Natural and Medicinal Ways to Get Rid of Phlegm

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
December 3, 2021

Being sick can come with a variety of symptoms, and consistent coughing with phlegm can be one of the most unpleasant.

Don’t be mistaken: Phlegm isn’t always a bad thing.

In fact, our bodies produce this mucus to help trap particles and germs to keep us healthy.

However, too much phlegm is usually a sign of an infection and can be bothersome..

If you’re producing extra phlegm, there are ways to help your body get back to normal.

In this article, I’ll explain what phlegm is and what the different colors of phlegm may indicate.

Then I’ll discuss natural ways to alleviate phlegm with home remedies as well as medications.

Get ready to breathe more easily!

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What Is Phlegm?

Phlegm is a liquid made by the cells lining the nose, throat, upper airways, and lungs.

While the word “phlegm” is often used interchangeably with “mucus”, there are key differences between the two:

  • Mucus is made by the nose and sinuses
  • Phlegm is thicker than mucus
  • Excess mucus can clog the lungs and cause you to cough

Causes

A variety of conditions and irritants can cause phlegm.

This includes:

Types of phlegm

Though typically clear, phlegm can take on different colors depending on its cause.

  • Clear phlegm: Clear phlegm is the most common type of phlegm and is usually triggered by an irritant, allergy, or viral infection.
  • Green or yellow phlegm: Yellowish-green phlegm may signify that your body has sent white blood cells to your nose, throat, or lungs to fight a sinus infection, pneumonia, bronchitis, or other infection. Cystic fibrosis ( a chronic illness) can also cause phlegm of this color.
  • Brown phlegm: When old blood mixes with phlegm, it can turn the liquid a brown shade. This is more common in people living with chronic lung diseases.
  • White phlegm: This color may signify a viral infection, allergies, or asthma. 
  • Black phlegm: While less common, black phlegm is often a sign that you’ve inhaled something black, such as smoke or coal dust. Often linked to smoking, black phlegm can also be caused by cystic fibrosis and pneumoconiosis, a condition linked to coal miners. 
  • Red or pink phlegm: Red or pink phlegm is usually linked to blood. Always see a doctor in this instance, as it could be related to a serious infection, bleeding in your lungs or airways, or cancer.

Treatments for Phlegm

If you have excess phlegm, some natural home remedies may help you get your body back to normal.

Here’s what the science says about some common treatments to get rid of phlegm.

Humidifier

Keeping the air around you moist may help prevent irritation of the nasal passages and loosen phlegm, allowing it to be coughed up more easily.

So try using a cool-mist humidifier, especially where you sleep, to add moisture to the air you breathe.

Gargle salt water

While there isn’t a lot of research on this remedy, swishing with salt water may help reduce inflammation in the throat.

Add half a teaspoon of salt to eight ounces of warm water and gargle the water in the back of your throat. As a bonus, this may help ease a sore throat.

Liquids

Staying well hydrated can help keep mucus thin.

In particular, hot beverages and soup may help clear nasal phlegm.

If you like tea, add honey to help relieve excess coughing.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications

Some OTC medications can help relieve phlegm, but use these in moderation since phlegm production is a natural way for our bodies to fight off infection, and too much medication could impair this function.

  • Expectorants: Expectorants like guaifenesin (Mucinex) help thin phlegm, making it easier to blow out or cough up. 
  • Vapor rubs: Vapor rubs provide relief from coughs and chest congestion.
  • Decongestants: Decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine (like Sudafed) can dry out mucus in the chest, nose, and throat. 

Coughing

While it can be a nuisance, coughing is the body’s way of clearing away excessive phlegm, so use cough suppressants sparingly.

Eucalyptus

Ointments and diluted essential oils containing eucalyptus are often used to help relieve congestion.

Rubbing either onto the chest or using one in a warm bath or diffuser may help reduce mucus and subdue coughs.

Stop smoking

Smoking irritates the airways, triggering the lungs to produce more phlegm.

Lighting up also significantly increases the risk of conditions that lead to excess phlegm such as COPD and lung cancer.

Limit alcohol intake

Keep alcohol intake to a minimum, or better yet, avoid it altogether.

Excessive alcohol consumption leads to dehydration and also makes it harder to clear out phlegm.

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When to See a Doctor

Phlegm typically means that your body is doing its job of fighting off illness and infection, but in some cases, your doctor may need to intervene.

If you have tried the above treatments  but continue to produce excess phlegm, and this goes on for longer than two weeks, see a doctor.

Also contact a healthcare provider right away if your phlegm is any shade of red, black, or brown.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will phlegm go away on its own?
In many cases, phlegm will go away once your body has fought off an infection. In some cases, though, phlegm may be caused by a more serious issue that needs treatment.
What should you do if phlegm does not go away?
If the phlegm does not go away, contact your doctor. They can diagnose your condition based on the color of the phlegm and any other symptoms you are experiencing.
What happens if you leave phlegm untreated?
Phlegm may be an indicator of a more serious issue that needs to be addressed. It’s important to pay attention to how long your phlegm lasts and the color of it.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.