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How does mucus get in the lungs: What Causes a Buildup of Mucus in the Lungs?

Understanding Mucus in Your Lungs

by Editorial Staff |
July 14, 2021


  • Health & Wellness
  • Science
  • Asthma
  • COPD

Mucus in the lungs is known as phlegm or sputum. It is a common symptom in chronic lung diseases such as COPD (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema), cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, NTM lung disease or asthma.

In undamaged airways, oxygenated air moves easily through tubes, helped along by tiny hairs that line the airways called cilia. Mucus has an important role in your lung’s immune response because it traps irritants in your airways and helps allow your body to expel them through coughing. This helps protect you from infection. You can see how this works in our new animation that explains how a cough works, and the important part that mucus plays in clearing your airways from smoke, germs, dust and chemicals.

More than just an unpleasant nuisance, mucus that collects in your airways can make breathing more difficult and increase your risk of infection, which can further damage your lungs. Living with a chronic lung disease means you are likely experiencing an excess of this thick and sticky fluid in your lungs. Learning more about how to prevent, treat and manage symptoms, including mucus, of your chronic lung disease can help improve your overall lung health.

“Many people living with COPD, especially those who smoke and may not have yet been diagnosed with COPD, develop progressively more cough and mucus and initially discount it as ‘normal, smoker’s cough’,” says Irina Petrache, MD, Chief of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at National Jewish Health. “Coughing up mucus is not normal, and it should raise the alarm that something is wrong.” She suggests patients consider use a diary to record when coughing up mucus starts to track how long it goes on. If for more than a few weeks, Dr. Petrache recommends you seek answers as to what may be causing it from your doctor.

If you are experiencing excess mucus production, there are steps you can take to help prevent and clear the mucus in your lungs. Discuss these options with your healthcare provider to find a strategy that works for you, and together you and your healthcare provider can monitor the results.

  • Cough it up. Controlled coughing loosens mucus and helps it move through the airways. Uncontrolled coughing fits may trap mucus in your airways.
  • Postural draining. You can lie down in different positions to help clear the mucus.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking produces thicker mucus and increases the amount of mucus in the airways. Nicotine, the addictive chemical found in cigarettes, paralyzes the cilia or fiber-like cells that help move mucus out of your lungs. Some people experience more mucus after recently quitting smoking because the cilia is now able to do its job more effectively.
  • Keep hydrated. Water helps keep your mucus thinner.
  • Watch your dairy intake. Some people may find that their mucus becomes thicker when dairy products, like milk or ice cream, are consumed.
  • Prevent lung infections. Ask your healthcare provider if you are up to date on vaccines that prevent infectious respiratory disease such as flu and pneumococcal pneumonia.
  • Talk with your healthcare provider about airway clearance methods. This can be done using manual chest physical therapy, airway clearance devices, or handheld positive expiratory pressure devices.
  • Your healthcare provider may recommend medication. Discuss the types of over the counter or prescription medications that may help you clear mucus.

It is important to have a frank and open conversation with your healthcare provider about your mucus production and any other symptoms of your chronic lung disease. It can help to write down your questions before your appointment and hand them over. You may also find it useful to print out Getting Ready for Your Next Office Visit to jot down your questions in a more formal way.

Living with a chronic lung disease can be challenging. The American Lung Association has a wealth of resources available to help you. You can attend a Better Breathers Club meeting to get support from others also dealing with similar issues. By joining the Patient & Caregiver Network, you have access to information that may help you better manage your lung disease. And you could also join an online support community on Inspire to connect with others at all hours.

The American Lung Association HelpLine (800-LUNG-USA) is staffed by medical professionals who can answer questions you have about symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and management of your chronic lung disease.

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Blog last updated: February 1, 2023

See 8 Different Causes (And How to Remedy It)

Written by Kate Ashford

  • Acid Reflux
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Bacterial and Viral Infections
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • What You Can Do at Home
  • When to Seek Help
  • More

Your body naturally makes mucus every day, and its presence isn’t necessarily a sign of anything unhealthy. Mucus, also known as phlegm when it’s produced by your respiratory system, lines the tissues of your body (such as your nose, mouth, throat, and lungs), and it helps protect you from infection.

Your body makes about a liter of mucus a day. But too much of it, especially somewhere like your lungs, can be annoying and possibly a sign of a health problem. Here are a few situations when you might get mucus in your chest:

If you have acid reflux, the acid in your stomach comes up the esophagus to your throat. This can result in throat irritation and postnasal drip, along with chest congestion.

Allergies can cause a host of symptoms, from itchy eyes and sneezing to congestion, chest tightness, and coughing. A reaction that involves the lungs is more typical if you’re allergic to something airborne, such as pollen or dust mites.

Along with other symptoms of asthma, such as shortness of breath and chest tightness, asthma can cause you to cough up phlegm. This may be a sign that your airways are inflamed, but small amounts of white or clear mucus aren’t worrisome.

Infections such as the flu, acute bronchitis, and pneumonia can cause your airways to make extra mucus, which you’ll often cough up. It may be green or yellow in color.

The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 doesn’t usually cause mucus in the chest. But complications from the virus can include pneumonia, which does involve chest congestion.

COPD includes several lung diseases that can make it harder to breathe, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis causes inflammation of the bronchial tubes and more mucus, both of which make it harder for your lungs to work. COPD is generally caused by long-term exposure to things that irritate the lungs, such as cigarette smoke, but people with asthma can also develop it.

This is an inherited disease that results in thick mucus in the lungs and other organs. It can lead to worsening lung function as people age. Doctors test for cystic fibrosis (CF) in newborns, and 75% of people with CF are diagnosed by age 2. A parent can pass on the CF gene even if they don’t have the condition themselves, and about 1,000 new cases of CF are diagnosed annually in the U. S.

To control or loosen mucus at home, you can try the following remedies:

Drink lots of fluids. Drink plenty of water and other fluids, but not things that can dehydrate you, such as coffee and alcohol.

Humidify. Try a cool mist humidifier or hop into a steamy shower to keep your airways moisturized.

Don’t smoke or vape anything. Whether from tobacco or marijuana, smoke is an irritant and can cause your body to make more mucus.

Try a teaspoon of honey. Though honey doesn’t get rid of mucus, it can calm your cough temporarily. (Don’t give honey to anyone under 1 year of age.)

Check air filters. Other irritants in the air can make mucus production worse, so make sure your heating and cooling system filters are clean and up to date.

Take an expectorant. Some cough medicines contain guaifenesin, which loosens mucus so you can cough it up.

On its own, mucus isn’t a worrisome symptom. If it comes with a cough that doesn’t go away after several weeks, it’s greenish yellow or blood-tinged, or you also have fever or shortness of breath, you should call your doctor.

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How to get rid of mucus in the throat and respiratory tract

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Mucus in the respiratory tract usually appears during the off-season, when the risk of getting colds and respiratory infections increases. At this time, immunity weakens, therefore, optimal conditions are created for the development of pathogenic microflora in the throat, nose, bronchi and lungs. The appearance of mucus indicates the development of the inflammatory process, so it is better to get rid of it as soon as possible.

Why there is a lot of mucus in the throat

Mucus or phlegm is produced by secretory goblet cells in the airways. It is always present in minimal amounts, because it moisturizes the ciliated epithelium lining the sections of the bronchial tree. But when pathogenic microflora begins to develop in it, it becomes more. So the body tries to evacuate disease-causing agents from the throat. But, as often happens, microbes develop faster. Then the sputum becomes thick, clogs the villi, which slows down the excretion of a viscous secret. It turns out that the formation of mucus exceeds the rate of its removal. A moist and warm environment is a great place for bacteria to thrive. This is how bronchitis begins, which can turn into pneumonia.

Causes of mucus in the respiratory tract

If the cause of sputum production is the entry of bacteria or irritants such as dust or smoke into the respiratory tract, then you need to cough. This is the easiest way to remove mucus. However, you should not make excessive efforts. If the sputum is not coughed up, and the cough is pressing and there is pain in the chest, then these are signs of an inflammatory process. As a rule, the clinic is supplemented by fever, weakness or fever. In this case, it is better to seek help from a doctor.

How to get rid of mucus in the throat

1. Gargle

You can rinse your throat. For this, any means or even warm water is suitable. Most often, a solution of baking soda, salt or vinegar is used. Ideally, you should gargle with an antiseptic solution.

2. Drink more water

Doctors constantly advise you to drink more water. The liquid stimulates secretion and makes it not so thick, so sputum is better evacuated from the respiratory tract. In case of illness, you need to drink warm water or tea with lemon, rosehip infusion, currant or raspberry tea, as well as any other fortified drinks.

3. Breathe over baking soda

If you can’t achieve liquefaction of sputum, then you need to breathe baking soda vapor. It reacts with mucus, destroys the chemical bonds between molecules, which makes the secret more liquid. Prepare a saturated soda solution, boil it. Remove from the stove and inhale the vapors covered with a towel. After a few minutes, if everything is done correctly, sputum will begin to move away.

4. Humidify the air

It is important that the air in the room is not dry, dusty or musty. To do this, you need to ventilate, do wet cleaning of rooms and use a humidifier. Often, after elimination of irritants, sputum passes by itself.

5. Do not smoke

It is advisable to stop smoking, because tobacco smoke dries and burns the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract. Delicate tissues are irritated and react with copious sputum. Approximately the same thing happens when a person inhales toxic fumes, dust, or works in hazardous industries. In such cases, you need to use personal protective equipment or change the scope of activity.

6. Drink decoctions of herbs

You can drink expectorant herbs – decoctions of coltsfoot, oregano, thyme or marshmallow. Licorice, psyllium or ivy root syrup is among the most effective natural cough and phlegm remedies.

7. Move more

When a person is subject to hypodynamia, mucus is not properly evacuated due to lack of movement, and therefore accumulates in the airways. Do a simple, and better breathing, gymnastics – and you will immediately feel relief, they advise on the Health and Longevity channel.

What the doctor advises for mucus in the throat

According to the therapist of the Yamal Center for Public Health and Medical Prevention Valeria Saprynskaya, the muconasal secretion is normally produced by the glands of the nasal mucosa and plays an important role in maintaining health. But in some cases, its production increases, which leads to excess mucous discharge from the nose.

Causes may be infectious or non-infectious. Infectious viruses include viruses, including influenza and SARS, as well as chronic forms of bacterial inflammation of the paranasal sinuses – sinusitis.

In the group of non-infectious causes – hypothermia, chemical irritants, chronic catarrhal rhinitis, nasal polyps, allergens, mucosal dysfunction after prolonged use of vasodilator nasal drops or sprays.

Hormonal changes during pregnancy, the use of psychoactive substances, the initial stage of the development of bronchial asthma, a foreign body in the nasal cavity (especially in children) can also lead to excessive discharge from the nose.

If a person is bothered by this symptom, they should see a doctor to determine the cause and treat it. To reduce the likelihood of the disease, it is necessary to regularly undergo a preventive examination.

Can a cough go down into the bronchi and lungs: a doctor dispels myths

“Is it possible to suck in snot? Will they go down? When coughing, do not use a nebulizer – the infection will go down. ” The pediatrician talks about these and other misconceptions.


The doctor answers

Children’s health

Myths about health


Pediatrician Shulamith Wolfson explains how things really are.

Contents of the article

Do not self-medicate! In our articles, we collect the latest scientific data and the opinions of authoritative health experts. But remember: only a doctor can diagnose and prescribe treatment.

Popular myths about “the infection will go down”

Is it possible to suck snot? Will they go down? This is a very common parenting myth. With any runny nose, with any cough – “Won’t cough / snot / infection go down ?!” Variants of the same delusion:

  • “You can’t use a nebulizer – the cough will go down.”
  • “You can’t do without drugs – the infection will go down.”

  • “We have a viral infection, but I give antibiotics to keep the cough from going down” is just the pinnacle of this delusion, its extreme version.

However, if we look at the anatomical atlas, there will not be a straight and smooth staircase down from the nose to the lungs. There are no stairs at all. There is a normal respiratory system. It all starts with the nose. Further, passing through the nose and, looking along the way into the paranasal sinuses, the air enters the larynx, such a thin tube in the throat, approximately in the same place as the Adam’s apple in men.


The vocal cords are stretched across the larynx. And there are a lot of cough receptors everywhere! If you have choked on water at least once, you know how a person behaves on the vocal cords, who got at least something EXCEPT for air! And this is from a small amount of water. Can you imagine what would happen to our children if mucus from the nose got there when they had a cold?!

A large tube, the trachea, begins behind the larynx. Two smaller tubes depart from it – the main bronchi, which then divide and divide – the bronchial tree. Alveoli are located at the end of the smallest bronchi. Bronchi + alveoli = lungs.

So. Snot does not enter the lungs. Never. A child can blow his nose – not blow his nose – suck snot through his nose, generally do anything. The runny nose never goes “below” or “into the lungs”. The very structure of the human body will not let him in.

Where does a runny nose go down

A terrible secret: mucus is constantly produced in our nose, this is a defense mechanism. It’s just that with ARVI, this production increases many times over, a runny nose appears. Snot, which the child could not or did not want to blow his nose, goes to the same place as the usual mucus from the nose of a healthy person. Into the stomach

Mucus from the nose enters the oropharynx, rolls down the back wall of the pharynx there – and enters the esophagus!

In the esophagus, not in the larynx (there, I remind you, the vocal cords). From the esophagus to the stomach and intestines, where it is safely digested. It is believed that this process with a cold is very useful, it stimulates the immune system. In very young children, who have fast intestinal motility and a lot of snot, parents can sometimes see mucus in the stool during SARS. These are the same snot that simply did not have time to be completely digested, it’s okay.

So, the snot doesn’t go anywhere. But can an infection do it? These are the viruses and bacteria that fly from person to person on the smallest droplets of saliva and dust?
No. Can not.

What happens if a child gets an infection

Why did my child have a common cold and then bronchitis? Why did we only have a fever and a slight cough, and then it turned out to be pneumonia? Why did my child immediately fall ill with bronchitis, was healthy – and then immediately, bronchitis?!

If it is a virus that “likes” to live in the nose, there will be a runny nose

If it is, for example, an influenza virus that “loves” to live in the trachea, there will be tracheitis. If it is an adenovirus, then there will be conjunctivitis and bronchitis, this is how the virus “loves” to “settle”. Well, etc. That is, in what form the infection will proceed – depends on the nature of the pathogen! Nothing goes down anywhere, from the very beginning – rhinitis or nasopharyngitis or rhinitis and bronchitis at once, etc.

A virus has settled in the child’s body

Usually it is “limited” to the common cold. But this particular child has its own characteristics. For example, he is a newborn. In this case, the virus can “break through” through the body’s own defenses and “settle” in the wrong place, provoking the development of bronchitis or pneumonia. This happens, for example, with the influenza virus.

Usually everything is limited to the usual SARS with tracheitis.

But this virus can also cause pneumonia quite often. It all depends on the type of virus, the characteristics of each particular person, etc. That is why no one vaccinates against ordinary ARVI viruses, but you can get vaccinated against the flu. Influenza can provoke the development of pneumonia.

However, we note that in this case, the infection does not go anywhere! Neither with snot, nor with inhalations. Either the virus will be able to “grab” where it doesn’t need to, or it won’t.

There was a viral infection, SARS. Against its background, the activity of the immune system has changed

And a bacterium managed to get into the body, undermined by the disease. This is called a bacterial complication of a viral infection. That is, the child was able to cope with SARS, but he suddenly developed bacterial pneumonia. A complication, but it could not be prevented. No, antibiotics BEFORE the onset of a bacterial infection do not help, on the contrary, they worsen the situation and increase the risk of complications. By the way, if you are interested in the advice of a pulmonologist about taking antibiotics for bronchitis, follow the link.