How to Get Rid of Phlegm and Keep it From Coming Back

Even if it is kind of gross when you’re full of it and wrestling with it, phlegm actually serves a useful purpose: The thick, sludgy substance—made up of mostly water, salt, and antibodies—is designed to help capture and clear bacteria and other unwanted microorganisms from your nose and throat, says Brett Comer, M.D., an assistant professor in the division of rhinology, sinus surgery, and allergy at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

Even when you’re feeling fine, your body naturally produces about a quart of phlegm every day. Without it, Dr. Comer says, germs and irritants in the air would easily slip into your lungs through your air passages.

When you’re sick or suffering from allergies, your body ramps up its phlegm production in an effort to clear away the bad bugs it knows are present, says Dr. Comer.


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So here’s the big question: Should you spit or swallow your phlegm?

Even though it might taste nasty, “there’s nothing wrong with swallowing it,” Dr. Comer says. In fact, that’s probably what your body expects you to do, which is why phlegm naturally drains down into the back of your throat.

If you do go the swallowing route, your stomach acids and digestive system will simply eradicate the phlegm and any of the harmful stuff it might have snared, says Dr. Comer.

The alternative, of course, is hocking a loogie.

And it turns out there’s an actual right way to do this:

Close your mouth and suck air in through your nose, Dr. Comer advises. Your goal is to use your nose to pull excess phlegm down into your throat, where your tongue and throat muscles can get a good grip on it.

“Just make sure you’re not chewing anything when you try this, or you could suck food down into your windpipe,” Dr. Comer says. “That could require surgery.”

Form a U-shape with your tongue while forcing air and saliva forward using the muscles at the back of your throat. When you have the phlegm in your mouth, hock it into your bathroom sink.

Mission accomplished.

How to Make Phlegm Easier to Get Rid Of

Keep your hydration in check

According to the Cleveland Clinic, dehydration can result in the production of excess phlegm. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day (around 3.7 liters per day, according to the Mayo Clinic) can help to keep your mucus thinned out.

Take an expectorant

If you’re sick with a cold and constantly coughing up phlegm, an over-the-counter expectorant like Mucinex can help to loosen up phlegm so you don’t have to cough so forcefully to get it out. (See what else should be in your medicine cabinet here.)

Gargle with saltwater

This is a commonly recommended remedy for relieving a sore throat, but according to the Cleveland Clinic, it can help to promote the release of mucus as well.

What Your Phlegm Is Telling You

So after you take care of that phlegm, look at it if you want additional clues about why it’s happening and the best ways to keep it from coming back.

If your phlegm is yellow/green, you likely have a viral infection. This hue is caused by an enzyme produced by your white blood cells that are fighting off the infection.

If the thick phlegm persists more than a week, it may indicate that the viral infection has progressed to a bacterial infection, says Erin K. O’Brien, M.D., a rhinologist at the Mayo Clinic Rochester. See your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

If your phlegm is clear, you probably have allergies.
Allergies trigger your mucus membranes to produce histamines, which cause your cells to make even more phlegm. Taking an antihistamine will help stop excess fluid production. (Yes, your allergies really are worse this year. Here, docs explain why, and what to do about them.)

If your phlegm is red (bloody), it’s most likely caused by dry air. Amp up your sources of moisture: Use a saline nasal spray, or try using a humidifier in your bedroom.

But if you’re seeing blood all the time—particularly if you’re a smoker or heavy drinker—that could be a sign of a more serious issue, including cancer, says Dr. Comer. See your doctor, ASAP.

Additional reporting by Emily Mitchell

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Markham Heid is an experienced health reporter and writer, has contributed to outlets like TIME, Men’s Health, and Everyday Health, and has received reporting awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Maryland, Delaware, and D.C. Press Association.

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Contributing Writer

Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Runner’s World, she has contributed health, fitness and wellness content to Women’s Health, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and the Houston Chronicle, among other publications. She is also an 11-time marathoner, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and an avid traveler.

This article was originally posted here.

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