What are the signs of phlegm problems?
Phlegm is a thick, slippery and sticky substance produced by the throat, bronchial passages, and lungs. Phlegm, also called sputum, contains mucus and sometimes other substances, such as dead cells, pus, or foreign particles, including dust. You may not notice that you produce much phlegm unless you cough due to a respiratory infection, such as pneumonia, or if you have certain other diseases or conditions in which the body produces abnormal amounts or types of phlegm, such as cystic fibrosis and asthma.
Phlegm may be described as abnormally thick or frothy, and clear, yellow or green in color. Phlegm can also contain visible amounts of blood or may be pink in color. In some cases, it may be difficult for you to clear your breathing passages by coughing due to extremely thick phlegm.
Abnormal phlegm symptoms can be caused by a large variety of mild to serious health problems, including infections, malignancy, inflammation, allergy, trauma, medications, and airway obstruction. For example, phlegm may be caused by exposure to smoke, consuming certain foods, such as dairy products, or taking certain medications.
In some cases, p hlegm symptoms can be a sign of a serious or life-threatening disease or condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or lung cancer. Seek prompt medical care if you are coughing up or producing large amounts of phlegm, or if your phlegm is unusual, persistent, recurrent, or causes you concern.
Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have difficulty breathing; chest pain; shortness of breath; swelling of the throat, mouth or face; or are coughing up bloody, pink and frothy phlegm.
What other symptoms might occur with phlegm symptoms?
Phlegm symptoms may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, you may have a fever and body aches if your phlegm symptoms are caused by an infection.
Symptoms of an infection that can occur with phlegm symptoms
Fever with or without chills and sweats
Runny or stuffy nose, often with green or yellow discharge
Swollen, tender lymph nodes in the neck
Allergy symptoms that can occur with phlegm symptoms
Allergies can cause other symptoms that occur with phlegm symptoms including:
Itching of the nose, throat or ears
Runny or stuffy nose and postnasal drip
Watery, itchy eyes
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, phlegm symptoms may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition, such as acute pulmonary edema or a serious asthma attack, which should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms:
Bluish coloration of the lips, nails, and possibly the skin (cyanosis)
Chest pain, tightness or pressure
Coughing up blood or pink, blood-tinged phlegm
Coughing up large amounts of frothy mucus or phlegm
Decrease in level of consciousness or change in alertness including confusion or disorientation
Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
Severe pain upon swallowing, inability to swallow, or drooling
Sudden swelling of the tongue, lips, mouth or face, or hives on the face or neck
What causes phlegm symptoms?
Phlegm is generally associated with diseases, disorders and conditions of the respiratory system, including the nose, throat, windpipe (trachea), bronchial tubes, and lungs, but can also be caused by conditions of the upper digestive tract and the cardiovascular system, such as congestive heart failure.
Phlegm symptoms are commonly caused by bacterial or viral infections of the lungs and upper airways. Healthy lungs are covered with a thin layer of mucus. When threatened by infectious germs or damaging foreign substances, such as smoke or dust, the lungs produce additional mucus. The mucus may thicken and must be expelled from the lungs through coughing in order to keep the airways clear.
In addition, certain foods, particularly dairy products, or medications, such as those for blood pressure, can cause or increase phlegm symptoms. Because there are so many different causes, some of which are life threatening, it is important to contact your doctor or health care practitioner to discuss your symptoms and address your concerns.
Infectious causes of phlegm symptoms
Phlegm symptoms can be caused by various viral and bacterial infections including:
Acute bronchitis (inflammation of the bronchial tubes usually caused by a viral infection or sometimes a bacterial infection)
Common cold (viral infection)
Croup (laryngotracheitis, inflammation of the voice box and windpipe usually caused by a virus)
Epiglottitis (rare, life-threatening inflammation of the epiglottis, a flap of cartilage that covers the windpipe and protects it from inhalation of food). Epiglottitis is usually caused by a viral infection and mainly affects infants and children.
Laryngitis (inflammation of the larynx caused by a viral infection)
Pharyngitis (inflammation of the throat usually caused by a viral infection and sometimes a bacterial infection)
Pneumonia (lung inflammation, usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection)
Tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils often caused by an infection)
Tuberculosis (serious infection affecting the lungs and other organs)
Other causes of phlegm symptoms
Certain foods and medications as well as a variety of conditions and diseases can cause phlegm buildup. They include:
Airway irritation or obstruction
Asthma and allergies
Congestive heart failure (deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood)
Consuming dairy products
Cystic fibrosis (CF; an inherited disease causing thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs, impairs breathing, and enables bacteria to grow)
Medications, including those for controlling blood pressure and some types of chemotherapy
Pulmonary edema (abnormal fluid buildup in the lungs)
- Tumor of the larynx (voice box), mouth, or nasopharynx
Tumor of the larynx (voice box)
Questions for diagnosing the cause of phlegm symptoms
To aid in diagnosing the cause of your phlegm symptoms, your doctor or licensed health care provider will ask you questions related to your symptoms. Giving complete answers to these questions will help your health care provider in diagnosing the cause of your symptoms. Questions may include:
What does your phlegm look like? Is it thick or thin? What color is it?
How long have you had the phlegm symptoms?
Are you breathing through your mouth (instead of your nose)?
Are your phlegm symptoms keeping you up at night?
Do you have a fever?
Phlegm symptoms can be caused by an infectious process that may be treated easily. However, some underlying causes of phlegm symptoms can lead to serious complications. It is important to contact your health care provider when you have unexplained phlegm symptoms or if your phlegm is persistent, recurrent, or causes you concern. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan you and your doctor design specifically for you can help lower your risk of potential complications including:
- Chronic tonsillitis
- Difficulty sleeping
- Metastasis (spread of cancer)
- Organ damage
- Pulmonary edema
- Repeated lung infections and damage
- Respiratory arrest and cardiac arrest
- Spread of cancer