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What are the Most Common Causes of Yellow Phlegm?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Yellow phlegm is typically a sign of a respiratory infection or sinus infection. In sinus infections, the phlegm usually appears as dark yellow or yellowish-green mucus from the nose. If the phlegm is due to a lower respiratory infection, it comes up through the throat and is coughed up. Thick, yellow phlegm can develop from a bacterial or viral infection, pneumonia, bronchitis, or the common cold. Allergies, smoking, and asthma can also produce excess mucus.

The production of phlegm is the body's way to fight a foreign substance that invades the respiratory system. The gooey phlegm clings to the lungs to trap the offending bacteria or virus. Once the germs are collected, the mucus becomes loose and travels up the throat so it can be coughed out. Tiny hairs, called cilia, help move the yellow phlegm from the lungs out of the body.

Expectorated matter, whether it is yellow or clear phlegm or mucus, should not be swallowed. It is full of bacteria that should be removed from the body. If phlegm is swallowed, it can sometimes cause abdominal bloating and excess gas. Mucus color and consistency depend on type of illness.

Some people take a cough medicine when ill to curb bouts of coughing caused by phlegm. That tactic works against the body's natural attempt to rid itself of viruses and bacteria. An expectorant to help break up the mucus is preferred by some doctors. Water and warm beverages might aid in flushing excess yellow phlegm from the lungs and nose.

Food also plays a role in how much yellow phlegm is produced and how quickly it leaves the body. Nutritionists believe caffeine, sugar, and dairy products result in excess phlegm. Beer, fatty foods, and some food additives may contribute to the problem. Other foods help clear the sinuses, such as spices containing capsaicin, horseradish, garlic, chilies, and ginger. Even chicken soup may be beneficial to clear sinuses.

To help move the phlegm along and get rid of it, steam can be effective. A hot bath or shower, or using an electric vaporizer, helps loosen yellow phlegm, along with deep breathing over a bowl of boiling water. Some people find applying heat to the chest and throat aids in coughing up mucus. Hot teas and gargling with salt water can also be effective.

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Discussion Comments

By bluedolphin — On Oct 24, 2013

Yellow phlegm in the throat is due to illness but yellow saliva is not necessarily. Certain yellow colored foods can cause yellow saliva. Foods with food coloring and yellow spices do this. But it's easy to tell these apart because yellow phlegm has a thick consistency and comes from the back of the mouth. Yellow saliva is thin. The yellow color in saliva from foods goes away in a very short time.

Once I got yellow saliva from yellow colored candies.

By SarahGen — On Oct 23, 2013

@burcidi-- It's normal but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't see a doctor. Yellow phlegm means that there is an infection. You might need antibiotics so you should see your doctor.

I always get yellow phlegm when I have an upper respiratory infection. Once, I coughed so much due to bronchitis that I tore tissue in my throat. My phlegm had blood in it! That was the scariest thing I've ever experienced. I thought that I was suffering from internal bleeding or something.

Yellow phlegm is nothing to worry about as long as you are treating the underlying condition and taking care of yourself.

By burcidi — On Oct 22, 2013

So it's normal to have yellow phlegm from a cold?

I've had a cold for a week and I'm coughing. I noticed today that the phlegm is cloudy and yellow. I'm kind of worried.

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