Mucus buildup


I have been having a problem with excessive mucus buildup in my lungs. I have to clear my lungs of phlegm about every 5-10 minutes which can get pretty annoying for other people. I have been having this problem for about 5 years now. Sometimes I even spit out blood because of this. I am a healthy athletic guy and it worries me when something like this stays with me. Please help.

-- Gobs


Dear Gobs,

A throat clearing cough can be just the thing before delivering a keynote address, but if you’re clearing mucus or phlegm regularly (every five to ten minutes as you mention), it may be time to get it checked out. Mucus can be a wondrous collection of materials that are super helpful in fighting disease or launching an immune response in your body. If something goes awry, however, your body and lungs may begin to produce too much, and you could be in the aggravating situation you describe.

Sputum, also known as phlegm, is mucus material produced by the cells lining the respiratory tract. Sputum is released from glands in the walls of the bronchi (airways) and from cells lining the nose and sinuses. Sputum production may be increased by infection, by an allergic reaction, or by inhalation of irritants, like tobacco smoke. The presence of sputum in the bronchi triggers a reflex cough or clearing of the throat. Sometimes excessive sputum production is an indication of a chronic condition.

If you’ve just come down with a head cold, or have other reason to believe your mucus production will be time-limited, then the main way to deal with your productive cough is by practicing good hand and mouth hygiene. But you mention a couple of factors that may be more of a cause of concern: the length of time you’ve been coughing (five years) and spitting out blood. Five years is a long time to be producing sputum, and seems to be verging on what would be called chronic, or long-term. While further investigation by a health care provider is likely warranted, there are a few conditions that could result in chronic sputum production:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be caused by a variety of reasons, like environmental or lifestyle factors (such as smoking, living in a smoky environment, or breathing other pulmonary irritants over a long period of time such as chemical fumes or heavy dust). In COPD, your bronchi may become less elastic, the walls in your bronchi may erode, or the walls lining these small sacs of air could become thick, inflamed, or clogged with mucus.
  • Asthma is another possibility for excessive sputum production. In asthma, the passages in your throat and lungs become inflamed and produce excessive mucus. Asthmatic responses can be due to allergies, occupation, or exercise (which could be exacerbated in cold, dry air).
  • Given what you have described, a third possibility could be cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is genetic. A small change in one gene means that the salt movement in and out of your cells is altered. As a result, thick, sticky mucus builds up in your lungs as well as in your digestive and reproductive systems. Most people with cystic fibrosis are diagnosed in infancy or childhood, but it’s possible to receive the diagnosis later in life if the symptoms of the condition don’t appear till later.

To inform a proper diagnosis, a health care provider may look at your phlegm and find some more insights. Typically, clear phlegm is normal and may indicate a purely allergic reaction. Green or yellow colored mucus could mean you have either a bacterial or a viral infection. Red, pink, or brown tinged means there is blood in the mucus. Sometimes, if you blow your nose and it’s a bit pink, there’s no cause for alarm: it’s just a tiny blood vessel in your nose which has been damaged or your throat could be a bit irritated. But coughing or spitting up blood is called hemoptysis, and it could be caused by things like the irritating act of coughing or from bronchitis. Regardless of what it could be, if there is blood in your sputum, your best bet is to seek the attention of a health care provider.

Here’s to hoping your lungs get cleared, permanently!

Last updated Sep 26, 2014
Originally published Feb 10, 1995

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