You probably only notice your mucus when you're sick. But there's more to mucus than what you feel when you have a cold or the flu.
Mucus helps keep you healthy. Your nose and throat glands make up to 2 quarts of it every day.
It's a moist film that helps keeps your nose from drying out.
Mucus also helps shield your lungs from dust, bacteria, exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, viruses, and other intruders.
"When we're healthy, we don't even know it's there," says Jayakar Nayak, MD, PhD. He is an ear, nose, and throat specialist who studies mucus at Stanford Hospital and Clinics in Palo Alto, Calif.
But when you're sick, it's a different story.
The Snot Thickens
“If threatened by cold or flu, [mucus] helps us fight viruses and ward off infections,” says Sandra Kemmerly, MD. She is an infectious diseases specialist at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.
When you get sick, your mucus eventually starts to thicken. It becomes harder to clear and tends to pool. “That makes us miserable,” Nayak says.
Your mucus can also change color when you're sick. Green mucus is a sign that your body’s immune system is at work. The color comes from a type of infection-fighting white blood cell.
“With cold or flu, mucus starts clear then begins to darken as it gets thicker," Kemmerly says.
To curb mucus, Nayak and Kemmerly recommend starting with saline nasal rinses and sprays. Neti pots are popular, too. Those may be an option when you've just started to get a stuffy nose and aren't sure if it's a cold, allergies, or something else.
“They thin out the mucus and make it more bearable,” says Nayak. “It’s like cleaning out the plumbing.”
You can use saline rinses as needed; it’s nearly impossible to overdo it, Nayak says. He recommends twice a day as a minimum and says it takes some getting used to.
“If you don’t mind the way it feels when you use it, you will feel better,” he says.
Don't make your own saline rinse from tap water. It's rare, but you could get an infection if the water is tainted. Kemmerly recommends buying the generic, sterile solutions sold in stores.