Your body naturally makes mucus every day, and its presence isn’t necessarily a sign of anything unhealthy. Mucus, also known as phlegm when it’s produced by your respiratory system, lines the tissues of your body (such as your nose, mouth, throat, and lungs), and it helps protect you from infection.
Your body makes about a liter of mucus a day. But too much of it, especially somewhere like your lungs, can be annoying and possibly a sign of a health problem. Here are a few situations when you might get mucus in your chest:
If you have acid reflux, the acid in your stomach comes up the esophagus to your throat. This can result in throat irritation and postnasal drip, along with chest congestion.
Allergies can cause a host of symptoms, from itchy eyes and sneezing to congestion, chest tightness, and coughing. A reaction that involves the lungs is more typical if you’re allergic to something airborne, such as pollen or dust mites.
Along with other symptoms of asthma, such as shortness of breath and chest tightness, asthma can cause you to cough up phlegm. This may be a sign that your airways are inflamed, but small amounts of white or clear mucus aren’t worrisome.
Bacterial and Viral Infections
Infections such as the flu, acute bronchitis, and pneumonia can cause your airways to make extra mucus, which you’ll often cough up. It may be green or yellow in color.
The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 doesn’t usually cause mucus in the chest. But complications from the virus can include pneumonia, which does involve chest congestion.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
COPD includes several lung diseases that can make it harder to breathe, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis causes inflammation of the bronchial tubes and more mucus, both of which make it harder for your lungs to work. COPD is generally caused by long-term exposure to things that irritate the lungs, such as cigarette smoke, but people with asthma can also develop it.
This is an inherited disease that results in thick mucus in the lungs and other organs. It can lead to worsening lung function as people age. Doctors test for cystic fibrosis (CF) in newborns, and 75% of people with CF are diagnosed by age 2. A parent can pass on the CF gene even if they don’t have the condition themselves, and about 1,000 new cases of CF are diagnosed annually in the U.S.
What You Can Do at Home
To control or loosen mucus at home, you can try the following remedies:
Drink lots of fluids. Drink plenty of water and other fluids, but not things that can dehydrate you, such as coffee and alcohol.
Humidify. Try a cool mist humidifier or hop into a steamy shower to keep your airways moisturized.
Don’t smoke or vape anything. Whether from tobacco or marijuana, smoke is an irritant and can cause your body to make more mucus.
Try a teaspoon of honey. Though honey doesn’t get rid of mucus, it can calm your cough temporarily. (Don’t give honey to anyone under 1 year of age.)
Check air filters. Other irritants in the air can make mucus production worse, so make sure your heating and cooling system filters are clean and up to date.
Take an expectorant. Some cough medicines contain guaifenesin, which loosens mucus so you can cough it up.
When to Seek Help
On its own, mucus isn’t a worrisome symptom. If it comes with a cough that doesn’t go away after several weeks, it’s greenish yellow or blood-tinged, or you also have fever or shortness of breath, you should call your doctor.