An Overview on Excess Mucus Production

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Excess mucus, sometimes referred to as chronic mucus hypersecretion or chronic sputum production, is an uncomfortable and irritating symptom that can be caused by a wide range of factors, from cigarette smoke to infection to chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).

Symptoms

The longevity and severity of excess mucus is highly variable. Some may experience excess mucus production as chronic bronchitis, which is defined as the presence of a chronic, productive cough and sputum production for at least three consecutive months in two consecutive years. Others may just experience an increase in mucus temporarily, such as with allergies or a viral infection.

Symptoms include:

  • Sore or scratchy throat
  • Feeling the need to cough
  • Productive or unproductive cough
  • Wheezing
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Congestion in the nasal passages and airways

Causes

Mucus is produced by the goblet cells found in the mucus membranes of the body and serves an important purpose: to trap debris, irritants, and bacteria so that they can be coughed up and removed (cleared) from the lower respiratory tract.

While a small amount of mucus every once in a while is normal, an increased amount of mucus buildup that lasts for a long time, or an increase in the viscosity or stickiness of mucus may be a cause for concern. In some cases, the overproduction and hypersecretion of mucus is also related to an inability to cough up the excess, due to atrophy of lung or throat muscles, or damage to the cilia in the airways (the hairlike structures responsible for pushing mucus up and out).

There are several factors that can contribute to mucus overproduction and hypersecretion in the first place:

Allergies

Environmental triggers such as pollen or pollution or dander may be irritating to the body, and so the body attempts to clear the foreign substances by creating more and more mucus to cough up.

Asthma

The swelling and inflammation of airways that goes hand-in-hand with asthma also results in mucus overproduction.

Infection

Viral infections in the lungs and airways (known as bronchitis) may result in excess mucus production as the immune system works to trap the virus and remove it from the body.

Smoking

Smoking and cigarette smoke exposure are the biggest factors in chronic excess mucus production. Studies show that cigarette smokers with both chronic bronchitis and limited airflow have an increased number of goblet cells and inflammatory cells in their airway.

COPD

Some patients with COPD have increased mucus production and secretion because of an over-abundance of mucus-producing cells (goblet cells) and oversized mucus glands in their airways compared with healthy people, which results in a chronic cough. Unfortunately, people with COPD may have difficulty clearing excess mucus because of an ineffective cough and other aspects of their condition. 

Cystic Fibrosis

A genetic disease resulting in very thick, sticky mucus, cystic fibrosis affects the lungs and other organs, such as the pancreas. The sticky sputum makes it very hard to clear the airways to breathe.

Diagnosis

If you've had a lingering, productive cough, or an increase in the amount or thickness of your mucus, be sure to make an appointment with your doctor, who will ask you several questions about your cough and mucus levels.

The best way to determine if your excess mucus is a result of a viral or bacterial infection is to provide a sample for a sputum culture, which is a lab analysis of the mucus (sputum) itself. You may need to skip a meal or stop medications before providing a sputum sample, so be sure to ask your doctor for instructions. To give the sample, you'll simply cough up about a teaspoon of mucus into a clean cup for testing.

Treatment

Treatment is focused on helping you produce and secrete less mucus and clear more of it out of your airway. If you smoke, quitting smoking can help clear up your cough. Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for many conditions, including chronic bronchitis and COPD. Additional treatment ranges from over-the-counter medications to prescriptions to home remedies.

Home remedies:

  • Using a humidifier at night
  • Adding a couple of drops of eucalyptus essential oil to your shower floor while you shower
  • Take honey as an anti-inflammatory cough suppressant

Over-the-counter medications:

  • Decongestants like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and oxymetazoline (Vicks Sinex) can help stop mucus production
  • Expectorants like guaifenesin (Mucinex) help remove mucus from the respiratory tract by increasing the water content of mucus, making it easier to cough up.

Prescription medications:

People with chronic bronchitis may use inhalers—often more than one—to ease airway swelling and open the airways. The oral corticosteroid prednisone is often prescribed for chronic bronchitis, as well. 

Alternative treatments:

Physical treatments such as chest physiotherapy, postural drainage, and using airway clearance devices may also be helpful to some with mucus overproduction.

A Word From Verywell

Over the long term, excess mucus can impact your health by damaging airways and resulting in a decline in lung function over time, by limiting physical activity and causing a decrease in quality of life, by increasing the number of COPD exacerbations in those with COPD, and by increasing your risk of respiratory-related mortality.

It's best to not let a nagging cough go on for too long without getting checked by a physician. Even if you don't have COPD, chronic bronchitis might be a warning sign, as research shows that chronic bronchitis is a predictor of COPD. In one study, young adults who had a chronic cough and phlegm but normal lung function had almost three times the risk of developing COPD than those who didn't have chronic bronchitis. Be sure to seek healthcare quickly, and try the at-home remedies listed above to help relieve your symptoms.

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