Phlegm is that thick, sticky stuff that hangs around in the back of your throat when you’re sick. At least that’s when most people notice it. But did you know that you have this mucus all the time?
Mucus membranes make phlegm to protect and support your respiratory system. These membranes line your:
Mucus is sticky so that it can trap dust, allergens, and viruses. When you’re healthy, the mucus is thin and less noticeable. When you’re sick or exposed to too many particles, the phlegm can get thick and become more noticeable as it traps these foreign substances.
Phlegm is a healthy part of your respiratory system, but if it’s making you uncomfortable, you may want to find ways to thin it or remove it from your body.
Keep reading to learn about some natural remedies and over-the-counter medicines, and when you may want to see your doctor.
1. Humidify the air
Moisturizing the air around you can help keep mucus thin. You may have heard that steam can clear phlegm and congestion. There actually isn’t much evidence to support this idea, and it may even cause burns. Instead of steam, you can use a cool-mist humidifier. You can run the humidifier safely all day long. You’ll just want to make sure that you change the water each day and clean your humidifier according to the package instructions.
2. Stay hydrated
Drinking enough liquids, especially warm ones, can help your mucus flow. Water can loosen your congestion by helping your mucus move.
Try sipping anything from juice to clear broths to chicken soup. Other good liquid choices include decaffeinated tea and warm fruit juice or lemon water.
3. Consume respiratory health-promoting ingredients
Try consuming foods and drinks that contain lemon, ginger, and garlic. There’s some anecdotal evidence that these may help treat colds, coughs, and excess mucus. Spicy foods that contain capsaicin, such as cayenne or chili peppers, may also help temporarily clear sinuses and get mucus moving.
There is some scientific evidence that the following foods and supplements may prevent or treat viral respiratory diseases:
- licorice root
- guava tea
- oral zinc
More studies are needed, but for most people, adding these ingredients to your diet is safe to try. If you are taking any prescription medications, ask your doctor before adding any new ingredients to your diet (some can affect the efficacy).
4. Gargle saltwater
Gargling warm salt water can help clear phlegm that’s hanging on the back of your throat. It may even kill germs and soothe your sore throat.
Mix together a cup of water with 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of salt. Warm water works best because it dissolves the salt more quickly. It’s also a good idea to use filtered or bottled water that doesn’t contain irritating chlorine. Sip a bit of the mixture and tilt your head back slightly. Let the mixture wash into your throat without drinking it. Gently blow air up from your lungs to gargle for 30-60 seconds, and then spit out the water. Repeat as needed.
5. Use eucalyptus oil
Using eucalyptus essential oil may get the mucus out of your chest. It works by helping to loosen the mucus so you can cough it out more easily. At the same time, if you have a nagging cough, the eucalyptus can relieve it. You can either inhale vapor by using a diffuser or use a balm that contains this ingredient.
6. Take over-the-counter remedies
There are also over-the-counter (OTC) medicines you can use. Decongestants, for example, can cut down the mucus that flows from your nose. This mucus isn’t considered phlegm, but it can lead to chest congestion. Decongestants work by reducing swelling in your nose and opening up your airways.
You can find oral decongestants in the form of:
- tablets or capsules
- liquids or syrups
- flavored powders
There are also many decongestant nasal sprays on the market.
You can try products like guaifenesin (Mucinex) that thin mucus so it won’t sit in the back of your throat or your chest. This type of medication is called an expectorant, which means it helps you to expel mucus by thinning and loosening it. This OTC treatment usually lasts for 12 hours, but follow the package instructions for how often to take it. There are children’s versions for kids ages 4 and older.
Chest rubs, like Vicks VapoRub, contain eucalyptus oil to ease coughs and potentially get rid of mucus. You can rub it onto your chest and neck up to three times each day. Younger children should not use Vicks in its full strength, but the company does make a baby-strength version. You should not heat this product because you could get burned.
7. Prescription medications
If you have certain conditions or infections, your doctor may prescribe medications to treat the root cause of your symptoms. There are specific medications that can thin your mucus if you have a chronic lung condition like cystic fibrosis.
Hypertonic saline is a treatment that’s inhaled through a nebulizer. It works by increasing the amount of salt in your air passages. It comes in different strengths and can be used on people ages 6 and older.
This treatment only provides temporary relief and may cause some side effects, like cough, sore throat, or chest tightness.
Dornase-Alfa (Pulmozyme) is a mucus-thinning medication often used by people with cystic fibrosis. You inhale it through a nebulizer. It’s also suitable for people ages 6 and up.
You may lose your voice or develop a rash while on this medication. Other side effects include:
- throat discomfort
- runny nose
When to see your doctor
Excess or thick phlegm from time to time is usually not a reason for concern. You may notice it in the morning because it’s accumulated and dried overnight. It should be flowing more by afternoon. You may also notice phlegm more if you’re sick, having seasonal allergies, or if you are dehydrated.
If uncomfortable phlegm becomes a regular occurrence, you might want to make an appointment with your doctor. There are several health conditions that may cause a buildup of phlegm, including:
- acid reflux
- cystic fibrosis, although this condition is usually diagnosed early in life
- chronic bronchitis
- other lung diseases
Contact your doctor if your phlegm has been bothering you for a month or longer. Let your doctor know if you have other symptoms, like:
- coughing up blood
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
It’s important to remember that the body produces mucus at all times. Having some phlegm isn’t necessarily a problem. When you notice excess mucus, it’s usually in response to being sick. Once you’re healthy again, things should go back to normal. Contact your doctor if:
- you’re concerned by how much phlegm you have
- the amount of phlegm has dramatically increased
- you have other symptoms that worry you