LSU Health New Orleans Newsroom

Public Enemy #1? It’s not!


It’s that time of year. If your nose hasn’t run like Snoqualmie Falls and your sinuses haven’t been full-to-bursting yet, rest assured congestion will likely soon be calling your name. With plunging temps, close quarters, exploding cases of influenza, flu-like illness, colds and other respiratory infections, expect to become intimately acquainted with mucus. It’s probably not something that crosses your consciousness in a well state, but when it demands your attention, a better understanding will not only increase your regard for this underappreciated substance, you might also avoid being taken in by mucus myths.

Most of the time, mucus is a good thing. A slippery, sticky fluid secreted by a membrane that lines parts of the body including your nose, mouth and throat, it is protective. In the upper respiratory tract, mucus not only moisturizes, it traps inhaled dust, pollen, smoke, mold, fungi, toxins, bacteria and viruses, among other particles, to keep them from reaching your lungs. It also plays a significant role in immune response. The antibodies, antimicrobials and immune cells in mucus can kill or render harmless trapped pathogens before carrying them out of the body.

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Although we don’t know exactly how much mucus each of our bodies produce each day, some experts believe it is about a liter.

But sometimes, our bodies produce too much – way too much. When you have a cold, allergies, or are sensitive and exposed to smoke, pollution or other irritants, mucus production can go into overdrive and turn this normally thin fluid into thick blockages that clog up the works.

So how do you know when a copious quantity of mucus is more than a nuisance?
baby with a runny nose
“If fever, chills, night sweats, cough, unpleasant odor, weight loss, or other unusual symptoms accompany nasal discharge, you should be evaluated by your health care provider,” notes Fred Lopez, MD, professor and Infectious Diseases specialist at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine.

But don’t let the color of your mucus send you running to the doctor. One of the most common misconceptions about mucus is that yellow or green mucus is a sure sign of a bacterial infection that requires an antibiotic. Actually, that color can result from an enzyme produced by Immune system cells fighting off the infection, which is most often caused by a virus. Antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections.

Sometimes, though, a bacterial infection can overlay a viral infection like a cold. When your symptoms seem to be improving and then suddenly take a turn for the worse, this could be the case, and an antibiotic could be indicated.

Some people think their plugged up noses and sinuses are caused by allergies. So they take antihistamines, which thicken mucus making it harder to drain.

man blowing nose
So what can you do if an ordinary virus is the cause of your misery?

“Drinking enough water to make your urine pale will help to thin mucus out,” says Dr. Lopez, “and humidifiers prevent breathing in the dry air that promotes the production of even more mucus.”

A hot shower can also help loosen things up.

A saline nasal spray or rinse can help clear mucus from the nostrils. “But be sure to use only sterile or distilled water for rinses and look for sprays that contain only sodium chloride,” adds Lopez.

If you use a decongestant nasal spray, do not exceed the recommended length of use recommended by your health care provider or on the label. Overuse can result in rebound congestion.

Sleeping with the head elevated can help lessen the feeling of thick mucus building up in the back of the throat.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol. They are dehydrating, which can worsen symptoms.

Changing out air filters can also help you avoid aggravating symptoms, as can staying away from smoke and other irritants.

Even when you feel like you’re drowning in it, don’t blame the mucus. It is part of your immune system’s response to a foreign invader. With supportive measures and a little time, mucus will soon recede unnoticed to quietly resume its essential work.