of infections like bronchitis, pneumonia, cold or flu, chronic sinus problems, asthma and even lung cancer in certain situations.
Different types of infections produce different colored phlegm. The color of sputum could help in identifying the nature of an infection.
What Does the Color of Phlegm Mean?
➤ Coughing Up Clear Phlegm
Clear, pale or watery phlegm is generally considered as normal. However, in certain cases like a cold caused by viral infections, or an allergic reaction can lead to excessive production of clear phlegm. This can precede the production of yellow mucus or green mucus especially in early stages of the infection. Some of the causes for production of clear phlegm include:
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Postnasal drip
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
► Coughing Up White or Gray Phlegm
White or gray phlegm can indicate upper respiratory tract infection or sinus congestion. Other significant causes of white mucus are:
  • Viral or chronic bronchitis
  • Asthma
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
  • Sore throat
  • Allergies
It is important to note that having milk or dairy products does not lead to production of white phlegm. However the dairy products can make the mucus thicker and harder for the body to expel. Air pollution and cigarette smoking can lead to production of gray phlegm. Foamy white phlegm can be the result of edema or an obstruction in respiratory tract.
Coughing up Light-Yellow Phlegm
Light-yellow phlegm is a sign of a well-functioning immune system. It signifies that your immune system is fighting against a viral or other infection within your body or is at the beginning or end of a sinus infection. Infections, asthma or allergies can lead to a inflammation in the respiratory tract. This in turn causes the accumulation of inflammatory cells in the phlegm which changes to a light yellow color. Light-yellow phlegm is a sign of viral infection in the upper respiratory tract. Many times breathing in dry air can lead to its production as well.
 Coughing Up Dark-Yellow Phlegm
Thick and dark-yellow phlegm is a sure sign of a bacterial infection, sinus infection or lower respiratory tract infection. Lower respiratory tract infections like chronic bronchitis or a case of bacterial pneumonia result in the production of dark-yellow phlegm. If one develops chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath along with dark yellow color phlegm, they should seek medical attention.
Coughing up Green-Colored Phlegm
The green-colored phlegm is often produced due to a long term infection or non-infectious inflammatory causes. The color of the phlegm can be attributed to the enzyme called myeloperoxidases (MPO) which is caused by the breakdown of neutrophils in the cells and secreted by the white blood cells. When accompanied by other symptoms like coughing, fatigue, wheezing, the presence of green phlegm can indicate chronic bronchitis. Other medical causes of green phlegm include:
  • Pneumonia
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Lung abscess
If it is caused by infections then the green phlegm would be purulent or accompanied by pus. If it is caused by non-infectious inflammatory causes, then large amounts of mucus is present in the coughed up phlegm.
Coughing Up Brown Phlegm
Brown phlegm color is often associated with people who smoke. You can find the phlegm mixed with your saliva. When you spread out the phlegm, you will find it to be grainy textured. This means it is mixed with dust and foreign matter due to damage to cilia commonly observed in patients with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). If you are smoking too much, the color of phlegm will be brown due to resin or tar sticking to it. Just cut down on your smoking if you observe this, as it may worsen the underlying respiratory problems. Also, people who have inhaled a lot of dust and smoke, may cough up brown phlegm. It may also be a sign of chronic bronchitis, especially in chain smokers.
In certain cases, people may cough up brown phlegm due to consumption of certain food tints present in chocolates, coffee or red wine. The acid reflux caused by these foods can result in you coughing up brown phlegm.
Coughing up Pink Phlegm
Pink-colored phlegm is indicative of serious conditions like chronic heart failure. If it appears suddenly along with fatigue, weakness, irregular heartbeat, swollen abdomen, swelling of extremities, persistent cough with pink or white mucus, it could indicate acute heart failure that requires immediate medical help.
If the phlegm is a frothy pink then it could signal pulmonary edema which is characterized by fluid accumulation in the air spaces of the lungs. Trauma to the lung parenchyma or failure of the left ventricle of the heart can lead to this condition which might even result in cardiac arrest and respiratory failure.
Coughing up Blood in Phlegm
If you have blood in the sputum it is known as haemoptysis. Streaks of blood in phlegm is a benign symptom of a bronchitis. However, when you are coughing up a significant amount of blood, it maybe a sign of major illness such as tuberculosis or lung cancer. You need to seek immediate medical attention, if the amount of blood is more than normal. If one coughs up a lot of blood along with mucus, they should immediately call the emergency services. Other causes of blood in phlegm are:
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Lung abscess
  • Trauma
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Tropical eosinophilia
Coughing Up Frothy Phlegm
When one throws up frothy phlegm, it indicates gastroesophageal reflux disease. It is a condition that is caused by stomach acid reaching the esophagus and damaging the muscular tube. It could also be caused by pneumonia and lung edema. Thus, a doctor's attention is required in all these cases.
If you often need to clear your throat due to excessive phlegm, and you have been experiencing other symptoms, it would be best to visit your physician for diagnosis and treatment. Sputum analysis, complete blood count, and other diagnostic tests can provide valuable information that can help in diagnosing the underlying cause. This will also help the doctor in understanding if the person suffers from a serious disease like TB or lung cancer. To treat the phlegm it is necessary to understand the cause for it and then take appropriate treatment measures. Early diagnosis and treatment can help in treating not only serious conditions like a lung infection but also curb chances of infections caused by accumulation of phlegm in chest, especially in children.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical professional.