An Overview of Excess Mucus Production

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Excess mucus is sometimes called chronic mucus hypersecretion or chronic sputum production. "Chronic" means the problem persists for a long time. It can be caused by a wide range of factors, including:

Chronic mucus is an uncomfortable and irritating symptom. Depending on the cause and severity, it may also cause coughing, wheezing, and other symptoms.

This article discusses the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of chronic mucus. It also looks at some potential treatments.

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Excess Mucus Symptoms

Severe mucus varies in how long it lasts and how severe it becomes. Some people may have excess mucus production with chronic bronchitis. This is defined as:

  • The presence of a chronic, productive cough, in which you are coughing up mucus
  • Producing mucus, also called sputum or phlegm, for at least three consecutive months in two consecutive years

Other people may have a temporary increase in mucus. This can happen with allergies or a viral infection.

Symptoms include:

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

Recap

Chronic bronchitis is a cough that lasts for three or more months in two consecutive years. With short-term causes of excess mucus, you may have other symptoms like a sore throat or nasal congestion. 

Complications

A small amount of mucus every once in a while is normal. An increased amount of mucus buildup that lasts for a long time, however, may be cause for concern. An increase in mucus thickness or stickiness is also a sign you may need to see a doctor.

Over the long term, chronic mucus production can impact your health. It can damage airways and reduce lung function. This can limit your ability to be physically active. It can also decrease your overall quality of life.

In patients with COPD, too much mucus can increase the number of flare-ups, when symptoms increase. It may also increase the risk of respiratory-related death.

Recap

Long term overproduction of mucus may damage your airways and reduce your quality of life. See a doctor if you have excess mucus that does not go away on its own.

Causes of Excess Mucus

Mucus is produced by goblet cells. These cells are found in the body's mucous membranes.

Mucus serves an important purpose. It traps debris, irritants, and bacteria. Coughing clears these things from your lower respiratory tract.

In some cases, the cause may be an inability to cough up the excess. This can happen because of weakening of lung or throat muscles. Damage to cilia can also cause this. Cilia are the hairlike structures that push mucus up and out of your lungs.

Several factors can contribute to excess mucus:

  • Allergies: Allergens like pollen, pollution, or dander may be irritating. The body attempts to clear these substances by creating more mucus to cough up.
  • Asthma: Asthma is associated with swelling and inflammation of the airways. This also results in mucus overproduction.
  • Infection: Bronchitis is a viral infection in the lungs. When you have bronchitis, your immune system tries to trap the virus and remove it from the body. This may result in excess mucus production.
  • Smoking: Smoking and cigarette smoke exposure are the biggest factors in chronic excess mucus production. Cigarette smokers can have both chronic bronchitis and limited airflow. Studies show that these people have an increased number of goblet cells and inflammatory cells in the airway.
  • COPD: Some patients with COPD have increased mucus production. This is because they have more goblet cells than people without COPD. They may also have oversized mucus glands in their airways. This overproduction results in a chronic cough. Unfortunately, people with COPD may have difficulty clearing excess mucus. They may have an ineffective cough or other problems associated with their condition.
  • Cystic fibrosis: This is a genetic disease associated with very thick, sticky mucus production. It affects the lungs and other organs like the pancreas. The sticky mucus makes it very hard to clear the airways in order to breathe.

Recap

Excess mucus can be caused by something temporary like allergies. It may also be caused by chronic conditions like asthma, COPD, and cystic fibrosis.

Diagnosing the Cause of Excess Mucus

See your doctor if you have a lingering productive cough or an increase in the amount or thickness of mucus.

Your doctor will ask you several questions about your cough and mucus levels. You may also be asked to provide a sputum sample. This is the best way to find out if your excess mucus has viral or bacterial causes.

To provide this sample, you'll simply cough up about a teaspoon of mucus into a clean cup. The sample is then sent to a lab for analysis.

Recap

See a doctor if you have a cough that will not go away. A sputum sample can help your doctor find the cause of your excess mucus.

Treating Excess Mucus

The goal of treatment is to help you produce less mucus and clear more of it from your airways.

If you smoke, quitting can help clear up your cough. In fact, quitting smoking is the best way to improve many conditions, including chronic bronchitis and COPD.

Over-the-Counter Medications

Over-the-counter (OTC) products can help relieve mucus buildup. These include:

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

Home Remedies

If your condition isn't serious you may prefer a more natural option. Consider these at-home solutions:

Recap

OTC remedies like Sudafed and Mucinex can help you find relief. You may also want to try home remedies like a humidifier or honey.

Prescription Medications

If excess mucus is a chronic issue, talk to your doctor. Prescription treatments can also help.

For example, people with chronic bronchitis may use inhalers to ease airway swelling and open the airways.

Prednisone is often prescribed for chronic bronchitis. This is an oral corticosteroid.

Physical Treatments

Physical treatments for excess mucus may also be helpful. These include:

Recap

Prescription inhalers and other medications can help some people reduce excess mucus. You may also get relief from a physical treatment like an airway clearance device.

Summary

Excess mucus has many potential causes. They can be long- or short-term.

Conditions that can contribute to excess mucus include allergies, asthma, and bronchitis. Smoking and conditions like COPD and cystic fibrosis can also cause this symptom.

Your doctor may order a sputum test to find the cause of your excess mucus. Treatment may include over-the-counter medicines or prescription medications like inhalers. 

You may also find some home remedies helpful. In some cases, physical remedies like airway clearance devices may also help.

A Word From Verywell

A long-term cough is uncomfortable. It's best to not let a nagging cough persist for too long. Long-term excess mucus can impact your quality of life and damage your airways. 

See a doctor especially if OTC remedies have not helped. Your cough could be a sign of a serious condition.

Chronic bronchitis might be a warning sign of COPD. In one study, young adults with a chronic cough and phlegm but normal lung function had almost three times the risk of developing COPD compared to those without chronic bronchitis.

Whatever the cause—from allergies to something more serious—your doctor will be able to run tests. Once you know the cause of your excess mucus, you can begin treating it.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does COVID lead to coughing up mucus?

    Yes, COVID-19 can lead to coughing up mucus. Most people with COVID symptoms experience a dry cough, but others can have lung congestion and cough up thick mucus.

  • Where is mucus produced?

    Mucus is produced in different organs throughout the body, such as the intestines and lungs. Goblet cells, located in mucus membranes, secrete mucin (a component of mucus) to create a slick, protective barrier that protects our internal organs from foreign bacteria and other debris.

  • Why am I coughing up white mucus?

    Coughing up white mucus can sometimes be a sign of inflamed tissue, dehydration, bronchitis, a viral respiratory infection, or asthma. However, the color of mucus alone usually isn't enough evidence to diagnose the issue. If you meet with a healthcare provider, they will likely ask about other symptoms you have experienced alongside coughing up white mucus.

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5 Sources
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