Mucus is something everyone has, and some people wish they had a lot less of the stringy, gooey stuff. Sure, it can be gross to blow globs of snot into tissue after tissue when you have a cold or sinus infection, but mucus actually serves a very important purpose.
"Mucus is incredibly important for our bodies," explains Michael M. Johns, III, MD, director of the Emory Voice Center and assistant professor of otolaryngology -- head and neck surgery at Emory University. "It is the oil in the engine. Without mucus, the engine seizes."
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How much mucus is normal, and how much is too much? What does its color tell you about your health? Can you just get rid of it, or at least cut down on it, and how should you do that? Here are answers.
Mucus-producing tissue lines the mouth, nose, sinuses, throat, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. Mucus acts as a protective blanket over these surfaces, preventing the tissue underneath from drying out. "You have to keep them moist, otherwise they'll get dry and crack, and you'll have a chink in the armor," says Neil L. Kao, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.
Mucus also acts as a sort of flypaper, trapping unwanted substances like bacteria and dust before they can get into the body -- particularly the sensitive airways. "You want to keep that environment, which is a sterile environment, free of gook," says Johns. "Mucus is kind of sticky and thick. It's got viscosity to it that will trap things."
But mucus is more than just sticky goo. It also contains antibodies that help the body recognize invaders like bacteria and viruses, enzymes that kill the invaders it traps, protein to make the mucus gooey and stringy and very inhospitable, and a variety of cells, among other things.
Why Am I Making So Much Mucus?
Even when you're healthy, your body is a mucus-making machine, churning out about 1 to 1.5 liters of the stuff every day. Most of that mucus trickles down your throat and you don't even notice it.
However, there are times when you do notice your mucus -- usually not because you're producing more of it, but because its consistency has changed.
"Typically, the mucus changes character. It gets thicker," Johns says. "When it has mass effect you feel it, and when you feel it, you want to hock." Some people just naturally have thicker, stickier mucus than others.
It generally takes a bad cold, allergy, or contact with something irritating -- like a plate of nuclear-hot Buffalo wings -- to throw your body's mucus production into overdrive.
For instance, during an allergic response to an offending trigger, such as pollen or ragweed, mast cells in your body squeeze out a substance called histamine, which triggers sneezing, itching, and nasal stuffiness. The tissue of the mucus membranes starts leaking fluid, and your nose begins to run.
Drinking milk may also make some people produce more mucus. Kao says that's due to gustatory rhinitis, a reflex reaction that's triggered by eating. Gustatory rhinitis is also why your nose runs when you eat hot peppers. Milk proteins cause the same type of response in some people. But although you may feel like you have more phlegm, you're not going to worsen a cold by drinking a glass of milk, Johns says.