Mucus Color Meaning: Yellow, Green, Red, and More

The color of your mucus can say a lot about your health

Many people believe the color of your mucus indicates how sick you are and whether an infection is bacterial or viral. But deciphering mucus color meaning isn't that straightforward. For example, yellow mucus is a normal occurrence as a cold progresses, but it can also mean allergies.

It's actually common for mucus to change from clear to white, yellow, or green during a single illness. This progression is due to changes in the immune response as days pass and what's mixed with the mucus itself.

In some cases, a change in mucus color may not require you to do anything but seek at-home or over-the-counter treatments to ease other symptoms, if needed. In others, it may be a sign of a health problem that needs medical treatment.

This article walks you through the various colors your mucus can take on—clear, white, yellow, green pink, red, orange, brown, and black—and their possible causes. It also helps you determine if it's time to see a healthcare provider.

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

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:

Rarely, watery nasal discharge can result from a leak of cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that surrounds and cushions the brain, usually due to 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

Yellow mucus 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. Some of them are now exhausted and being washed away by mucus.

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

Yellow mucus may also mean you have allergies. Allergens irritate the nasal passages, which can lead to the production of thick, pale yellow phlegm that runs down the back of the throat and causes coughing.

Green Mucus

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

Green mucus isn't a 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 healthcare provider.

Mucus Color and COVID-19

Symptoms of COVID-19 usually include a dry cough. Most people do not express mucus while they’re sick with coronavirus. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t mucus in the lungs.

People with severe COVID-19 who develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) may have a buildup of phlegm in the lungs. This mucus is thick and concentrated and cannot be coughed up like the phlegm that's related to the flu or common cold.

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 weather
  • Pregnancy

Blood in the nose is more common if you live in a dry climate or at a high elevation. Having asthma or allergies can also cause blood in your nose. 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 healthcare provider right away. Other reasons to seek medical help include:

  • Prolonged bleeding for more than 30 minutes
  • Heavy bleeding, or more than a tablespoon of blood
  • Difficulty breathing with a bloody nose

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 healthcare provider right away. It is often a sign of a fungal infection that needs to be treated. These infections can cause serious symptoms and some forms require surgery.

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 weakened 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.

Mucus in Diarrhea

A small amount of mucus with stool may be completely normal, but can also be associated with diarrhea and illness. If you notice a significant amount of green mucus in the poop of a toddler, baby, or adult, it may indicate a bacterial infection. See your healthcare provider to determine whether medication is needed to treat the infection or if it can run its course and resolve on its own.

When Should You Be Concerned?

If you have congestion with the following symptoms, it may be time to get evaluated:

  • Severe symptoms
  • Symptoms that persist for more than two weeks
  • Starting to feel better and then getting sick again, usually with a cough and a temperature above 102 degrees F. These are signs of a secondary infection (such as a bacterial infection after a virus).
  • Yellow mucus or green mucus for longer than two weeks accompanied by pain and pressure in your sinuses and face. These symptoms may indicate a sinus infection.

Your healthcare provider can determine what over-the-counter or prescription medicine is best to help relieve your symptoms.

While mucus is associated with bacteria, 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. Many sinus infections go away on their own without antibiotics, but some do require treatment.

Summary

Changes in mucus color, from clear to white to yellow to green, are part of the normal course of an illness. It's a sign that your immune system is fighting to get better.

Pink, red, orange, or brown mucus, on the other hand, is typically not from an illness. It may just mean that there is blood or dried blood in your nose. If you have black mucus, which is rare, it may signal a fungal infection and you need to see a healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

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

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do you need antibiotics if your mucus is green?

    You may. Green mucus is a sign that the body is fighting a difficult infection. If you are still sick after a couple of weeks, this can be a sign of a bacterial infection. In these cases, it's a good idea to contact a healthcare provider.

  • What causes blood in mucus from the nose?

    Mucus that contains blood can be caused by frequently blowing your nose, picking your nose, getting hit in the nose, dry nasal passages, living at high elevation, living in a dry climate, pregnancy, asthma, and allergies. Mucus from the nose is usually a red or pink color.

  • Where does mucus come from?

    Mucus is made by mucus glands, which are located in the mouth, nose, throat, stomach, intestines, and vagina. Mucus production is a natural and important process that helps the body in various ways, such as by lubricating tissues and flushing out germs.

  • Why does mucus color change when you're sick?

    When germs invade, the body creates mucus to try to flush them out. It is usually clear. A few days later, immune cells join the fight, which can turn mucus white or yellow. Mucus can turn green if bacteria is present and mixes in.

5 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.

  2. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Rhinitis (Nasal Allergies).

  3. Kratochvil MJ, Kaber G, Demirdjian S, et al. Biochemical, biophysical, and immunological characterization of respiratory secretions in severe SARS-CoV-2 infections. JCI Insight. 2022;7(12):e152629. doi:10.1172/jci.insight.152629

  4. Children’s Minnesota. Diarrhea reference chart.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotic prescribing and use in doctor's offices: Sinus infection (sinusitis).

Additional Reading

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.