A dry, hacking cough with mucus setting up camp in your chest makes being sick so much more uncomfortable, and there's likely nothing you wouldn't try to make your cough more productive. Here's how to loosen phlegm and get rid of it once and for all.
Made up of proteins, sugars and molecules, mucus lines the moist surfaces of your lungs, sinuses, mouth, stomach and other body parts and is tasked with keeping everything lubricated so these structures don't dry out. It also ushers out anything you breathe in through your nose like allergens or dust, says Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist with Lenox Hill Hospital and clinical instructor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
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When mucus is produced by the respiratory system, it is also known as phlegm. You really only notice it when you have an infection, allergies, acid reflux or another health issue that causes it to build up or change consistency, according to the National Institutes of Health.
"When this happens, phlegm can be thick and tenacious and stick to your mucous membranes," Dr. Horovitz says.
How to Loosen and Get Rid of Phlegm
There are a few things you can do to loosen mucus for easier clearing.
1. Cough It Up
It turns out there is a right and a wrong way to cough, and occasional coughing can help get phlegm out from your throat and chest as long as you do it correctly, Dr. Horovitz says.
When you hack, you use your chest muscles more than your diaphragm — the opposite actions used during controlled coughing methods.
Try this instead: "Take a slow deep breath to fill your lungs, hold the breath for about three seconds and then exhale forcefully, but slowly," he says. "Make a warrior kind of grunt as you exhale."
Surprisingly, you don't need to spit out the phlegm once you have loosened it. "You can swallow phlegm because the acid in your stomach will inactivate it and it will be passed out of your body," Dr. Horovitz says.
2. Take an Expectorant
Over-the-counter expectorants like guaifenesin — like Mucinex (Amazon.com, $29.98) or Robitussin Mucus Plus Chest Congestion (Amazon.com, $17.64) can thin the mucus to help clear it from your throat and chest, Dr. Horovitz says.
But carefully follow instructions on the label. "During the day you want to bring up phlegm, while you want to suppress your cough at night so you can sleep," he says.
3. Add Pepper to Foods
Black pepper is a powerful and natural expectorant, Dr. Horovitz says. "Black pepper thins down the mucus, so add more pepper than you would normally to your food if you have mucus in your chest that won't come up."
4. Drink Plenty of Fluids
5. Try Gentle Movement
If you are feeling well, exercise is also a good way to help bring up mucus in your lungs, Dr. Horovitz says.
Try one of these gentle routines:
6. Irrigate Your Sinuses Daily
Don't wait for a cold or infection to start using a Neti pot or another nasal rinsing device. "Regular use of these will automatically dislodge all the tenacious mucus in the sinus cavities around your nasal passages and get things back to normal," Dr. Horovitz says.
Use a rinse that's a salt and water combination. It's safest to use distilled, filtered or sterile water, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
“If you smoke, quit, as cigarette smoke will irritate your lungs and can lead to an even drier and less productive cough,” Dr. Horovitz says.
7. Turn on Your Humidifier
Running a humidifier or vaporizer in your bedroom will keep your nose and throat moist, potentially reducing mucus and phlegm production, but it needs to be cleaned daily. "You can also place a warm washcloth on your face to help break up any mucus and phlegm in your nasal cavities," Dr. Horovitz says.
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- Len Horovitz, MD, pulmonary specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital, clinical instructor, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, New York
- National Institutes of Health: “Marvels of Mucus and Phlegm: The Slime That Keeps You Healthy”
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “Is Rinsing Your Sinuses With Neti Pots Safe?”
- Harvard Medical School: “Acute Bronchitis”
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.