Breathing & Phlegm

Man inhaling warm steam
A man with a towel over his head breathing steam from a bowl. (Image: Nikodash/iStock/Getty Images)

According to MedlinePlus.com, the average adult takes about 8 to 16 breaths each minute. Air enters your body through your nose and travels down your bronchial tubes and into your lungs. Phlegm works with your respiratory system, interacting with the air you breathe. Breathing is a natural process that your body should perform effortlessly and automatically. However, sometimes certain factors can interfere with your ability to breathe comfortably.

Phlegm

Phlegm is a substance that is produced by the cells that line your throat, lungs and nasal passages. Phlegm’s primary purpose is to lubricate the soft lining in your respiratory system and to help keep the air that you breathe in from burning the sensitive skin in your nose. Without phlegm, breathing in air would be extremely uncomfortable. Phlegm also works to trap unwanted substances like dust and bacteria, and expel them from your respiratory system. While some phlegm production is normal, excessive phlegm production can be a problem.

Effects

When your body makes more phlegm than it needs, the excessive phlegm can clog your nasal passages making it difficult to breathe. Nasal congestion caused by phlegm buildup can feel extremely uncomfortable and even painful. Excess phlegm can also accumulate in your lungs and throat. Phlegm is normally clear or white in color and thin in consistency. Discolored phlegm that appears yellow or green in color, or phlegm that is unusually thick may indicate the presence of a bacterial infection.

Causes

Several health problems can provoke your body to produce excess phlegm that interferes with your breathing. According to Cancer.gov, infections like a cold and the flu are among the most common triggers. If you have a cold or the flu, constantly coughing to clear away excess phlegm from your throat can make you feel short of breath. Bronchitis is another common trigger for excess phlegm production. Bronchitis occurs when the lining of your bronchial tubes becomes inflamed and scarred, triggering excessive phlegm and shortness of breath.

Risk Factors

Cigarette smoke is one of the biggest risk factors for bronchitis. According to MayoClinic.com, smoking cigarettes and frequent exposure to secondhand smoke increases your risk of developing bronchitis. Long-term exposure to irritants such as cleaning products, paint and strong chemical fumes can also trigger bronchitis. Having a weak immune system may make you more susceptible to developing infections like a cold or the flu. If you suffer from asthma, you may have a more difficult time trying to breathe when phlegm blocks your airways.

Treatments

One way to get relief from thick, excess phlegm that blocks your breathing is to make your phlegm thinner. You can do this by drinking plenty of fluids and by taking an over-the-counter antihistamine medication. Placing a humidifier in the room will inject the air with warmth and moisture which can help loosen up thick phlegm. Use a saline nasal spray to help break up the phlegm blocking your nasal passages and improve your breathing. A bacterial infection that produces discolored phlegm may require treatment with antibiotics.

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