What Does the Color of Your Mucus Mean?

Mucus may be gross but it plays a vital role in your health. It lines the nose, throat, lungs, and digestive tract. Your mucus color can also give you a clue about a health problem.

Mucus prevents the lining of the nose and throat from getting dry and cracked. It also traps dust, bacteria, and viruses.

Mucus is the first line of defense for our immune system. It contains white blood cells, which produce infection-fighting antibodies.

Why Does Your Mucus Change Color?

When you’re fighting off an infection, like a cold or flu, your mucus color often changes. This is because the immune system sends more white blood cells to the mucus.

However, your mucus color can change for non-infection reasons too. These can include dust in the air, a nosebleed, allergies, or, rarely, lung disease.

Usually, mucus color changes are nothing to worry about, and your mucus will go back to normal without treatment. But sometimes, a prolonged or unexplained mucus color change is a sign you should see a doctor.

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Mucus Color Meaning

Wondering what your mucus color could signify about your health? Our mucus color chart explains the possible reasons behind a mucus color, from clear all the way to black.

Clear mucus

This is the color of normal, healthy mucus. However, if you have extra amounts of clear mucus, this might be telling you something.

You may also have a runny nose with clear mucus at the beginning of a cold, for example. You may also have extra clear mucus as a reaction to pollen or another allergen.

White or grayish mucus

This can be normal, but white or gray mucus, especially if it’s thick, can be an early sign of infection. As white blood cells and invader-fighting proteins flood the mucus, it can turn from clear to white.

Yellow mucus

This is usually a sign that you have a respiratory infection, whether it’s a bacterial or viral infection. As more white blood cells build up in your mucus, it can turn from white to yellow.

If you don’t have any other cold symptoms, your pale yellow mucus could be due to allergies.

Green mucus

When you have an infection, you might notice that your mucus is greenish in the morning. That’s because the white blood cells build up in the mucus over the night, when you’re not blowing your nose. And white blood cells secrete a green-colored enzyme to fight off pathogens.

You may have heard that if you have green mucus, you need antibiotics. While a bacterial infection can cause yellow or green mucus, a virus is more often the culprit. If you have a virus, antibiotics won’t help, and they can lead to unwanted side effects. “The vast majority of sinus infections are viral, which means they do not respond to antibiotics. Although uncomfortable, symptoms generally go away on their own within 10 to 14 days,” says Daniel Buhlinger, MD, Renaissance Family Practice-UPMC. “Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to have a lingering, “post-viral” cough once the acute illness has resolved. This, too, will go away on its own but may take a couple more weeks as your body heals,” adds Dr. Buhlinger.

Pink or red mucus

Pink or red snot is typically due to blood. Most often, people get blood in the mucus because the air is too dry and this irritates the nostrils, causing a small nosebleed.

Infections or injuries can also cause blood in the mucus from your nose. So can blowing your nose too aggressively, which can cause a small blood vessel in the nose to burst.

In rare cases, benign (non-cancerous) or cancerous growths in the nostril can cause bloody mucus.

However, if you’re coughing up bloody mucus, that’s concerning, and could be the sign of pneumonia, tuberculosis, or a number of other conditions.

Brown mucus

Your mucus may be brown because it contains older blood that took time to make its way out. Alternatively, you may have inhaled dust that turned your mucus brown. If you smoke, you may cough up brown mucus, or phlegm.

Black mucus

Often, black mucus happens when you breathe in dust or pollutants. But black mucus can also be the sign of a fungal infection.

When to See a Doctor

Usually, you don’t need to see a doctor simply because of a change in mucus color. Most of the time, it’s a sign your immune system is fighting something, and you can let your immune system do its job.

However, you should contact your doctor in the following cases:

  • Your mucus and respiratory symptoms don’t get better after 10 days.
  • You are coughing up copious amounts of mucus, even if it’s clear or white. Several different lung problems, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), can cause extra mucus in the lungs.
  • You are coughing up red, brown, or black mucus. This could be the sign of a pneumonia or another serious lung condition.
  • You are coughing up greenish or yellow mucus and you have other concerning symptoms like chest pain, rapid breathing, or shortness of breath. This could also mean pneumonia.
  • You have black snot coming from your nose, which is not due to dust or pollutants in the air. This could be a fungal infection.

Your Mucus Color Is Only One Clue to Your Health

A mucus color chart can give you clues about your health. But mucus color alone isn’t enough to diagnose a problem. If you’re concerned about respiratory symptoms that don’t seem to be the run-of-the mill cold, you should see your doctor.

They can perform tests that can see if you have a bacterial infection or another medical problem that requires treatment. For example, they can do a throat swab to test for strep throat. Or a doctor may recommend a sputum test to look for bacteria or fungi in phlegm from your lungs.

What to Do If You Have Congestion

If you have a stuffy nose do to mucus, do the following:

  • Run a humidifier, as moisture can break up congestion and help you breathe.
  • Blow your nose gently, so you don’t burst a blood vessel.
  • If your congestion is especially bothersome, you can use over-the-counter decongestants. Avoid using them for more than three days, as this can cause congestion to get worse when you stop using them.
  • Use a nasal spray or neti pot. If using a neti pot, only use distilled, sterile, or boiled water to avoid introducing microbes in the nasal passage.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. This will help thin your mucus so you don’t feel so congested.
Sources

American Lung Association. Pneumonia symptoms and diagnosis. Link

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Rhinitis (Nasal allergies). Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold. Link

Maggie O'Neill. What does green snot mean? We asked the experts. Link

National Library of Medicine. Sputum Culture. Link

Carolyn Todd and Korin Miller. Dealing With Yellow Mucus? Here's What Your Body Might Be Trying to Tell You. Link

About UPMC

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