Struggling With Phlegm? Here Are 6 Foods That Can Help, and 7 That Make It Worse

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Soups and clear liquids can help eliminate extra mucus from your body.
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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.

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Knowing what foods fight mucus (and what foods to avoid) is key to reducing phlegm and feeling better. Here is a list of both, and ways to get rid of phlegm naturally.

Foods That Break Up Mucus

While there's no such thing as a mucus-free diet or foods that completely eliminate mucus, there are some mucus-fighting foods that you can eat.

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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. It's also a food that may help when you have a cough.

Soups are also hydrating, which can help your body better clear phlegm from your system, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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2. Clear Liquids

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.

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Tip

Some people think you can detox your body from mucus, but it's more accurate to say you cannot truly detox your body of ‌anything‌ through a dietary cleanse, per the Mayo Clinic. Instead, focus on eating more whole foods and avoid foods that trigger symptoms — like mucus production.

3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated fats that can help regulate 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 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.

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Some mucus-reducing foods that contain omega-3 include, per the NIH:

  • 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)
  • Walnuts
  • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
  • Soybeans and soybean oil
  • Canola oil
  • Chia seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds

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4. Alliums

Alliums are a class of vegetables that include shallots, leeks, garlic and onions. A February 2017 review in ‌Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine‌ notes they have anti-inflammatory properties, which could help quell inflammation that contributes to excessive mucus.

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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 fiber can reduce your intestinal mucus, which can leave you susceptible to digestive issues and illness, according to November 2016 research in ‌Cell‌.

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A June 2018 article in ‌Cell Host & Microbe‌ also found eating more fiber actually stimulates healthy mucus production in the gut, and helps balance its production and secretion.

More research is needed, however, to support a link between fiber intake and reducing phlegmy cough and respiratory symptoms, in particular.

Tip

You may think that citrus fruits like oranges and lemons reduce mucus because of their vitamin C, but there is little evidence to support this claim.

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.

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Tip

Spicy foods can help clear out mucus-clogged airways, but it's best to avoid spice if you have acid reflux.

Are There Any Vitamins or Supplements That Help Reduce Mucus?

There aren't any vitamins known to reduce mucus, but some supplements may help. That said, research into these supplements is preliminary at best. The following supplements are safe to try, but may not deliver much in terms of relief

N-acetylcysteine (NAC)

If you deal with sinusitis — a condition that increases mucus production — this modified dietary amino acid may be able to help. NAC works as an antioxidant in the body, and helps thin mucus, per Mount Sinai. The brand Life Extension sells a vegetarian capsule (Amazon, $12.94).

Sinupret

Sold over the counter, Sinupret is an herbal supplement made of European elder, cowslip and gentian that can help thin mucus, per Mount Sinai.

A September 2018 study in ‌Clinical Phytoscience‌ found Sinupret effectively eliminated the symptoms of acute viral rhinosinusitis in children, and helped reduce the amount of times antibiotic treatment was needed. Keep in mind, however, that the study was funded by the makers of the supplement.

You can find Sinupret in a syrup for children (Walmart, $18.05) or tablets for adults (Walmart, $26.31).

Elecampane and Mullein

Both are herbs touted as nutritional treatment for excess mucus production. Typically, they are pressed into oils to reduce cough, symptoms of asthma and bronchitis, but there is minimal scientific evidence to support these claims, per Kaiser Permanente.

Warning

Talk to your doctor before trying any supplement to naturally reduce mucus. Some herbal supplements may interact with medications such as blood thinners, and may negatively affect those with bleeding disorders, angina or asthma, per Mount Sinai.

Foods That May Cause Mucus

There are also some foods that can cause phlegm. Here are the foods to avoid when dealing with excess mucus:

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1. Histamine-Rich Foods

Histamine-rich foods or foods that prompt your body to produce histamine can create mucus, per the ‌Annals of Dermatology‌. But, 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
  • Spinach
  • Mayonnaise
  • Dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter and cream (for some people)
  • Processed meats
  • Fermented products like alcohol, yogurt and sauerkraut
  • Tomatoes
  • Citrus fruits
  • Grapes
  • Bananas
  • Strawberries

2. Highly Processed Foods

Another mucus-producing food? Highly 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 potatoes themselves are a mucus-producing food, but if you're eating them in a processed form — think: chips, fries and tater tots — the other ingredients or additives might cause mucus or make it worse.

3. Chocolate

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.

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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.

4. Coffee

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.

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5. Alcohol

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 July 2015 research in the ‌American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

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. And reflux can cause phlegm in the back of your throat.

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
  • Tomatoes
  • Citrus fruits
  • Peppermint
  • Fatty meats like bacon
  • Cheese

Other Causes of Mucus

While mucus is a necessary part of your insides (it's a first line of defense against infection, per the NIH), too much of it can indicate a bigger issue.

Here are some common reasons for excess mucus.

1. Illness

When your immune system triggers an inflammatory response to fight off illnesses like colds, flus and sinus infections, your body overproduces mucus to defend itself, 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.

Tip

Some claim 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.

3. Histamines

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.

4. Pollution

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.

Protecting yourself from air pollution when you're exercising outside can be a helpful way to reduce mucus production.

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Other Ways to Fight Mucus

If you are still dealing with mucus after trying all the above, there are still some ways to get rid of phlegm fast.

Here are some tips, per the Cleveland Clinic:

  • Use a humidifier:‌ Opt for one with cool mist to help clear airways.
  • Use a saline nasal spray:‌ This helps moisten a dry nose and ease sinus infection symptoms.
  • Gargle with salt water:‌ Mix 1 teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water and gargle in the back of your throat.
  • Take a decongestant:‌ Try over-the-counter medications like Mucinex (Walmart, $13.46).
  • Cough it up:‌ Or, blow it out with a tissue.
  • Spit or swallow it:‌ If you've asked yourself, "Can I swallow phlegm, or should I spit it out?" the answer is both. Once you've coughed it up, it doesn't really matter whether you swallow or spit, per UNC Health.

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references

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.

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