Causes of Increased Mucus Production in COPD

Causes and Treatment of Excess Sputum With COPD

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Mucus (also called sputum) production is a hallmark of some types of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Environmental irritants and other factors can result in both the increased mucus production by cells called goblet cells and a decreased ability to rid the lungs of mucus. There are various ways to help manage the excess mucus.

ways to reduce excess mucus in COPD
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell


Increased or excessive mucus production is the reaction of the lungs to a constantly recurring irritant such as cigarette smoke or air pollution. Mucus, or sputum, is different than saliva and is composed of dead cells and debris from the lower respiratory tract. In this sense, mucus has a function. It traps debris and organisms such as bacteria so that they can be cleared, or coughed up, from the lungs.

An increase in the amount of mucus produced in the lung is significant but so also are other changes, such as differences in the color of the sputum, and its tenacity – meaning the thickness or stickiness of the mucus.


A combination of factors is usually responsible for the development of increased mucus and can help understand why this occurs. These include:

  • Overproduction of mucus by the goblet cells
  • Hypersecretion of mucus from the goblet cells and submucosal glands
  • Decreased ability to remove mucus either due to damage to the cilia in the airways, which are the hair-like structures that help mucus move from lower in the lungs and towards the mouth, as well as decreased ability to cough, as may occur with atrophy of muscles associated with coughing.

Associated Substances 

Overproduction, hypersecretion, and decreased clearance explain the mechanisms by which sputum accumulates in the lungs, but why does this occur? Most commonly it is environmental irritants which cause the goblet cells to produce and secrete mucus while damaging the airways and in particular the cilia leads to its continued presence in the lungs (rather than being coughed up as sputum.) With COPD, it is usually a combination of these factors which helps, in turn, to understand how treatments can provide relief. Common irritants include:

  • Tobacco smoke, the leading irritant responsible for excess mucus.
  • Outdoor air pollution
  • Indoor air pollution, many think of outdoor air pollution as being a big culprit in causing these symptoms, but sometimes, and often, indoor air is worse

Associated Conditions

Conditions in which an excess production of mucus commonly occurs include:

  • Chronic bronchitis: By definition, chronic bronchitis is associated with excess mucus production in the lungs, since the diagnosis requires you to have a cough with sputum production every day for at least 3 months.
  • Bronchiectasis: Bronchiectasis is a disease in which recurrent infections lead to a widening of the airways. Bronchiectasis often produces thick, foul-smelling sputum.
  • Pulmonary edema: With pulmonary edema, sputum is often frothy in appearance, and may have a pink color due to the presence of blood.

Treatments and Coping

Just as there are several mechanisms that often work together to result in increased mucus production, a combination of different approach usually works best when coping with the symptoms.

Avoiding Respiratory Irritants

Certainly avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke is an important first step in decreasing the lung irritants which causes increased mucus. Avoiding time outside when pollution levels are high can also be helpful. Indoor air can be as important, if not more, than outdoor air, so you may want to look into the pros and cons of air purification systems that can be used in your home.

Airway Clearance Techniques

Airway clearance techniques are often used to relieve the symptoms of excess mucus and can include:

  • Controlled coughing: Controlled coughing is the most effective airway clearance technique.
  • Postural drainage: Postural drainage is a technique which uses gravity to help hasten mucus clearance from the lungs.
  • Chest physiotherapy: Chest physiotherapy or chest percussion appears to be safe for people with bronchiectasis and may provide some relief.
  • Expectorants: Be a careful consumer when considering expectorants. Though ads portray these medications as having wonderful effects, many studies suggest that over the counter expectorants for increased mucus production with COPD simply don't work.
  • Mucolytics: Mucolytics are oral or nebulized drugs that work by dissolving the chemical bonds within secretions, breaking them up so they can be more readily coughed up.
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Article Sources

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