Coughing Up Phlegm

Coughing up phlegm is a normal symptom of colds and other health conditions. But coughing up phlegm without feeling sick could indicate a more serious underlying issue like heart or lung disease.


Factors that cause coughing up phlegm: infections, allergies, asthma, GERD, etc.
Certain health conditions, environmental factors and lifestyle factors can all contribute to coughing up phlegm.

What is coughing up phlegm?

Coughing up phlegm is a symptom of infections like the flu and common cold. Phlegm is a specific type of mucus that originates in your lungs and throat. It’s slightly thicker than the mucus that’s produced in your nose and sinuses. Another name for phlegm is sputum.

Most of the time, coughing up phlegm isn’t a cause for concern. It helps clear irritants and infections from your lungs. But if you cough up phlegm when you’re not feeling sick, it could mean you have a more serious underlying health condition. It can also tell you a lot about what’s going on with your body.


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Possible Causes

What causes coughing up phlegm?

There are several health conditions — ranging from mild to severe — that can result in coughing up phlegm, including:

Certain environmental and lifestyle factors can contribute to coughing up phlegm, too, including:

  • Smoking.
  • Drinking beverages that contain caffeine or alcohol.
  • Dehydration.
  • Spending time in a dry environment.

What does it mean when you cough phlegm up?

Coughing up phlegm could mean different things depending on the color and consistency of the mucus. But you should always check with a healthcare provider if something doesn’t seem right.

Coughing up clear phlegm

If you’re coughing up clear phlegm, it usually means your body is trying to flush out pollen, pet dander or other allergens. However, in some cases, it could indicate a more serious condition, such as:

  • Viral bronchitis.
  • Viral pneumonia.

Coughing up yellow or green phlegm

This usually means your body is fighting off some sort of infection. People often develop yellow phlegm in the early stages, and it turns green the longer the infection lingers. Possible health conditions related to coughing up yellow or green phlegm include:

Coughing up white phlegm

White phlegm can mean a few different things, including:

Coughing up black phlegm

Another name for black phlegm is melanoptysis. Common causes include:

  • Smoking.
  • Breathing in coal dust or other dark materials or toxins.
  • Exophiala dermatitidis, a type of fungal infection.

Coughing up brown phlegm or phlegm with brown spots

When you see brown phlegm, rust-colored phlegm or phlegm with brown spots, it usually indicates old blood. Common related conditions include:

  • Bacterial bronchitis.
  • Bacterial pneumonia.
  • Cystic fibrosis.
  • Lung abscess.
  • Breathing in dust or other brown materials or toxins.

Coughing up bloody phlegm, red phlegm or pink phlegm

Coughing up bloody phlegm indicates a more serious issue. Common causes of red phlegm include:

If you cough up blood without phlegm, call a healthcare provider immediately or head to your nearest emergency room.


Care and Treatment

How do you stop coughing up phlegm?

Treatment depends on the underlying cause. For instance, if you’re coughing up phlegm as a result of allergies, your healthcare provider may recommend decongestants, antihistamines or corticosteroids. If you have an infection, your provider may prescribe antibiotics. If GERD causes you to cough up phlegm, then you might need antacids or other medications that relieve acid reflux symptoms.

Your cough may go away on its own in a few days. But if you’ve been coughing up phlegm for two weeks or more and your symptoms haven’t improved, schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider.

Are there things I can do at home to encourage coughing up phlegm?

Coughing up phlegm helps rid your body of allergens, irritants and infections. Here are some recommendations on how to cough up phlegm:

  • Use a humidifier. Keeping the air in your home moist can help loosen phlegm in your lungs so you can cough it up easier.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water to help thin out mucus and prevent dehydration.
  • Gargle with saltwater. Add 1/2 tablespoon of salt to a glass of warm water. Gargle to loosen any phlegm.
  • Take over-the-counter expectorants. Expectorants (like Mucinex®) thin your mucus so it’s easier to cough up.
  • Use eucalyptus oil. Products containing eucalyptus oil (like Vicks® VapoRub™) can help loosen phlegm in your chest. Use these products exactly as described on the label.

When to Call the Doctor

When should I see my healthcare provider?

You should schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider if:

  • Your cough lasts for more than two weeks.
  • You’re coughing up phlegm that’s not clear in color.
  • You have a fever.
  • You’re wheezing or having difficulty breathing.

Additional Common Questions

Is coughing up phlegm a good thing?

Yes. While the presence of mucus may indicate an underlying issue, coughing up phlegm is a good thing because it helps clear irritants, allergens and infections out of your system.

Is coughing up phlegm a symptom of COVID-19?

Currently, research suggests that most people who get COVID-19 develop a dry cough. However, as the virus worsens, some people may notice an increase in mucus production and may cough up phlegm as a result.

When should I be worried about coughing up phlegm?

Coughing up phlegm is a good thing. But if your cough lasts longer than two weeks or if the phlegm is yellow, green, brown, black, white or red, you should schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

If you’re coughing up blood without phlegm, call a healthcare provider right away or go to your nearest emergency room.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Coughing up phlegm is unpleasant. Examining it, even more so. But phlegm can tell you a lot about what’s going on inside your body. If you cough up phlegm that’s yellow, green, brown, black, white or red — or if you cough up mucus for two weeks or longer, schedule a visit with your healthcare provider. They can find out what’s causing you to cough up phlegm and treat any underlying conditions.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/20/2023.

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