Nasal Mucus: what is it and why do we produce it?
Every hour we breathe in about 500 liters of air, and together with it dust, pollen, microorganisms and other potentially annoying substances for the body. The mucus of the respiratory system is the first protection against these irritants and other possible problems affecting the airways. In fact, it performs three important functions:
- It keeps the humidity present inside the nasal cavities constant ;
- Lubricates the membranes , helping to keep them intact;
- It traps bacteria and dust to prevent them from entering the body.
Mucus is a more or less dense fluid, with a viscous consistency, consisting mainly of water (97%) and glycoproteins , compounds of proteins and carbohydrates that give it viscosity and allow it to “capture” the substances .
Other components of the mucus are enzymes that have a disinfectant action, salts, lipids and antibodies. Mucus is produced by the secretory (or muciparous) glands of many parts of the body; that present in the respiratory tract is secreted in the nasal cavities and in the trachea .
Every day we produce about 1 liter of mucus , which is expelled from the body thanks to the movement of the eyelashes. These are protrusions present on specific cells (the hair cells) that cover the upper part of the respiratory tract. Their movements carry the mucus towards the nostrils and throat; thus, when you blow your nose , you get rid of the mucus and along with it most of the microorganisms, allergens and fine dust that were present in the respiratory tract.
What is the difference between mucus and phlegm?
During periods of an ongoing airway infection , such as when you have a cold , more mucus is produced. Phlegm is thick mucus produced as a result of inflammation of the respiratory tract. The abundant production of mucus or phlegm can constitute an obstacle to the normal development of respiratory functions (causing for example dyspnea, difficulty in breathing) and become fertile ground for microbial proliferation.
For this the body implements a defense mechanism to eliminate this excess: coughing (called fat cough ), which help eliminate phlegm in the throat. During this phase of respiratory diseases it is possible to notice that the mucus takes on different colors and consistencies , indicators that we have available to summarily know our state of health, even if only with more accurate investigations it will be possible to define exactly which pathology is in act.
How does the ear, mouth, nose and throat work?
What does the color of mucus indicate about our state of health
One often wonders if the color of the mucus indicates something. The answer to this question is affirmative: variations in sputum can indicate whether a pathology is present. This is because the mucus production process is complex and is altered in different ways depending on the respiratory disorder in progress. However, often the appearance of the mucus is not a unique indicator of what is happening, even if there are situations in which it can be a first alarm bell that can indicate the presence of important diseases such as, for example, bronchitis or sinusitis .
For this reason, if sudden and important variations in color occur, it is advisable to contact your own as soon as possibledoctor to ask for a consultation. It is important to see a doctor especially when the change in the color of the mucus occurs together with symptoms such as difficulty in breathing , dehydration or pain in the face , persistent or that can be felt by touching the part.
Consult the centers that have declared to be specialized in Sinusitis:
Centers specialized in Sinusitis
In a normal condition, the mucus is colorless ( transparent ) and has a semi-liquid consistency . So when the mucus is of this color and is fluid it can perform its protective function correctly: it indicates that you are in a state of good health . However, even in the case of rhinorrhea , ie excessive loss of mucus, the sputum can be transparent; in this case the consistency becomes more watery.
The most frequent causes of a runny nose, clear mucus in abundance are viral infections and allergies .
The phlegm can turn whitish when there is a small infection or a minor allergy . The resulting dehydration and thick texture indicate that the body has taken action trying to fight inflammation by producing phlegm. By capturing the bacteria and expelling them from the body, with strong and prolonged greasy coughs , the mucus performs its primary function. It can take on a thick consistency that clogs the airways, leading to severe difficulty in breathing , shortness of breath , and sometimes facial pain .
In the event that the mucus takes on a white color and a foamy consistency, it is in the presence of sinusitis , an irritation of the nasal or paranasal sinuses , caused by pathogens. It can be due, for example, to the use of tobacco products and people suffering from allergies of various kinds. It can also happen to subjects suffering from asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) .
Consult the centers that have claimed to be specialized in asthma:
Specialized Centers in Asthma
Red or pink mucus
The red or pink color of the phlegm is due to the presence of blood in the mucus , a symptom called haemophtoe . It can therefore be of concern, especially when it has a gelatinous consistency (called ” raspberry jelly “), making one suspect the presence of serious diseases such as neoplasms , tuberculosis or severe pneumonia . Other important causes of this pigmentation can be bronchitis , which is the most frequent cause, varicose veins of the nasal septum, rhinitis and rhino-sinusitis .
Sometimes, however, it is determined by a simple onerupture of the capillaries inside the nose. In fact, it can happen that the internal walls are dry or poorly lubricated , so that when you blow your nose, excessive pressure is exerted on the capillaries that break.
The blood in the phlegm can occur recurrently or occasionally, but in any case it is good to consult a doctor to ascertain its origin.
Hemoftoe, which appears as blood mixed with sputum, thus giving a pinkish or darker shade to the mucus, is not to be confused with hemoptysis , that is, the expulsion of blood without mucus from the airways. Also in this case the most frequent cause is bronchitis, but it is important to see a specialist right away if the symptom is found.
Yellow mucus and green mucus
The yellowish discoloration of the phlegm results from the presence of dead white blood cells . If these are numerous and other waste is present in the respiratory tract (for example dust), the mucus takes on a green color. The presence of green or yellowish phlegm therefore indicates that our respiratory system is inflamed.
Specifically, the presence of yellow or green phlegm usually indicates sinusitis, viral infections of the upper respiratory tract ( nose, larynx and pharynx ) and bronchitis. Rarely it can also be associated with the presence of diseases such as lung infections and cystic fibrosis. Unlike what is often thought, therefore, green mucus does not always indicate a bacterial infection . For example, bacterial respiratory infections are very rare in children , where green mucus usually indicates the presence of viruses .
This is why we must avoid taking self-prescribed antibiotics: in case of viral or fungal infections, antibiotics are not effective ; indeed, assuming some can be counterproductive. Furthermore, the incorrect use of these drugs can lead to a problem called antibiotic resistance , a phenomenon that makes the use of antibiotics ineffective when needed.
Often the yellow or green sputum has a rather thick consistency and a strong, unpleasant odor . During a shorter or longer period of suffering from flu and cold, the body produces and expels green and yellow mucus from the nose in large quantities. This condition can last for about 10-15 days at the end of which the secretion will return to being whitish and subsequently transparent and fluid . When this color appears, there is also a high difficulty in eliminating the same phlegm. It is not uncommon to find green or yellow mucus associated with a strong (oily) cough or severe cold with significant constipation of the airways and nasal cavities.
Black, brown or orange mucus
The factors that lead to a dark mucus color can be many. Brown or black phlegm can indicate the presence of major diseases such as bronchitis or mycosis ( fungal infections) of the airways. For this reason it is important, if you notice this symptom, to contact a doctor who, following a thorough examination, will be able to indicate precisely what the cause is. In general, however, the cause of the brown or orange pigmentation of the mucus is not a disease . Black or gray phlegm
often results from inhaling smog, dust or smoke. Consumers of tobacco products, those who work in mines or those in a profession for which they are often exposed to paints will very often notice that the mucus takes on a dark color.
Often it happens to find a dark pigmentation even in women who use a black pencil or a gel eyeliner inside the inner rim of the eye. Similarly, mascara residues can also enter the tear duct, coloring the secretion black. In this case, however, it is more common to notice black or gray streaks within a transparent, semi-liquid mucous secretion.. In fact, not being caused by bacteria or inflammation, the mucus remains in its natural situation simply acquiring the pigmentation given by the cosmetic.
The brown , dark red or orange color of the mucus is usually due to the presence of dry blood in the mucous secretion, which can result from the simple rupture of blood vessels in the nose. The mucus, in fact, has among its functions that of keeping the nasal walls moist . If this is not done, the cavities dry out becoming sensitive and easily subject to irritation. Therefore, if you are in this condition, it is not uncommon that, while blowing your nose, the capillariesrupture causing mild blood loss. This can therefore lead to the presence of orange or dark red mucus .
Usually phlegm and mucus disappear within 2-3 weeks . However they can persist for months (chronic phlegm) or give annoying symptoms. In case they persist and give breathing problems it is recommended to consult a doctor ; but in less significant cases it is possible to help with some simple remedies that can be used to dissolve the phlegm and facilitate its expulsion from the nose and throat.
- Blow your nose regularly . Refraining from blowing your nose is not a good hygiene practice, as is swallowing phlegm, which carries and reintroduces germs into the body;
- Vapors : Inhaling the vapors from a cup of boiling water for 20 minutes helps make the phlegm fluid. Adding essential oils can help relieve symptoms, especially the use of mucolytic or disinfectant essential oils . For example, those of cardamom (Amomum aromaticum), kumquat (Citrus japonica) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris) have a mucolytic action, while yarrow of Clavena (Achillea clavennae), oregano , rosemary and peppermint have a disinfectant effect. However, when using essential oils, care must be taken, as they can affect the activity of the nervous systemor interfere with the action of other medicines .
It is recommended to use them for a few days, unless you do not seek medical attention. It is also recommended not to use them for: children younger than 7 years, pregnant or breastfeeding women , people with kidney or liver problems and potentially allergic subjects;
- Hydration : It is important to keep the body in adequate hydration conditions by taking in plenty of fluids. This promotes the expulsion of phlegm and decreases the need to cough, which can be counterproductive. It is advisable to drink water , but hot drinks and herbal teas can also help, especially if they contain soothing and disinfectant ingredients such as honey , the effectiveness of which is widely demonstrated. The intake of honey is not recommended , however, under 5 years of age . Other possible aids against phlegm, to be drunk in hot herbal teas, are ginger, Pelargonium sidoides, turmeric, licorice, thyme, lavender, mint and the less known polygala;
- Some vegetables that can contribute to the reduction of flu symptoms are pineapple, figs, papaya, ginger and garlic ;
- Nasal rinses, fumigations or gargles with salts . These treatments help in the dissolution and expulsion of the phlegm. Gargling is not recommended for younger children. To make them, you need to dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of hot water; you can repeat them as many times as you want;
- Wraps : performed on the upper back, or on the chest , they are useful to keep warm and therefore dissolve the phlegm more easily;
- Avoid factors that can irritate the mucous membranes or create adverse reactions of the respiratory system, such as smoke and allergens;
- Avoid fried foods : these in fact contain fats that contribute to the hyper-production of mucus ;
- It is important to take into account the environmental conditions in which you live, especially humidity and temperature . In fact, wind, strong sun or bitter cold are a source of irritation for the respiratory tract. The ideal is to stay warm and in a place preferably neither too humid nor too dry. It is advisable to keep the containers for radiators or room diffusers to maintain the ideal humidity in the house.
When to call a doctor urgently
We list the symptoms that should prompt you to call a doctor right away when they occur together with excessive mucus or an unusual color.
- Noises when breathing;
- Problems breathing ;
- Lips and / or face with bluish coloring , which indicates that the person’s oxygenation is insufficient;
- Breathing faster than normal;
- Chest pain ;
- Sputum that has blood (haemophtoe) or expulsion of blood during coughing ( haemoptysis ).
Even some conditions of the patient must prompt urgent checks in the presence of strange colored mucus. A weakened immune system must push for greater caution; for example in people who have cancer, who have received organ transplants , who are HIV positive or who are taking steroids .
In children in particular, it is important to have urgent checks in the presence of chronic conditions affecting the lungs (such as cystic fibrosis ), fever over 40 ° or fever in children under 12 weeks .