Trident Health System - April 15, 2019

Mucus gets a bad rap. Slimy and gelatinous, we often wrongly dismiss it as a repulsive inconvenience – the gross gunk oozing out of our face whenever we get sick.

Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. This extraordinary substance is actually crucial to our health, protecting us from disease and safeguarding delicate tissues all over the body.

Here, we’ll reveal the wondrous facts about this disgusting goop – and bust the myths keeping it from getting the respect it deserves.

MYTH: Mucus’ sole purpose is to annoy you.

In fact, mucus is one of our best natural defenders. It acts as a filter, keeping bacteria, viruses, allergens and other particles from entering our bodies, where they can make us sick. Mucus also carries white blood cells and antibodies, which help kill germs if they do manage to sneak in.

Mucus functions as a moisture shield, as well, preventing important tissues throughout the body from drying out. These include your respiratory system – your nose, sinuses and lungs – as well as surfaces in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and female reproductive system. (More on those a bit later.)

MYTH: Your body only makes mucus when you’re sick.

When we’re healthy, we may not really think about our mucus – but it’s always there. We generate it constantly; our nose and sinuses produce a full liter of mucus daily, most of which we swallow. When we’re ill or our tissues become inflamed, our respiratory system makes excess mucus to defend us from germs.

Infections and allergies often trigger this surplus of mucus, which can change volume, viscosity (thickness) or color, depending on your ailment. Smoke, chemicals and pollution particles can prompt more mucus production, too.

MYTH: Green snot means you need antibiotics.

The color of your snot is important, since it helps doctors diagnose your illness. Typically, clear or very light-yellow mucus is healthy.

Contrary to popular belief, green mucus doesn’t automatically signal a bacterial infection. Jade-hued snot may be a sign of common colds and allergies. Antibiotics don’t help treat these illnesses, or any viral infection. So, you’ll likely get better without them.

Thick, white, pus-like mucus should be evaluated by a doctor. Sinus infections lasting over 10 days or worsening after a week are cause for concern, as well.

If you have an illness that compromises your respiratory system, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), report any changes in coughed-up mucus to your healthcare provider, since they may be a sign of something serious.

MYTH: Blowing your nose is the best way to get rid of mucus.

Instead of going all-in on bulk tissues, experts recommend these steps to help moisten your air passages – key to recovery – and keep mucus flowing:

  • Drink fluids.
  • Use a humidifier to keep nasal passages moist.
  • Every few hours, press a damp, warm cloth to your face.
  • Try saline nasal sprays or a nasal wash, like a neti pot. Make sure to read label warnings, as misuse of either can trigger serious problems. When using a neti pot, never fill it with water directly from your tap. Instead use distilled water, a sterile saline solution or water that has been boiled and then cooled. Make sure the device is clean and dry for each application.
  • Avoid nasal decongestant sprays. If used longer than three days, they can cause increased congestion, relieved only by continued use of the spray.
  • Take an over-the-counter decongestant or mucus-thinning medication, like guaifenesin.

Remember: Always speak with your healthcare provider before taking any new medication, including over-the-counter options.

MYTH: Drinking milk makes more mucus.

When you’re ill, do you ever reach for a tall glass of leche? Odds are you take a pass, because you may have been told drinking milk creates more snot, leading to congestion and making it harder for you to swallow. Professional singers often skip the 2% before a performance for the same reasoning.

The dairy industry can relax, though. Milk doesn’t increase mucus production, nor will it exacerbate other symptoms of your cold. It may make both mucus and saliva thicker, however, which is why many believe the milk-mucus myth – and why vocalists might still want to avoid it.

To note: Some people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) find that milk thickens their phlegm, a kind of mucus produced in your lower respiratory system. If you have COPD, speak with your doctor about dairy products.

MYTH: Mucus is exclusive to the respiratory system.

Nope. Various types of mucus are also found on our eyes, in our GI tract – where we digest food – and in the female reproductive system. Mucus in our GI system creates a home for beneficial microbes and protects against bacterial infections.

In a woman’s reproductive system, mucus generated by the cervix lubricates you in preparation for sex. It also helps protect and moisturize vaginal tissues, maintains pH and harbors beneficial bacteria while trapping infection-causing ones. Trying to get pregnant? An increase and thinning of cervical mucus can indicate that you’re ovulating. And if you’re already pregnant, the mucus plug keeps your uterus safe from bacteria.

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