The truth about snot
Some days you feel like a total snot factory. Mucus is just coming from everywhere—your nose is running, you have post-nasal drip, and just when you blow your nose for relief, you feel your sinuses filling up again. As if things aren’t gross enough, the snot that’s pouring out is different colors. What does it all mean?
For starters, the fact that your body is producing mucus is actually a good thing. It serves some very important purposes. Our body is lined with mucous glands and membranes, which produce mucus constantly to keep our bodies well lubricated and help easily rid it of infections and irritants.
“The cells in your body that make mucus continue to clean out the sinuses as a normal bodily process, but when the system doesn’t work or is overwhelmed, then the body can’t catch up and you have significant mucus build-up and symptoms,” explains Dr. Aijaz Alvi, an otolaryngologist at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill.
Although mucus production is normal, when the body produces too much mucus in a rainbow of colors, it may require attention. The most common cause of excess mucus is allergic rhinitis, says Dr. Alvi, which is an allergy in response to something in the outside air such as pollen or indoor contaminants such as mold, dust or cat hair. The allergen causes an immune response in the throat, which causes the production of thick mucus.
In addition to the thickening and volume of mucus, the color can indicate various conditions as well. Normal mucus has no color and has a glue-like consistency. However, allergies can also bring about clear mucus, which starts with a runny nose, says Dr. Alvi.
The following is what certain colors of mucus may indicate:
Mucus that’s yellowish-green in color means an infection is present. “It could be due to either a bacterial or a viral infection,” explains Dr. Alvi. He adds that generally mucus in the body reacts to a virus within three days, thickens and turns yellowish-green. Once it settles in, you may get more symptoms such as fever, headache and congestion, which are signs of a bacterial infection.
Mucus may be brown in color largely because of old blood, says Dr. Alvi. This may be due to inflamed sinuses that bleed or a sore in the nose. It can also be related to breathing in dust or dirt as well as cigarette smoke.
If mucus is brown due to cigarette smoke, this can be caused by both secondhand smoke or from smoking. “The smoke mixes with the mucus inside the nose and it turns color,” says Dr. Alvi.
In rare cases, brown mucus can also be caused by some of your favorite foods including chocolate, garlic and red wine, he adds.
Black or gray mucus is typically related to people in highly polluted areas such as China or India, says Dr. Alvi. Sometimes when patients return from these countries their mucus may change for a period of time until the sinuses are cleaned out.
Dr. Alvi recommends a variety of natural remedies to help thin and clear mucus, the first of which is a method everyone knows. “Let it out. Just blow your nose,” he says. Other helpful measures you can take include:
- Hydration: The more hydration you take in, through water, for example, the thinner the mucus and the easier it is to remove.
- Steam: Try taking a steam bath or even placing your face over a pot of steaming water with a towel over your head and breathing in the steam. Humidifiers also can work in much the same way.
- Herbal tea: A cup helps break up mucus in the throat. Mix it with honey and lemon as the honey soothes the throat and both ingredients help cut through mucus.
- Cough drops: Choose throat lozenges with menthol and eucalyptus, which helps loosen phlegm.
- Turmeric: Add a couple of drops of this spice to warm water to help break up mucus.
- Garlic: This works well to kill bacteria so add it to food or even eat it raw.
- Ginger: Add ginger to boiling water to create a tea to help break up mucus and moisten the throat.
- Neti pot: Using this to rinse the sinuses is like washing your sinuses with saline, which helps thin out mucus and flush it out.
What not to do
Adjusting your diet may also be necessary if you’re experiencing excessive mucus as certain foods increase your mucus, Dr. Alvi says. Foods he recommends steering clear of include:
- Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt
- Fried foods, which are made with heavy oils that make it difficult for mucus in the body to break apart
- Drinks with high amounts of sugar
Dr. Alvi says that unusually colored mucus may not always be a sign there’s a problem, but if the color changes and symptoms occur along with it, it’s best to consult your physician.
About the Author
health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.