Coughing Up Mucus: 5 Causes & How to Treat

Updated in November 2022

Coughing up mucus is a natural defense mechanism that helps the body to get rid of secretions produced by the respiratory system. Coughing mainly occurs when there is inflammation in the bronchi or bronchioles caused by an infection. 

Some illnesses that can cause mucus to be coughed up are bronchitis, bronchiolitis and tuberculosis. If your wet cough does not improve within 5 days, you should see your doctor for assessment and to start appropriate treatment if indicated. 

To treat coughs with mucus, you should inhale nebulizers with saline, drink at least 2 L (over half a gallon) of fluids per day, and drink teas with expectorant properties, like onion peel tea. 

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What causes coughing with mucus 

The most common causes of a coughing up mucus are:

1. Bronchitis

Bronchitis is a respiratory condition that is characterized by the inflammation of the bronchi. These are structures that are responsible for the transport of oxygen to and from the lungs. Due to changes in function caused by infection, it is possible to experience a productive cough, wheezing, shortness of breath and excessive fatigue. 

How to treat it: Symptoms of bronchitis will normally disappear on their own, without having to complete any type of treatment. However, to promote recovery and relieve symptoms, the doctor may recommend some medication, like analgesic, anti-inflammatories, mucolytics and expectorants.

2. Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis is a condition that is more common in babies under 2. It is associated with inflammation in the bronchioles, which are the smallest, most narrow airways in the lung. It results in difficulty with airflow, causing shortness of breath, fever, persistent cough with mucus and wheezing. 

How to treat it: It is important for the baby to be assessed by a doctor so that symptoms can be managed. Normally, it is advised that the baby rests and remains well hydrated. Nebulizers may also be beneficial. 

3. Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is an infection disease caused by bacteria that can reach the lungs, and compromise lung function. Common symptoms include coughing up mucus and blood, pain with breathing and shortness of breath. 

How to treat it: It is important for the doctor to assess the lungs to confirm a diagnosis. Treatment typically involves the use of a prescription antibiotic. It is important that treatment is not interrupted, as stopping an antibiotic can lead to regrowth and reinfection by the original bacteria, which can lead to symptoms and worsening. 

4. Sinusitis

Sinusitis is an inflammation of the nasal cavities caused by a viral or bacterial infection. It leads to an accumulation of discharge within the sinuses, which can cause headache, facial pain, nasal congestion, fever and coughing up mucus. Learn more about the symptoms associated with a sinus infection.

How to treat it: To relieve symptoms related to sinusitis, it is important to facilitate the excretion of any accumulated secretion. This can be done with saline nose rinses. Learn how to irrigate your nose with our step-by-step guide. If the sinus infection is caused by a bacterial infection, you may need to see your doctor for a prescription antibiotics. There are also some natural options you can try to complement indicated treatment. 

5. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD occurs due to a chronic inflammation of the bronchi and bronchioles. It causes difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, constant coughing, and mucus that is white, yellow or green. 

How to treat it: Treatment for COPD should be guided by the doctor. The goal of treatment is usually to relieve symptoms and prevent any worsening or complications. The doctor may recommend the use of bronchodilators, corticosteroids or mucolytics, as well as respiratory physiotherapy.  

When to see the doctor

You should see the doctor if your cough is accompanied by green, yellow, bloody or brown phlegm, as these colors are a sign of microorganisms in the lungs which require treatment with antibiotics. Learn more about what your phlegm color can mean. 

You should also be assessed if you experience fever, hoarseness or shortness of breath, or if you have been coughing for over 3 days. The doctor may order a chest x-ray and a sputum test to evaluate your phlegm. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, treatment can be recommended.

How to get rid of a productive cough

When you have a cough with clear phlegm, you are advised to perform a nebulizer to thin-out the phlegm and improve breathing. You should cough forcefully anytime you feel mucus in your throat. Drinking at least 2 L (half a gallon) of water throughout the day can also thin-out the phlegm, making it easier to eliminate.

In addition. you can take teas with expectorant properties, like mallow tea with guaco and onion cough syrup. If the cough is persistent, the doctor may recommend the use specific cough syrups, which should be taken as prescribed.

Home remedies to treat phlegm

Some home remedies to cure productive coughs include: 

  • Inhale boiling water with 1 tablespoon of coarse salt and 1 drop of eucalyptus essential oil 
  • Drink tea with onion peel and a pinch of white pepper twice a day 
  • Drink a juice made with 1 orange, 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon of honey and 3 drops of propolis extract 
  • Eat food that is rich in vitamin C like oranges, tangerines, and sweet bell peppers to boost the immune system. You can also make an orange juice with watercress and drink this every day. 

When you cough up mucus, it s important not to take any syrups that are aimed at treating drying-up coughs, as eliminating the secretions is key to preventing complications like pneumonia.