What the color of mucus says about your health

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Ever sneak a peek inside a tissue after blowing your nose, just to check the color of mucus?  It’s okay to admit it. We’ve all done it at some point, especially when we’re sick and trying to self-diagnose.  

And really, don’t feel embarrassed about it. Science has proven you shouldn’t be ashamed for examining your snot color and consistency.

Under normal circumstances, we barely notice our own mucus. But once we do, we generally think of it as disgusting, annoying, and downright yucky. Instead of being thankful for what mucus does, we are quick to question why there’s more of it or why it’s changing color.

Breathe easy my friends, because this is a snot-safe zone.

You are about to learn all about mucus, and what your snot color says about your health.

Why do we produce mucus?

It turns out the color of mucus can be a large clue into the health of your nasal cavity.

We asked Dr. Dale Amanda Tylor, a pediatric and general otolaryngologist based in Fremont, CA, about what all the various mucus hues mean, and what they tell us about our health.

“Mucus helps to keep you healthy and hydrated. The body produces 1-1.5 liters a day, much of which imperceptibly drains down the throats all day long, preventing the underlying tissue from drying out or cracking,” explains Dr. Tylor.

Made from water, proteins, antibodies, and dissolved salts, mucus should be clear in a healthy person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But what does your snot say about your health when your phlegm is green, yellow, brown, or pink?

Boogie woogie: the color of your snot and your health

“Mucus provides protection. When your mucus color or consistency changes, it really reveals how it may be doing its job,” reveals Dr. Tylor. Here is a breakdown of what your booger color may say about your health:

White mucus

Swollen, inflamed tissues in your nose tend to slow the flow of mucus, causing it to lose moisture and become thick and cloudy, according to the CDC.

“This also can just be somewhat thicker mucus. It can also be present when you have a cold virus or a sinus infection,” says Dr. Tylor.

Yellow mucus

The CDC says yellow mucus reveals how your cold or viral infection may be progressing.

“And there is an enzyme in mucus that has a lot of white blood cells in it. The white blood cells rush to defend against microbial infections,” adds Dr. Tylor.

But once the white blood cells fight their battle against the infection, they are exhausted and carried off by the mucosal tide, and blown or coughed out of the mouth or nose. It is common for mucus to have a yellow hue, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Green mucus

If you cough up green mucus, it can be a sign your immune system is fighting off a bacterial infection, according to the CDC. But do not assume a bacterial infection is the only reason for green mucus. Just because it’s green, doesn’t mean that it’s a definitive infection.

If you continue to cough up green mucus for about 12 days, the CDC notes it may be a good idea to see a doctor though, especially if you’re overall feverish and nauseated.

Pink, red, or bloody mucus

Usually, any of these colorings means there is blood in the nasal cavity.

“Much of the coughed-up sputum or mucus we see, stems from having small amounts of blood drip down the throat from the back of the nose, not from cancer or a bad infection like pneumonia or tuberculosis,” says Dr. Tylor.

Bloody coloring often reveals the nasal tissue in the nose has for some reason broken, according to the CDC.

“Often when it’s really dry, especially in winter with all the heating or in summer with the A/C, or when you blow your nose a lot [from colds or allergies], or if you pick your nose, you are at great risk of some nose bleeding,” notes Dr. Tylor.

She also explains that there is a distinction between that, and bloody mucus indicating a serious problem. “True pink sputum, especially when it’s foamy, is an indication of a rare condition called pulmonary edema, or water on the lungs, which can happen if you have heart failure or after some surgeries.”

Brown mucus

Brown mucus can come from old blood, but can also be found in smokers.

“It can be from some of the tar or resin from smoking, or even from foods you have eaten like chocolate or red wine or coffee,” explains Dr. Tylor.

Black mucus

If you are not a smoker, or user of illegal drugs, the CDC notes that black mucus may mean a serious fungal infection in an individual with a compromised immune system. It is a good idea to see a doctor if you cough up black mucus.

Check out this chart, before you continue reading below. 

 

Infographic on the meaning of the color of the snot

When is the color of my snot telling me to go see a doctor?

Depending on infection, trauma, and the medications you are on, Dr. Tylor says it is normal for your mucus color to change throughout your life.

She recommends seeking medical attention if over-the-counter treatments, or other options like nasal saline, fail to help provide you with relief.

It’s also important to remember that doctors rarely use nasal mucus as a primary diagnosis of a disease, so it’s important that other symptoms be taken into account. “For example discharging bloody mucus can be especially serious if someone also experiences a fever and fatigue,” notes Dr. Tylor.

She also adds, “While green snot secretions are often called bacterial or significant, color alone isn’t the determinant. For example, white blood cells reacting to significant inflammation can make mucus green. Simply having extra thick mucus can also make it green.”

Over the counter options for when your snot thickens

A lot of people complain about mucus to their doctors, but most of the time it can be managed with methods and medications like guaifenesin (Mucinex), which thins out mucus. Dr. Tylor notes these medications require you to drink more water, or else it may dry you out too much.

“Antihistamines can also help to decrease the amount of mucus when allergies are to blame. Decongestants like Sudafed can help you to breathe better by opening up the nasal passages, but it can actually thicken your mucus further, which is the usually opposite effect you are looking for,” says Dr. Tylor.

So go ahead and be brave with your boogers. Blow your nose, and take a hard look at that snotty tissue.  If anyone asks, you are doing it all in the name of health.

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Elara Mosquera
Elara Mosquera

ELARA MOSQUERA IS A JOURNALIST BASED IN CONNECTICUT. SHE SPECIALIZES IN IMMERSIVE JOURNALISM, AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT, AND HAS AN EXTENSIVE BACKGROUND IN TRENDING DIGITAL NEWS. ELARA IS AN EDWARD R. MURROW AWARD WINNING PRODUCER, AS WELL AS AN EMMY NOMINATED PRODUCER. ELARA IS AN IKO LEVEL 3 CERTIFIED KITEBOARDER AND AN AVID MBSR (MINDFULNESS BASED STRESS REDUCTION) PRACTITIONER.