The most common causes of brown phlegm are smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke; a number of other environmental issues like air pollution and dust may also be to blame. Sometimes a person’s diet could trigger the production of phlegm as well. In more serious cases the root cause could be a respiratory infection or lung problem, though in these instances the phlegm tends to be on-going, which means that it doesn’t go away on its own — and in fact may actually get worse as time goes by. People are often alarmed when they first start coughing up brown phlegm, but it’s rarely anything to worry about. Just the same, anyone who is worried about their condition, particularly if the phlegm is accompanied by other symptoms like wheezing or fever, should usually get the advice of a qualified medical provider.
Phlegm is a thick, tacky substance that is sometimes expelled out of the body through coughing. It can come in a number of colors, such as white, yellow, green, and brown. It’s really similar to mucus, and in fact many experts say that the two substances are biologically identical. The difference in title is often related to where in the body each occurs, rather than primary function. On this understanding, phlegm is mucus that occurs in the respiratory tract, and is usually triggered by some sort of irritant.
Some mucus or phlegm is almost always in the throat and lungs, and is one of the main ways the body moves foreign particles like dust through the lungs. Small particles are often inhaled by accident, and moving them out is a relatively easy way for the body to maintain its efficiency. The lung’s cilia, which are cells that line the lung walls, are where the mucus is produced. These contain hair-like protrusions that essentially act to “sweep” the particles away.
People don’t usually notice their phlegm or know what color it is until there’s so much of it that the body needs to expel some. When something triggers an increased production, people often find themselves coughing up or spitting up phlegm. A brown color is usually considered unusual, though there are many possible explanations.
Concerns for Smokers
Smoking is one of the most common causes of brown-colored phlegm. When people regularly intake the smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, in most cases they’re breathing in more than just nicotine smoke — they’re also getting a range of resins, tars, and other chemicals. These tend to become trapped in the lungs. Heavy smokers will often cough up a small quantity of brown mucus, especially in the morning, and in most cases this is just a normal part of the lungs trying to clean themselves and expel the foreign particulates.
Individuals who are trying to quit smoking may also find themselves coughing up large quantities of brown phlegm. After a person quits, the cilia in the lungs, which have often been damaged or at least slowed by smoking, begin to work at a fuller potential again. These tiny hair-like projections then begin to sweep out the large quantities of phlegm caught in the lungs. This process can last for months in some individuals.
People who live in areas with very polluted air might also cough up brownish phlegm from time to time. Dust and dirt can also be a cause. When cleaning a dusty room or working around blowing sand or dirt, tiny particles can get caught in the throat. This mucus will then be coughed up, and the resulting phlegm will appear brown and grainy. In nearly all cases this is a temporary condition, and will go away as soon as the exposure has stopped.
Food and Drinks
Certain foods and drinks can cause a person's phlegm to appear brown. This is usually harmless, although it can be worrisome. Chocolate, red wine, and dark sodas can all temporarily alter the color of a person’s phlegm.
Infections and Health Problems
Certain respiratory or lung infections are more serious causes. Usually when a person gets a respiratory illness, the lungs will begin to produce more mucus than normal to trap certain bacteria and other foreign matter. Brown phlegm is a common sign of chronic bronchitis, for instance, and more serious respiratory infections, such as lung cancer or emphysema, might also be present.
A lot of things can possibly contribute, but getting to the root of the exact cause almost always requires an exam by a qualified medical expert. Anyone who is worried about the phlegm they’re coughing up, particularly if the problem has been going on for some time, is usually advised to get a medical check-up just to rule out more serious conditions.
How Long Will Brown Phlegm Last?
The duration of brown phlegm varies depending on the type of phlegm and what is causing it. For example, brown phlegm caused by something food-related or diet-related will likely last for a shorter time than brown phlegm caused by a chronic condition.
Chronic conditions such as COPD, Cystic Fibrosis, or lung disease will all cause sticky, brown phlegm that will likely hang around for an extended period. In some cases, such as asthma, the brown phlegm will not go away until the condition is adequately treated.
For a short-term condition, such as brown phlegm caused by eating a particular type of food, you can expect it to last no more than a few days. On the other hand, suppose a chronic condition causes the brown phlegm. In that case, however, you may be plagued with it for anywhere between 10-14 days or longer.
What Are Some Chronic Conditions that Produce Brown Phlegm?
Various chronic conditions can be the root cause of brown phlegm. If your brown phlegm is consistent and does not clear on its own within a few days, consult your doctor to ensure you are not experiencing one of these significant chronic conditions.
Bronchiectasisis a condition that results in excess mucus being built up in the lower part of the lungs. This unwanted side effect is caused by the airways that are conjoining to the windpipe at the lower part of the lungs being too widespread. The spare room in the lungs is an excellent place for the mucus to inhabit. Therefore, it builds until, eventually, it could become a problem, and brown phlegm may form.
Cystic Fibrosis is a disorder in which the body cannot secret normal mucus. The primary purpose of mucus within the body is to provide a secretion that is slippery and moist, which is how it does its job: to excrete unwanted or unnecessary particles out of the body.
Someone suffering from Cystic Fibrosis would not be able to produce mucus properly; therefore, the mucus becomes thick and sticky, making it hard to excrete toxins without getting stuck.
This thick and sticky mucus then becomes a problem and can cause the passageways to the lungs and pancreas to become blocked. In addition, as the mucus sits in the lungs for an extended time, brown phlegm can form.
Brown phlegm caused by Cystic Fibrosis should never be ignored.
Bacterial pneumonia is an infection in which bacteria begin to invade the lungs. A common cause for this condition is a case of bronchitis not treated quickly enough. Brown phlegm is most often associated with bacterial pneumonia and is often one of its most common symptoms.
What Other Conditions Can Cause Brown Phlegm?
Aside from chronic conditions, brown phlegm may also be caused by something less concerning, such as an infection or allergy. For example, experiencing an allergic reaction to Fungus is one non-chronic reason that could explain your brown phlegm.
A lung abscess is another example of an infection that would produce brown phlegm. A lung abscess, although not life-threatening, can be a very serious condition and, when accompanied by brown phlegm, should always be diagnosed and treated promptly.
Brown Phlegm Caused by Fungus
Brown phlegm may result from someone experiencing an allergic reaction to the common Fungus, aspergillus. Aspergillus is produced by wilting plants, soil, and natural vegetation. Some people become slightly allergic to this Fungus, and thus brown phlegm may result from that.
The good news is that if a fungus allergy causes your brown phlegm, your doctor can treat that reasonably quickly by prescribing anti-inflammatory medication.
Brown Phlegm Caused by a Lung Abscess
A lung abscess is another infection that can cause someone to cough up brown phlegm. A lung abscess is when the lung tissue starts to break down, and cavities form within the lung tissue. These cavities trap and hold onto fluid and debris, thus causing an infection.
When a lung abscess festers for too long, that is when you start to cough up this excess fluid and brown phlegm, which is an indicator that bacteria and blood are present in the lungs.
Again, since the brown phlegm caused by a lung abscess is bacterial, it can be quickly and easily treated using antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs.