While phlegm, or mucus, is super annoying to deal with, it's actually a good thing for your body. It acts as a lubricant by helping food move through the GI tract and by protecting those tissues from acids and foreign particles, according to Berkeley Wellness.
Our bodies need phlegm, but if you're over-producing or struggling with backup — which can happen when you're fighting a cold, experiencing a sinus infection or even struggling with reflux — you may want to turn to your diet for some relief.
The foods we eat can actually help improve or worsen the phlegm situation and in some cases, it may be the root cause.
7 Mucus-Producing Foods That Can Worsen Phlegm
There are some foods in our diet that can worsen or even lead to a persistent phlegm issue.
The beloved dessert and snack could be contributing to your constant phlegm problem, especially if you have 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, loss of voice, a chronic cough, and, you guessed it, phlegm in the back of your throat. To make matters worse, eating chocolate can also increase your stomach acid production, compounding the issue.
Just like chocolate, peppermint can make phlegm worse, especially if you have LPR or GERD. The minty herb can also weaken your upper and lower esophageal sphincters, making the situation worse.
Sorry java lovers, but coffee can exacerbate your phlegm issues.
Why? First, like chocolate and peppermint, coffee too weaken the upper and lower esophageal sphincters, allowing for 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 foods and drinks on this list, alcohol can also weaken the upper and lower esophageal sphincters, causing irritation and phlegm.
Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means it can leave you dehydrated if you overdo it. When you're properly hydrated, phlegm is more loosened up and it moves through faster; when you're dehydrated, it tends to stick around longer.
5. High-Histamine Foods
Although very rare (affecting about one percent of the population), another diet-related cause of phlegm build-up can be due to an intolerance to histamine.
Our bodies contain histamine but there are foods and drinks that contain histamine as well, according to a November 2014 article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. These foods include many aged and fermented items (like cheese, yogurt and sauerkraut) as well as processed meat and fish, cherries, eggplant, among others.
If you become intolerant, you could experience symptoms similar to a food allergy, including increased phlegm or mucus production.
6. Carbonated Beverages
You may love your diet soda or seltzer but it may be doing more harm than good if you have a persistent phlegm problem. Carbonated beverages have more gas so they cause us to belch more.
While this isn't a problem for most, it can be for others because burping promotes reflux of our stomach contents.
7. The 'Top 9'
Milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts, shellfish, fish and sesame make up the "Top 9," as in the top nine most common food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. Some classic symptoms of food allergies include itchy eyes and skin, hives, swelling around the eyes or of the tongue, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
If you have an allergy to one of these foods, you may also experience symptoms in your lungs and throat region like increased phlegm production, difficulty getting air in and out, coughing, wheezing and throat swelling, among others. Symptoms usually occur immediately or within minutes to two hours of ingesting the food.
Keep in mind, you can be allergic to any food — these are just nine of the most common.
4 Foods That Help Clear Mucus
Regardless of why you're struggling with phlegm, there are a few foods and beverages you can consume to help clear things up.
1. Broth-Based Soups
The steam and the hydrating liquids from hot, broth-based soups like vegetable, chicken noodle and the like can help loosen up the phlegm building up in your throat, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And when you're dehydrated, mucus doesn't clear from your throat as easily.
2. Clear Liquids
Like soup, water, tea and other hydrating beverages can help break up the congestion in your throat and they also help prevent you from becoming dehydrated.
They can be soothing for your throat, too. You may want to skip the citrus (lemon in water, orange juice, etc.), if you struggle with reflux. Carbonated beverages like clear sodas may be irritating as well.
3. Spicy Foods
OK, you'll want to avoid spicy foods if you struggle with reflux (which can worsen phlegm issues) but otherwise, you may want to consider a spicy bowl of ramen.
A paper published in the Cochrane Library in July 2015 found that capsaicin, the compound that brings the heat in spicy peppers, can reduce the thickness of mucus.
4. Fiber-Rich Foods
Eating foods filled with fiber — like fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains — may help reduce phlegm. An older April 2004 study in American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found a correlation (note: this doesn't prove cause and effect) between increased fiber intake and reduced occurrence of a cough with phlegm.
There was also a link with eating fruit and soy-based foods. Keep in mind, this was one study looking at the association between diet and the prevalence of cough with phlegm — more research needs to be done in this area.
- Berkeley Wellness: "6 Things to Know About Mucus"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "By the Way, Doctor: What Causes Acid Reflux in the Throat?"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Is There a Diet for Histamine Intolerance?"
- Food Allergy Research & Education: "Common Allergens"
- Mayo Clinic: "Cold Remedies: What Works, What Doesn't, What Can't Hurt"
- Cochrane Library: "Capsaicin for Non‐allergic Rhinitis"
- American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine: "Dietary Fiber and Reduced Cough with Phlegm A Cohort Study in Singapore"