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What Is Frothy Sputum?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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When you cough up a foamy white mucus, it's more than just an unsettling picture; it's a potential indicator of serious respiratory issues. Foamy sputum, as this substance is medically known, often signifies underlying health problems that require prompt attention. According to the American Thoracic Society, conditions like pulmonary edema, where fluid accumulates in the air sacs of the lungs, can lead to the production of this type of sputum. 

If you're experiencing this symptom, it's crucial to consult a healthcare provider to determine the cause and appropriate treatment, especially if accompanied by difficulty breathing or confusion, as these may signal a medical emergency.

Patients with frothy sputum may cough more than usual and produce foamy clots of mucus. Sometimes it is tinged pinkish, indicating that bleeding may be occurring in the airways. In a medical evaluation, a doctor may take a sample for analysis in a pathology lab. An evaluation can determine if the frothy sputum contains viruses, bacterias, or other clinical indicators that might explain why it is occurring.

This can be a symptom of pulmonary edema, pneumonia, congestive heart failure, or tuberculosis. Patients may also wheeze and have difficulty breathing, and could develop an irregular heart rate. To treat frothy sputum, medical providers need to find out why it is happening. They may support the patient with an oxygen mask, elevated bed, and other measures. If necessary, the patient can be intubated and put on a mechanical ventilator.

In a person who has an existing respiratory condition like chronic asthma, frothy sputum can be a sign of a flareup or failure to respond to treatment. It is advisable to call the person who supervises the patient’s medical care to discuss the symptom and determine the next step. A wait and see approach may be advised, or the patient might need to come in to the office for evaluation. The sudden development of frothy sputum in someone who is otherwise healthy may be a sign of a rapidly-developing lung problem that requires immediate attention.

Some of the conditions known for causing this symptom are contagious. To be on the safe side, patients should cover their mouths when they cough and dispose of any tissues appropriately, to avoid transmitting organisms to other people in the area. If they are feeling well enough to engage in normal activities, they may also want to stay home from work or school until the cause is determined so they don’t expose other people to an infectious agent. People who have been evaluated and know they are not contagious can make other people aware of this to reduce any concerns they might have.

Pink Frothy Sputum May Be an Indication Of…

Pink frothy sputum may be an indication of many ailments, including pulmonary edema. Pulmonary edemas occur when the heart is no longer able to pump blood effectively. This causes an increase of pressure in the veins of the lung, which in turn, pushes fluid into the lung’s air spaces. The fluid then accumulates, causing difficulty breathing.

Pulmonary edemas are often triggered by congestive heart failure, which may be a cause of pink frothy sputum in and of itself. In these cases, the heart gradually reduces its blood flow, and the backup of blood can make its wait into a person’s respiratory tract or esophagus, both of which could cause pink frothy sputum to occur.

These aren’t the only conditions that can cause pink frothy sputum, though. It may also indicate that you have pneumonia. Pneumonia is when the air sacs of the lungs become infected and fill up with fluid. Symptoms include sharp pains in the chest, dehydration, and coughing up pink frothy sputum.

Why Does Pulmonary Edema Cause Pink Frothy Sputum?

The pink frothy sputum that’s caused by pulmonary edema happens for several reasons. Technically speaking, it is the result of two problems, the first of which is the frothing. Frothy sputum indicates that the mucus that naturally occurs in the lungs has been combined with air or fluid. This is a symptom of respiratory distress.

The second problem is the pink color. This is usually the result of blood that is mixed with the sputum and it is an indication that capillaries may be leaking into the lungs. Respiratory distress and leaking capillaries are both symptoms of pulmonary edema.

Pink frothy sputum thus occurs when pulmonary edema causes blood to leak from capillaries and into the air sacs of the lung. The accumulation of fluid in the air sacs causes the frothing to appear, and the leaking of blood causes the pink color. As this happens, a person may cough in distress, causing the pink frothy sputum to emerge.

Frothy Sputum Heart Failure

Frothy sputum is closely linked to congestive heart failure, so when it appears, a person should seek medical attention immediately. This is especially true in instances when pink frothy sputum is accompanied by other symptoms such as lightheadedness, nausea, malaise, and pain in the chest or abdomen. All of these symptoms are an indication of heart failure and should be treated as a medical emergency.

Even if you are suffering from heart failure, though, pink frothy sputum does not necessarily indicate a fatal diagnosis. Rather, it should be taken as a warning sign, prompting you to take preventative measures and pursue treatment. If there are any lifestyle factors that may worsen your risk of heart failure, you should improve these immediately.

Losing weight and exercising more, for example, can massively decrease a person’s risk of heart failure. You should also stop smoking if you smoke, take steps to reduce stress in your life, and limit your alcohol intake.

FAQ on Frothy Sputum

What is frothy sputum and what causes it?

Frothy sputum is a type of mucus coughed up from the respiratory tract that has a foamy appearance. It is often associated with various respiratory conditions. One of the most common causes is pulmonary edema, where fluid accumulates in the air sacs of the lungs, leading to a frothy, sometimes blood-tinged sputum. This can result from heart conditions, such as congestive heart failure, or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), infections, and inhalation of certain toxins.

Can frothy sputum be a sign of a serious medical condition?

Yes, frothy sputum can be indicative of serious medical conditions. For instance, it is commonly associated with heart failure, where the heart is unable to pump blood effectively, causing fluid to back up into the lungs. According to the American Heart Association, symptoms of heart failure like frothy sputum require immediate medical attention. Additionally, frothy sputum can signal pulmonary edema or severe infections such as pneumonia, which necessitate prompt medical intervention.

How is frothy sputum diagnosed and treated?

Diagnosis of the underlying cause of frothy sputum typically involves a physical examination, medical history review, and diagnostic tests such as chest X-rays, echocardiograms, or blood tests. Treatment depends on the diagnosis and may include medications like diuretics for heart failure, antibiotics for infections, or other specific therapies for underlying conditions. In emergency cases, such as severe pulmonary edema, oxygen therapy or mechanical ventilation may be required.

Are there any lifestyle changes that can help reduce frothy sputum?

Lifestyle changes can help manage the underlying conditions causing frothy sputum. For heart-related causes, maintaining a heart-healthy diet, engaging in regular exercise, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol and salt intake are beneficial. For lung-related issues, avoiding pollutants, getting vaccinated against flu and pneumonia, and practicing good hand hygiene can reduce the risk of infections that may lead to frothy sputum.

When should someone seek medical attention for frothy sputum?

Medical attention should be sought immediately if frothy sputum is accompanied by other symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, or a bluish tint to the skin, lips, or nails. These could be signs of a serious condition like heart failure or severe pulmonary edema. Early medical intervention can be critical in managing the underlying cause and preventing complications.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon992775 — On Oct 01, 2015

@anon 6: Thick, white, frothy phlegm may be a sign of pulmonary edema. Pulmonary edema can occur secondary to pre-eclampsia of pregnancy, as can headaches, visual disturbances, pain over site of liver and swelling. Pre-eclampsia can occur postnatally, but as it is caused in part by the placenta. It is unlikely after 72 hours postnatally and very unlikely it is pre-eclampsia eight weeks postnatally. Potentially, this is why the doctors have done a blood test, confirmed it is not pre-eclampsia and sent you on your way. However, this is speculation and your symptoms are not reassuring, and may be a sign of something else, so continue to get medical help until someone listens to you.

By anon990072 — On Apr 04, 2015

I am going on my sixth week of this and my breathing is getting harder and harder but doctors just send in RT then prescribe me with another dose of albuterol and an inhaler. The only test they have done is an X-ray. I'm afraid one day soon that I'm not going to be able to catch my breath. What should I do to get the help that I need?

By anon334843 — On May 16, 2013

I have been coughing up thick white frothy phlegm with specks of blood and have hot and cold chills and fever. My muscles feel like they're on fire. I also have a massive headache, and swelling in my hands, feet and face. My body feels like it's shutting down.

I have been to the hospital six times, and each time I have been told that I just have postnatal depression or a migraine, as the doctors only do a simple blood test then tell me there is nothing wrong. I have demanded a phlegm test to be done, but they are all to quick to send me on my way. I have been ill for eight weeks now. The health system is failing me. Is there anyone who can point me in the right direction to get the help I need?

By anon332154 — On Apr 27, 2013

Different types of tuberculosis are contagious while others are not. I live with an atypical tuberculosis which fortunately for me, is not contagious, although it gives me a lot of grief from day to day.

By orangey03 — On Jan 31, 2013

My dad had frothy sputum and fluid in his lungs when he had pneumonia. He had to be hospitalized because it was so hard for him to breathe.

He had a constant cough that just would not let him get a good breath. He could have died without help from the doctors.

By kylee07drg — On Jan 30, 2013

One of my grandfather's COPD symptoms was coughing up a white frothy sputum. He had smoked for many years, but he didn't get truly sick until he was in his eighties.

It started out slow, with just a persistent cough and a slight shortness of breath when he would be active. In just a few years, it progressed to the point where he was coughing up sputum a lot and could not even go to the bathroom without winding up gasping for breath.

He finally had to be moved to a nursing home. Once he got there, he didn't live long at all. He just needed constant supervision and help during his last days.

By Perdido — On Jan 29, 2013

@Kristee – Tuberculosis is contagious, but if someone has already been treated for it, they aren't likely to spread it. Most people who have it seek treatment, because it gives them a fever and a bad cough, and those are two things that are hard to deal with for long.

Any time I've had sputum coming from my lungs or bronchial tubes, I've been more than willing to go to the doctor. If the infection is bacterial, I can always get antibiotics, and I can start getting better right away.

By Kristee — On Jan 29, 2013

I've heard that tuberculosis can make you have pink frothy sputum. I would be terrified if I coughed up anything that looked like it might have blood in it.

Does anyone know if tuberculosis is contagious? It's not something I've ever encountered, so I'm wondering if it can even spread from person to person.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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