What Are the Most Common Causes of Frothy Sputum?

Elizabeth West
Elizabeth West
A man coughs to clear his lungs. Generally, any sickness that results in congestion can lead to frothy sputum.
A man coughs to clear his lungs. Generally, any sickness that results in congestion can lead to frothy sputum.

Frothy sputum is usually a symptom of some form of respiratory distress. Frothing occurs when phlegm or mucus in the lungs combines with fluid and air, and is then coughed up by a person. This is a symptom of several serious conditions, including pulmonary edema, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and even plague. Generally speaking, any sickness that causes a lot of congestion in the lungs could potentially lead to frothy sputum.

Pulmonary Edema

Antibiotics may be a treatment option for a case of frothy sputum related to a bacterial infection.
Antibiotics may be a treatment option for a case of frothy sputum related to a bacterial infection.

Pulmonary edema is one of the most common causes of frothy sputum. This occurs when there is too much pressure in the blood vessels in the lungs, and they start releasing drops of blood into the surrounding tissue. This often leads to frothy pink mucus. Pulmonary edema is most commonly a symptom of congestive heart failure, a condition where the heart doesn't pump efficiently. It can also be caused by heart attacks, inhaling poisons, and near-drowning.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia may be diagnosed with a chest X-ray.
Pneumonia may be diagnosed with a chest X-ray.

Thick and reddish, greenish, or yellow sputum is normally associated with pneumonia. A person with this disease will be very sick, feverish, have chest pain, and have a deep cough that produces phlegm. A medical professional can diagnose this illness by listening for a crackling in the lungs, which is called rales, and he or she may follow up with a chest X-ray. Pneumonia is treated with antibiotics or antiviral medications depending on the cause. Serious cases often require hospitalization.

Tuberculosis

Frothy sputum could be a symptom of several serious illnesses.
Frothy sputum could be a symptom of several serious illnesses.

White frothy sputum can sometimes be a sign of tuberculosis (TB). This condition can infect any part of the body, but is most common in the lungs. People with it have chest pain, night sweats, and a persistent cough, often with lots of phlegm coming up. Those with HIV are particularly at risk for TB because of their weakened immune system.

Plague

A less common cause of pink frothy sputum is plague, a severe infection caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria. It spreads via the bites of infected fleas found on rodents. Most people get the bubonic form of plague, which settles in the lymph nodes, and causes swellings called buboes. If the disease turns pneumonic, which means that it affects the lungs, fluid accumulates in the lungs and a person will cough up bloody sputum, spreading the bacteria through the air. During epidemics, such as the European Black Death in the 1300s, this condition spread rapidly in this fashion.

Less Serious Respiratory Illnesses That May Lead To Frothy Sputum

While pulmonary edema, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and the black plague are the most common infections associated with frothy sputum, less severe respiratory infections may cause it, too.

You should be aware of these other conditions to monitor whether your symptoms pass within a reasonable time. These respiratory problems are usually treated with antibiotics or another prescribed medication if the illness is chronic. 

Bronchitis

Frothy sputum may be a symptom of a rapidly-developing lung problem, and should be assessed by a medical doctor.
Frothy sputum may be a symptom of a rapidly-developing lung problem, and should be assessed by a medical doctor.

When you have bronchitis, it makes the walls of the bronchial tubes irritated and swollen. One of the primary symptoms of bronchitis is a persistent cough that might produce phlegm. In addition, you could start to see frothy white sputum, which indicates that you have an infection. 

GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a chronic problem within the digestive system. It means your esophageal sphincter doesn't close correctly. As a result, you might start coughing up thick, white, frothy sputum as the stomach acid seeps into your esophagus. 

COPD

A near-drowning incident could cause the patient to exhibit frothy sputum.
A near-drowning incident could cause the patient to exhibit frothy sputum.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is irreversible and progressive. It isn't easy to breathe when you have COPD because the disease narrows your airways. It will eventually cause your lungs to make more mucus than usual. COPD can cause frothy white sputum as you're coughing and struggling to breathe.

How To Reduce Frothy Sputum

You can take several steps to clear your airways of mucus and simultaneously help prevent frothy sputum if it's not severe. Try the following:

  • Always stay hydrated by increasing your fluid intake, especially with water. Dehydration makes your mucus thicker at times, which will increase the capacity for frothy sputum. 
  • Get some rest and keep your energy levels up as you fight an infection. It'll help keep your mucus production down. 
  • Humidifiers are beneficial because moist air can loosen phlegm and keep frothy sputum at bay. 
  • Try to gargle using salt water. It’s a natural remedy to keep the mucus looser when dealing with infections that affect mucus production in your chest. All you need is to mix half a teaspoon of salt into one cup of warm water. 
  • Eucalyptus oil is an essential oil that you'll find in VapoRub and other similar products. It also helps to make thick mucus thinner.

Use an expectorant from your local pharmacy, like Mucinex. You'll not only be able to cough up the mucus easier, but it makes it thinner. This medication is available for both children and adults.

Risks

Generally speaking, any person with severe breathing problems and frothy sputum should seek medical attention right away. Respiratory disorders that become this serious can cause a person to drown in his or her own fluids; this can happen very quickly. Those with a weak immune system are often especially vulnerable to lung problems, and should monitor any symptoms very closely.

Is Frothy Sputum an Emergency?

Many respiratory tract infections will improve with time; typically, you don't have to see a doctor. They'll likely recommend taking painkillers, getting some rest, and waiting for symptoms to improve. 

Small amounts of frothy sputum are normal and will typically clear up. But other times, you'll have to seek medical assistance if it doesn't seem like things are getting better or if the frothy sputum increases and changes different colors. If you have a severe cough lasting nearly a month, you'll want to get to the doctor immediately. 

If your temperature is higher than 100.4 degrees (F) after three days, even with some form of fever medication, it might indicate that you have pneumonia. In this case, you should go to the doctor.

If your breathing is labored, your heartbeat is rapid, you have specks of blood in your mucus, your chest pains are severe, or you feel confused and constantly drowsy, go to the doctor immediately. 

Additionally, if you already have a lung or heart condition or have had bronchitis repeatedly, you should seek medical assistance immediately.

Treatment

The treatment for the lung congestion issues that lead to frothy sputum vary depending on the cause. In cases of bacterial infection, a person will usually respond well to antibiotics, as long as the situation is caught early enough. If the condition is caused by something else, like heart failure or an injury to the lungs, there are emergency procedures that can help. This includes things like aspiration, which is the removal of fluid from the lungs using a syringe; and diuretic drugs, which can help clear up the lungs by removing fluid from the body. Some people even require surgery to clean out the lungs.

Severe breathing problems of this sort often require extended hospital stays, especially when the cause is something particularly dangerous, such as a heart disorder. Some people have to use an oxygen mask at least part of the time to help them breathe. In other cases, a medical professional may need to insert a breathing tube.

What Is a Sputum Culture?

The doctor may choose to do a sputum culture test to diagnose how a specific treatment option is working or to see if you have bacterial bronchitis or pneumonia. 

They'll collect a sputum sample early in the morning, and they may need more in a few days, depending on which infection they think you have. Once they are aware of any bacteria present, they'll derive a conclusion and advise you on the best course of action to address the problem.

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    • A man coughs to clear his lungs. Generally, any sickness that results in congestion can lead to frothy sputum.
      By: Ljupco Smokovski
      A man coughs to clear his lungs. Generally, any sickness that results in congestion can lead to frothy sputum.
    • Antibiotics may be a treatment option for a case of frothy sputum related to a bacterial infection.
      By: guysagne
      Antibiotics may be a treatment option for a case of frothy sputum related to a bacterial infection.
    • Pneumonia may be diagnosed with a chest X-ray.
      By: teresinagoia
      Pneumonia may be diagnosed with a chest X-ray.
    • Frothy sputum could be a symptom of several serious illnesses.
      By: Halfpoint
      Frothy sputum could be a symptom of several serious illnesses.
    • Frothy sputum may be a symptom of a rapidly-developing lung problem, and should be assessed by a medical doctor.
      By: jovannig
      Frothy sputum may be a symptom of a rapidly-developing lung problem, and should be assessed by a medical doctor.
    • A near-drowning incident could cause the patient to exhibit frothy sputum.
      By: benjaminnolte
      A near-drowning incident could cause the patient to exhibit frothy sputum.