Yellow, Green, and Bloody Snot Explained
Everyone has mucus, and some people would like to have a lot less of this stringy, sticky substance. Sure, it can be disgusting to blow lumps of mucus into tissue after tissue when you have a cold or sinus infection, but the mucus actually serves a very important purpose.
How much mucus is normal and how much is too much? What does its color tell you about your health? Is it possible to just get rid of it, or at least reduce its amount, and how to do this? Here are the answers.
Mucous tissue lines the mouth, nose, sinuses, throat, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. The mucus acts as a protective coating on these surfaces, preventing the tissues underneath from drying out. “You have to keep them moist or they dry out and crack and you end up with a chink in your armor,” says Neil L. Cao, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.
But slime is more than just sticky slime. It also contains antibodies that help the body recognize invaders such as bacteria and viruses, enzymes that kill the invaders it catches, a protein that makes mucus gooey, gooey, and very inhospitable, and a variety of cells, among other things.
Why do I have so much mucus?
Even when you are healthy, your body is a mucus-producing machine, producing between 1 and 1.5 liters of mucus each day. Most of this mucus runs down your throat without you even noticing it.
It usually takes a bad cold, an allergy, or contact with something irritating, like a plate of nuclear-hot buffalo wings, to drastically increase the body’s mucus production.
For example, during an allergic reaction to an irritant, such as pollen or ragweed, the mast cells in your body release a substance called histamine, which causes sneezing, itching, and nasal congestion. The tissues of the mucous membranes begin to secrete fluid, and the nose begins to flow.
Drinking milk can also cause increased mucus production in some people. Cao says it’s due to gustatory rhinitis, a reflex reaction triggered by eating. Taste rhinitis also causes your nose to run when you eat hot peppers. Milk proteins cause the same reaction in some people. But while you may feel like you have more phlegm, you won’t make your cold worse if you drink a glass of milk, Jones says.
Why is my mucus changing color?
If you’ve ever stopped to look at the contents of tissue after blowing your nose, you may have noticed that your mucus isn’t always perfectly clear. It can be yellow, green, or have a reddish or brownish tint. What do these colors mean?
You may have heard that yellow or green mucus is a clear sign of an infection, but despite this common misconception, a yellow or green tint is not associated with bacteria.
When you have a cold, your immune system sends out white blood cells called neutrophils that rush to this area. These cells contain a greenish-colored enzyme, and in large quantities, they can stain the mucus in the same color.
But “you can have perfectly clear mucus and a terrible ear and sinus infection,” Kao says. If you have an infection, you’re likely to also have other symptoms, such as nasal congestion, fever, and facial pressure affecting the sinuses, Jones said.
The mucus can also contain shades of reddish or brownish blood, especially if your nose becomes dry or irritated from excessive rubbing, blowing your nose, or picking. Most of the blood comes from the area right inside the nostril, where most of the blood vessels in the nose are located. A small amount of blood in the mucus is not a cause for concern, but if you see a large amount of blood, call your doctor.
How can I get rid of mucus?
People with chronic sinus problems who constantly blow their noses understandably want the mucus to go away. Over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants are one way to do this. Decongestants cause the blood vessels in the lining of the nose to constrict, reducing blood flow to that area, so you have less congestion and less mucus production.
Decongestants are great when you can’t breathe with a cold, but they’re generally not as good for thick mucus. “The reason is that decongestants dry you out and make your mucus thick, and often the opposite effect happens because you feel like you have thick mucus,” Jones explains. So you take more decongestants and get into a vicious cycle of mucus production. Decongestants also have side effects that include dizziness, nervousness, and high blood pressure.
You can also thin mucus with guaifenesin, a medicine called an expectorant. Thinner mucus is more easily excreted from the body. Possible side effects of guaifenesin are dizziness, headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Neti Pot variant
If you want to go a more natural route, an alternative to removing mucus in nasal lavage. A neti pot, a small teapot-shaped device, is a form of nasal irrigation. Others include a bulb syringe or squeeze bottle.
Nasal rinsing is good, but as the old saying goes, there can be too much of a good thing. Flushing your sinuses flushes out bad, nasty bacteria and other critters that can cause an infection. However, one study found that when people do it too often, nasal rinsing can actually increase the risk of infection because it also flushes out some of the protective substances that help prevent disease. So use a neti pot or other nasal irrigation device when you need it, but take a break when you feel better.