Phlegm or sputum or mucus is naturally produced by the body so as to keep the nasal pathways moist. When the body is attacked by irritants or germs, then the body increases the production of mucus so as to clear the nasal passages. Hence, coughing up white phlegm is a sign of some underlying infection
Some of the signs and symptoms that may occur along with coughing up white phlegm are listed below:
- Itching and scratching sensations in the throat
- Pain in throat
- Swallowing problems
- Mild fever
- Mild to extreme coughing
- Appetite loss
Causes of coughing up white phlegm
Some of the common causes of coughing up white phlegm are listed below:
- Common cold: Adults tend to suffer from common cold at least 2 to 4 times per year while children may get it nearly 10 times annually. The infection can occur due to over 200 different kinds of viruses. Besides coughing up white creamy and thick phlegm, patients may experience sneezing, sore throat, and watery eyes. The condition generally resolves on its own.
- Bronchitis: It is a condition marked by inflammation of the airways due to viral infection or other underlying diseases, tobacco exposure, and contact with other irritants. Patients experience symptoms like sore throat, fatigue, and running nose.
- Acute bronchitis is the first stage. It is marked by persistent coughing and release of clear white phlegm.
- Chronic bronchitis is more severe, long-term, and is marked by coughing up yellow, green, or white phlegm. The color change occurs due to the entry of the inflammatory cells into the airways. Patients need to seek medical attention if the coughing persists for more than 2 to 3 weeks, and/or if they experience, wheezing, bloody sputum, and breathlessness.
- Sinusitis: The symptoms of sinusitis are more severe than common cold. Patients may suffer from nasal congestion, ear pain, fatigue, facial pressure, fever, jaw or teeth pain, and coughing up green, yellow, or white phlegm. Affected children may elicit symptoms like prolonged nasal discharge, gagging on mucus, vomiting, and/or excessive coughing. The condition is more common in winter and in children.
- Smoking: Smoking allows the entry of irritants and toxins into the airways which then produce adverse reactions in the vocal cords. Subsequently, there may be inflammation of the airways along with swelling and dryness. The body may then cough up white phlegm so as to moisturize the dried up throat. Smoking can result in coughing up of mucus for many weeks continuously.
- Overuse of the vocal cords: Abuse of vocal cords due to excessive talking, shouting, etc., can dry the pharynx. Hence, increased mucus is released to lubricate it. Excess white phlegm is then coughed up and out. Affected people may also experience persistent coughing and irritation in the throat.
- Tonsil stones: There is frequent accumulation of bacteria, debris, and food remnants in tonsils; mucus holds these items together. Such compact matter is later deposited in the tonsil ditches and indents, resulting in development of a tonsil stone. The condition, where occasional or chronic, can be asymptomatic, or patients may suffer from painful ears, sore throat, and coughing up chunks of white phlegm. Untreated cases of tonsil stones are more prone to such white mucus discharge as the body tends to produce more mucus to lubricate the dry mouth and throat.
- Gustatory rhinitis: It is an allergic condition that has links with the eating habits and diet. For example, eating hot peppers can cause runny nose in patients. Some people may cough up white phlegm after drinking milk.
- GERD/gastro-esophageal reflux disease: It is a digestive disorder marked by upward flow of gastric juices into the esophagus, thereby causing symptoms like heartburn and coughing up white phlegm that is frothy and thick.
- Allergic ailments: One of the most common allergic causes of coughing up white phlegm is nasal allergies. The mucosa and nasal passages can get easily irritated by numerous types of allergens. Such allergens are removed from the nasal cavities by the mucus which is produced by the body in higher amounts.
Treatment of coughing up white phlegm
Treatment of severe and persistent instances of white phlegm need to be checked by a doctor for underlying causes. It is then treated as per the standard medical procedure for that specific causative condition.
Most instances of coughing up white phlegm are mild and can be resolved with home remedies, as mentioned below:
- Do not swallow the phlegm but cough it out as it is full of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens.
- Drink lots of water as it will thin the phlegm and facilitates its removal.
- Gargling with salt water or steam inhalation can help soothe a sore throat.
- OTC cough syrups may be taken to suppress persistent dry cough.
- Herbs and foods like bell pepper, licorice, myrrh, garlic, and honey and garlic can help soothe the throat, fight the infection, thin the mucus, and hasten its removal from the body.