You Think It's Mucus, but It's Not

Do the shades of mucus and phlegm reveal anything about your cold?

December 8, 2008, 5:11 PM

Dec. 10, 2008 -- In polite circles and among health care professionals, they tend to call it mucus. Some call it phlegm. Others may simply call it snot.

No matter which word you use, when you have a cold or flu, you usually have an increased supply of it. At your sickest, your sinuses may rev up production almost as fast as you can clear the stuff away.

Still, doctors say, all that gunk in your nose really does have a role in the body and a useful purpose during a cold.

Mucus in the nose and sinuses forms a blanket or coating over the mucous membranes lining the upper airways, explained Dr. Thomas Pasic, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

"It's sticky, so it's constantly trapping miniscule particles from the air you breathe in, such as allergens, pollution and dust to filter it out before it can reach the lungs," Pasic said.

Pasic added that mucus is constantly being formed, and we typically make about a quart of it a day. But we often don't notice it because we usually swallow the secretion rather than honking it out of the nose.

According to Pasic, you notice it when you make more than a quart daily or it becomes thicker, because you start to sniff. "A cold or an allergy sets mucus production out of whack."

An increase in mucus and its thickness is the way your nose and sinuses respond to the presence of an irritant, whether it's an invading virus, bacteria, or allergen.

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