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 University Medical Center in Stanford, CA.
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,” Nayak says. “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.
If you notice a lot more mucus than normal and you have a cold, over-the-counter decongestants that include pseudoephedrine can provide relief, Kemmerly says. Even though they're not prescription drugs, you'll need to get those from your pharmacist and show an ID.
Before taking any products containing pseudoephedrine, talk to your doctor if you have ever had high blood pressure, glaucoma, diabetes, an enlarged prostate gland, or thyroid or heart disease.
Guaifenesin, a mucus thinner found in several over-the-counter cough and cold drugs, may be another option. “Some of my patients swear by it,” Nayak says. Don't give products containing guaifenesin to a child younger than 4. If you're giving them to an older child, follow the directions on the package exactly.
Antihistamines can also help if you have a cold. Just don't overdo it. They dry up mucus, but "sometimes it dries it up so much that it can't drain, which causes more misery," Kemmerly says. There are different types of antihistamines, and your pharmacist can help you decide what type to try.
If you ask your doctor, let them know what you've already taken.
Kemmerly prefers to let the body heal itself whenever possible.
“The body is designed to do this,” she says. “In mild cases, the best advice we like to give our patients is do nothing except drink plenty of water. Available treatments may make you feel better, but they don’t alter the course of your illness.”