What Does the Color of My Mucus Mean?

In This Article

It's common for mucus to change from clear to white, yellow, or green during a single illness. Many people believe the color of your mucus is an indicator of how sick you are and whether your infection is bacterial or viral, but that's not the case.

Changes in mucus color are a normal part of the natural progression of illness. When germs get into your body and make you sick, one of the first ways your body fights infection is by creating extra mucus to try to flush out the invading pathogen. This early mucus is typically clear.

A few days later, your body has sent in immune cells to join the fight, and they can turn the mucus to white or yellow. If bacteria are mixed in as well, the mucus could turn green.

But it's important to remember that bacteria are present in your body all the time; some make you sick and some don't. Just because they're in your mucus doesn't necessarily mean they're problematic—or that you need antibiotics to get better. For example, bacterial infection only occurs in between 0.5% and 2% of rhinosinusitis cases.

Though less common, it's also possible for your mucus to turn pink, red, brown, orange, or black.

Clear Mucus

Healthy, normal mucus is clear and made up of water, salt, proteins, and antibodies. Your body makes it night and day to protect your nasal passages, putting out about 1.5 quarts daily.

You may have an especially runny nose with clear mucus:

  • During the early stages of a cold or other viral illness
  • Due to allergies (allergic rhinitis)
  • As a result of nonallergic rhinitis, which is especially common during pregnancy

Especially watery nasal discharge can result from a leak of cerebrospinal fluid, which is usually caused by trauma or certain medical conditions. Get emergency medical help if you have watery discharge along with:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Light or noise sensitivity
  • Headaches that get better or worse with a change in position

White Mucus

White mucus is often associated with a cold or other infection that causes a stuffy nose. When you're congested, inflammation in your nose makes it harder for the snot to flow out, and it starts to dry. This makes it cloudy and thick.

It may also turn white due to the presence of immune cells that your body sends to battle the illness.

Yellow Mucus

When your snot turns yellow, it means your illness is progressing normally. White blood cells and other cells from the immune system have come to fight the germs making you sick, and some of them are now exhausted and being washed away by mucus.

The texture is likely drier and thicker than it used to be as well.

Green Mucus

Green, thick snot means your body is fighting a hard battle and even more depleted immune cells and waste products are being flushed out.

Green mucus isn't reason for immediate concern. But if you're still sick after about 12 days, you could have a bacterial infection and might need antibiotics. Especially if you have a fever or nausea, it's time to see a doctor.

Pink or Red Mucus

When you have pink or red mucus, it means there's blood in your nose. This can be caused by:

  • Blowing your nose a lot
  • Picking your nose
  • Getting hit in the nose
  • Dry nasal passages due to illness or environmental factors
  • Pregnancy

Blood in the nose is more common if you live in a dry climate or at a high elevation, or if you have asthma or allergies. While mucus keeps your nasal passages moisturized, a constantly runny nose can irritate nasal passages and cause one of the tiny capillaries in your nose to burst.

If you've had some sort of trauma to your nose or face, such as a car accident, you should see a doctor right away.

Prolonged bleeding (more than 30 minutes), heavy bleeding (more than a tablespoon of blood), or difficulty breathing with a blood nose are also reasons to get medical help.

Brown or Orange Mucus

Brown mucus could result from dried blood getting mixed in. Mucus can also turn brown or orange if you inhale something like dirt, a red spice such as paprika, or tobacco (snuff). This color doesn't typically result from illness.

Black Mucus

Black mucus is rare and means you should see a doctor right away, as it's often a sign of a fungal infection that needs to be treated. These infections can cause serious symptoms and some forms have to be addressed surgically.

Most healthy people aren't susceptible to these infections. They're more common (although still somewhat rare) in people with an immune system that's suppressed due to illness or medication.

Other potential causes of black snot are:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Use of illegal drugs

Don't just assume you have black snot because you're a smoker, though. Not only can a fungal infection be dangerous, it could be a sign that you have an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder, so get medical attention.

When Should You Be Concerned?

In addition to the above-mentioned circumstances that should prompt you to see a doctor, if you have congestion with certain other symptoms, it may be time to get evaluated.

These situations include:

  • Severe symptoms
  • Symptoms that persist for more than two weeks
  • Signs of a secondary infection: Starting to feel better and then getting sick again, usually with a cough and a temperature above 102 degrees F
  • Signs of a sinus infection: Yellow or green mucus for longer than two weeks accompanied by pain and pressure in your sinuses and face

Many sinus infections go away on their own without antibiotics, but some do require treatment. Your healthcare provider can determine what medicine is best to help relieve your symptoms and will prescribe antibiotics if they're necessary. 

A Word From Verywell

Doctors don't often base a diagnosis solely on the color of mucus, but it can help complete the picture. So while it's useful to tell your doctor if your mucus has changed color and consistency, don't expect to automatically get antibiotics just because it's green. Your doctor will use all the information at their disposal to determine the best course of action.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publishing. Don't judge your mucus by its color. Published February 8, 2016.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotic prescribing and use in doctor's offices: Sinus infection (sinusitis). Updated August 27, 2019.

Additional Reading