Mucus or phlegm occurs in form of a thick, tacky substance, which sometimes is secreted or expelled from body through coughing. Phlegm may assume different colors such as green, yellow, white or brown. Coughing up brown mucus is considered unusual. Phlegm is similar or biologically identical to mucus. However, the difference between mucus and phlegm is related to where it occurs in body rather than their function.
Phlegm therefore refers to mucus occurring in respiratory tract and it mostly triggered by some irritants. There is some mucus that always is present in lungs and throat, and it is the one, which moves or drifts substances such as dust through lungs. Particles that are inhaled accidently, moving them is facilitated by the mucus in lungs and throat.
The cells that line the lungs, also known as cilia, are where the mucus is produced. The hair-like protrusions or cilia are the ones that help in sweeping particles away with aid of phlegm or mucus. People may not know much about their phlegm and its color until they expel it. When there is increased production of phlegm, people are likely to cough up and spit it up.
However, coughing up brown phlegm is considered unusual and there are several factors that could cause this problem. Mucus is usually clear and colorless but when there is an irritant, damage, or infection in nose, the color and quantity of mucus changes. In most cases, having throat mucus is something of little worry and it really happens most of the time because presence of mucus in this part of the respiratory system serves to offer a protective lubricant to keep the throat moist and supple.
Mucus also prevents dryness, which could lead to irritation. Mucus in throat is also helpful in removing and carrying away bacteria and dirt particles, which could cause irritation, infection, or illness. The throat mucus is most of the times, colorless or appearing slightly milky. When it changes its color, this may cause a concern.
One notable color of phlegm or mucus is brown. Coughing up brown mucus might indicate a serious health conditions or some common causes. A cold or cough is not always a requirement for one to produce mucus, and coughing up mucus could even occur when there is no illness or infection. An irritation can be the culprit here.
Causes of coughing up brown mucus
Coughing up mucus that appears brown in color could mean that there has been some bleeding in nose and the dried brown blood is the one that is being released— hence causing the change in mucus color. It could also indicate that one has breathed in dust or polluted air. The most common cause of releasing or coughing up brown mucus is smoking and getting exposure to second hand smoke.
Other environmental issues linked to air pollution may also be a culprit. The diet of a person may make the phlegm to appear brown. In some serious cases, an infection or lung problem may be associated with brown phlegm. In this case, the mucus is continuous and does not subside and go away on its own. It may even worsen.
When people cough up brown mucus, they tend to be alarmed, but there may be nothing to worry. However, when it is accompanied by other signs and symptoms such as fever, wheezing, or pain in chest, one may want to seek medical advice.
Smoking appears to be the most common cause of coughing up brown phlegm. Smoking introduces many pollutants in the respiratory tract including tars, resins, and other chemicals in addition to nicotine. These substances are trapped in lungs. With heavy smokers, they will cough up brown mucus particularly in morning— and this is normal way of the lungs trying to conduct a cleanup to expel foreign particles.
People trying to quite coughing will tend to cough large amounts of brown phlegm. When a person quits smoking, the cells lining the lungs known as cilia that have already been damaged or were slowed in their function by the smoking will start working. They begin to sweep and drift large quantities of phlegm that is caught up in lungs, and the process may last for months.
Certain respiratory and lung infections can cause brown phlegm. When a person has a respiratory infection, the lungs will produce more mucus in order to trap bacteria and other substances. Having brown mucus is a sign of chronic bronchitis, but more serious respiratory infections like emphysema and lung cancer might also be present when a person is coughing up brown phlegm.
Taking some food or drinks could make one to cough up brown mucus, but this is usually harmless. Red wine, chocolate, and dark sodas may induce temporary color of mucus in throat. People who live in areas, which are polluted, could cough up brownish phlegm. The dirt and dust that is breathed in and trapped in the respiratory track may be coughed up in mucus. In this case, the mucus appears brown and grainy. It is normally temporary and the coughing goes away when the exposure to the air pollutants is stopped.
Treatment of coughing up brown mucus
Treatment is mostly related to the cause of the brown mucus. People who take alcohol and smoke should consider quitting while those who have sore throat, an infection, or nasal polyps should seek medical attention immediately.
Any medication you take which causes brown mucus should be reported to your doctor but this is likely to return to normal when the dosage is completed. When the cause is due to food, drink, or air pollutants, there may be no cause of concern, but one can consider rinsing the nose and sinuses.