What does the color of phlegm mean?
By definition, phlegm is a byproduct of inflammation in the sinuses and the lungs. Your body is responding to some sort of irritant and is creating the phlegm to combat the issue. It can be related to a bacterial infection like bronchitis, sinusitis or pneumonia. It could be a viral infection like your regular, run of the mill upper respiratory infection. It can be produced by people who have chronic lung disease like COPD, cystic fibrosis or bronchiectasis. It’s a part of environmental allergies and asthma as well.
Just because you have a productive phlegmy cough or a runny nose, it doesn’t really give you a specific diagnosis but it is a clue to identifying the health issue that ails you.
The Phlegm Color Spectrum
The first step would be to talk to your primary care provider. They’ll ask questions such as how long have you been sick, is there someone sick in your home or at work, have you had a fever, chills, muscle aches or pain. These questions will help your doctor determine if you need antibiotics or if it’s something they can watch for a little longer and see if you can make it through without antibiotics.
We tend to see charcoal or sooty looking phlegm in people who work in coal mines and factories or are really heavy smokers.
Same thing with cigarette smoking – sometimes we see patients who are smoking two to three packs a day who have a productive cough. A lot of times they’ll have a little bit of gray or smoky tinge to their phlegm because of the smoking.
If you have chronic lung disease, you may be used to seeing brown phlegm. In those situations we call an acute exacerbation of your underlying cystic fibrosis or bronchiectasis, you may require antibiotics. If you have really resistant bacteria growing in your lungs, you may need to have IV antibiotics or an aggressive regimen to keep things under control.
The duration of the phlegm in your system depends on the cause.
- For bacterial infections, even without antibiotics, it can be self-limiting and will go away in 10 to 14 days.
- Viral infections can last a little longer, so sometimes up to three weeks depending on the season.
- Inflammatory conditions like asthma and COPD typically don’t necessarily get better unless the disease is treated more aggressively.
Remember, your body is doing its job when phlegm is being produced. It shows that it’s addressing some sort of assault, be it an infection or an allergy or an irritant that’s in your lungs or your sinuses – that’s how your body fights those assaults.
Dr. Jonathan Parsons is the associate director of clinical services and director of the asthma center in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.