Some mucus is necessary to keep your body healthy. Mucus, or phlegm, is a thick, slippery substance secreted by glands and cells in your body. It's important to your immune system because it traps microorganisms, dirt and other particles that shouldn't be in your airway.
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But you can have too much of a good thing — excessive phlegm can cause congestion, throat irritation and more, and knowing what foods fight mucus is key to crafting an anti-mucus diet that can help you feel your best.
Foods That Break Up Mucus
Your body regularly produces mucus to function at its best, which is why there's no such thing as a mucus-free diet or foods that completely eliminate mucus. But if you're prone to excess phlegm, there are some mucus-fighting foods to work into your repertoire.
1. Broth-Based Soups
Turns out there's something to drinking a bowl of hot chicken soup when you have a cold: It's one of the best foods to get rid of mucus. Broths and soups are rich in nutrients and can help loosen up phlegm and reduce congestion, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
They're also hydrating, which can help your body better clear phlegm from your system, per July 2015 research in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
2. Clear Liquids
Like soup, water, tea and other hydrating drinks can help break up mucus congestion in your throat and lungs and prevent dehydration.
In addition to getting rid of mucus in the body, warm fluids can also soothe an irritated throat, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy, unsaturated fats that can help moderate the amount of inflammation in your body (and the extra mucus that can come with it), according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
September 2016 research in PLOS One shows that omega 3-rich fish oil could help decrease inflammation-induced mucus production in mice, although there's yet to be studies showing the same effect in humans.
Per the NIH, some mucus-reducing foods that contain the nutrient include:
- Fatty fish like salmon, herring and sardines (though some fatty fish like tuna and mackerel may encourage phlegm production, according to April 2018 research in the Annals of Dermatology)
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- Soybeans and soybean oil
- Canola oil
- Chia seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
Alliums are a class of vegetables that include garlic, onions, shallots and leeks. A February 2017 review in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine notes that they have anti-inflammatory properties, which could help quell inflammation that contributes to excessive mucus.
5. Fiber-Rich Foods
Eating fiber-rich foods like fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains may help keep your phlegm levels healthy. Not eating enough of the nutrient can degrade your intestinal mucus, which can leave you susceptible to digestive issues and illness, according to November 2016 research in Cell.
An older April 2004 study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine also found that a high-fiber diet from fruit and soy-based foods correlated with less-phlegmy coughs, though this doesn't prove cause and effect.
It's the only study investigating the link between fiber and phlegmy respiratory symptoms, though, so more research needs to be done to support whether these foods actually get rid of mucus in the throat.
6. Spicy Foods
Tuck into a bowl of ramen or another spicy food to help reduce mucus in the lungs, throat or nasal cavity. Capsaicin, the compound that brings the heat in chili peppers, can help relieve symptoms like a stuffy or runny nose, according to a July 2015 paper in Cochrane Library.
However, you'll want to avoid spice if you have acid reflux (which can worsen phlegm issues).
Spicy foods can help clear out mucus-clogged airways, but it's best to avoid spice if you have acid reflux.
Foods That May Cause Mucus
There are also some foods that can cause phlegm: Below, learn what to avoid as you build your anti-mucus diet.
1. Histamine-Rich Foods
Histamine-rich foods or foods that prompt your body to produce histamine can create mucus, per the Annals of Dermatology research. However, this is typically only an issue for those with a histamine sensitivity or intolerance, which is thought to be the result of enzyme deficiencies in your gut, according to April 2021 research in Nutrients.
High-histamine foods include:
- Some types of fish, such as tuna, pike and mackerel
- Dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter and cream (for some people)
- Processed meats
- Fermented products like alcohol, yogurt and sauerkraut
- Citrus fruits
2. Processed Foods
Another mucus-producing food? Processed snacks.
Food additives like sweeteners, preservatives and thickeners can all mess with the mucus in your gut and lead to issues like harmful inflammatory responses or intestinal disease, according to June 2018 research in Microorganisms.
These artificial ingredients can contribute to both too much and too little mucus production, but the end result is the same: an unhealthy gut environment.
Avoid additives by limiting heavily processed, sugary or salty snacks like candy or chips.
Do Potatoes Cause Mucus?
There's no evidence that potatoes themselves are a mucus-producing food, but if you're eating them in a processed form — think: chips, fries, tater tots — the other ingredients or additives might cause mucus or make it worse.
The beloved dessert and snack could be another food that causes mucus, especially if you have an acid reflux condition like laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) or gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Chocolate can weaken your upper and lower esophageal sphincters. These sphincters act as gatekeepers, keeping food and fluids headed in the right direction (downward) and preventing stomach acid from moving up into your esophagus, pharynx and larynx.
If the sphincters are weakened and stomach acid ends up where it doesn't belong, you can develop hoarseness, sore throat, heartburn, a chronic cough and phlegm in the back of your throat, according to University of Michigan Health.
Sorry, java lovers, but coffee can also exacerbate your phlegm issues.
Caffeine is another ingredient that can weaken your esophageal sphincters and allow stomach acid to back up into your esophagus and throat, per Harvard Health Publishing. This irritation can lead to phlegm production.
Much like the other mucus-causing foods and drinks on this list, alcohol can weaken the esophageal sphincters, causing irritation and phlegm.
Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means it can leave you dehydrated if you overdo it, according to the Cleveland Clinic. When you're properly hydrated, phlegm is looser; when you're dehydrated, it tends to stick around longer, per the July 2015 American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine research.
6. Carbonated Beverages
Your diet soda or seltzer might be doing more harm than good if you have a persistent phlegm problem. Carbonated drinks are packed with gas, and more gas can mean more belching.
While frequent burping isn't always a problem, it can trigger reflux for those with the condition, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
7. Other Reflux-Inducing Foods
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, other foods that produce mucus by triggering reflux and its phlegmy side effects include:
- Fried food
- Chili powder or pepper
- Citrus fruits
- Fatty meats like bacon
Other Causes of Mucus
Mucus is a thick fluid that lubricates your tissues and acts as a first line of defense against incoming infection, according to the NIH. It's a healthy and necessary part of your insides and is found on all the moist surfaces of your body, including your nasal passages, throat, lungs and intestines.
That said, there is such a thing as having too much phlegm, which can be the result of the below problems:
Your immune system triggers an inflammatory response to fight off illnesses like colds, flus and sinus infections, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Your body overproduces mucus to defend against the virus or infection as a part of this reaction, per the Cleveland Clinic.
The end result? Symptoms like congestion, runny nose, throat irritation or breathing problems.
Abundant phlegm can also be the result of chronic diseases that affect mucosal tissue, like cystic fibrosis, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to the American Lung Association.
2. Food Allergies
Allergies can cause mucus overproduction and the resulting congestion or breathing problems, along with other symptoms like skin rashes, swelling and dizziness, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Eggs, milk, soy, fish, shellfish, wheat, peanuts and tree nuts are among the most common food allergens, per the Mayo Clinic. While these foods don't inherently create mucus, skipping them come mealtime can help you avoid phlegmy symptoms if you're allergic. And keep in mind that you can be allergic to any food — these are just some of the most common.
Some claim that milk and other dairy products are mucus-forming foods even if you're not allergic to them. However, this likely isn't the case. Rather, dairy often has a slimy texture that can mimic the feeling of phlegm, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Your immune system releases histamines to defend against invaders, typically allergens like food, pollen or dust, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. And when your immune system fights allergens, you can have symptoms like — you guessed it — congestion, runny nose or post-nasal drip from excess mucus.
But histamines aren't just a part of your allergic response. Some foods contain naturally high levels of the substance or can trigger your body to release histamines, all of which may prompt phlegm overproduction, per the Annals of Dermatology research.
Exposure to smoke or pollution can also throw your body's mucus production into overdrive as it attempts to protect itself from environmental irritants, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
- National Institutes of Health: "How Mucus Tames Microbes"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Mucus and Phlegm: What to Do If You Have Too Much"
- Mayo Clinic: "Food Allergy"
- Mayo Clinic: "Cold symptoms: Does drinking milk increase phlegm?"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Histamine: The Stuff Allergies are Made of"
- Annals of Dermatology: "A Histamine-Free Diet Is Helpful for Treatment of Adult Patients with Chronic Spontaneous Urticaria"
- American Lung Association: "Understanding Mucus in Your Lungs"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Sore Throat Remedies That Actually Work"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Immune response"
- PLOS One: "Dietary Enrichment with 20% Fish Oil Decreases Mucus Production and the Inflammatory Response in Mice with Ovalbumin-Induced Allergic Lung Inflammation"
- National Institutes of Health: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "Therapeutic Role of Functional Components in Alliums for Preventive Chronic Disease in Human Being"
- Microorganisms: "Mucus: An Underestimated Gut Target for Environmental Pollutants and Food Additives"
- University of Michigan Health: "Laryngopharyngeal Reflux"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "GERD Diet: Foods That Help with Acid Reflux (Heartburn)"
- American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine: "The Relationship of Mucus Concentration (Hydration) to Mucus Osmotic Pressure and Transport in Chronic Bronchitis"
- Cell: "A dietary fiber-deprived gut microbiota degrades the colonic mucus barrier and enhances pathogen susceptibility"
- American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine: "Dietary Fiber and Reduced Cough with Phlegm A Cohort Study in Singapore"
- Cochrane Library: "Capsaicin for non‐allergic rhinitis"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Hangover"
- Nutrients: "Histamine Intolerance Originates in the Gut"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.