Published on Feb 09, 2018
There’s nothing more riveting in a parent’s day than peeling open a tissue and trying to discern what the colour of the particular blob of phlegm you’re inspecting may mean.
It’s just one of those things that a parent does: Diaper Sniffer, Boo-Boo Kisser, Hot Food Blower, Phlegm Checker. And though your kids may not thank you for it (since when do parents expect anything as luxurious as gratitude?), your findings can say a lot about what’s going on with your child’s health.
First things first:
What is phlegm and why do our bodies make it?
Phlegm is a form of mucus that is produced by the respiratory system. It serves as a lubricant and a filter, keeping the airways moist and protecting the lungs from dirt and dust.
A certain amount of phlegm in our systems is normal and healthy. In fact, our bodies produce approximately 1 to 1.5 litres a day, most of which we swallow without noticing. De-light-ful.
That said, if your kids start coughing up significant amounts of phlegm, it might indicate that they have a virus. Here’s a quick overview of what the colour of phlegm can reveal about your child’s health.
Clear phlegm = All clear
Good news: Clear phlegm is normal. It is typically thin in texture and is made up of water, salts, antibodies and other immune cells. Chances are you won’t even see this kind of phlegm in the tissue you’re inspecting as it’s rarely spat up (remember those 1.5 litres we swallow daily?). Moving on.
White or grey phlegm = Nasal infection or a cold
White or grey phlegm usually indicates the onset of a nasal infection or a cold. Because the nasal tissues are inflamed, the mucus moves more slowly through the respiratory tract, causing it to become thick and cloudy. (A bit like a traffic jam, minus the road rage.) Acid reflux or allergies may also cause this kind of phlegm.
Yellow phlegm = Immune cells to the rescue
Yellow phlegm usually means that your child’s cold or infection is progressing enough that white blood cells start arriving to fight it. Once they’ve done their job, they’re flushed out with the mucus, giving it a thicker texture and a yellow-ish hue. (Yellow may be the colour of cowardice, but not where immune cells are concerned.)
Green phlegm = Immune cells in overdrive
When your child’s phlegm is green, it generally means that their immune response is kicking into full gear. A high concentration of white blood cells, proteins and other cellular debris that have aided in the attack build up in the mucus, turning it thick and green. It’s all-systems-go time.
Red phlegm = Presence of blood
Red phlegm indicates the presence of blood. Sometimes excessive coughing can cause small blood vessels in the lungs or airways to burst and bleed. Blood can also point to a serious medical condition. The key takeaway here: Red phlegm is a red flag. Don’t mess around. See a doctor immediately.
Now you know what you’re looking at.
Generally speaking, white, yellow or green phlegm is a normal part of the healing of a viral infection like a cold. (However, if the production of such phlegm goes on for more than a few days, it’s best to consult a doctor. The darker and thicker the mucus, the more worrisome it can be.)
If what you’ve spotted is of the white/yellow/green variety, what can you do to help things along?
Liquids, liquids and more liquids.
You know the drill: If your child is coughing up phlegm, the key is to get them to drink lots of fluids to help loosen the mucus in their airways even more.
Steam, steam and more steam.
If the air is dry, running a humidifier can also help. And why not turn your bathroom into a steam room? (Just run hot water in the shower until the air is humid and steamy, and then close the door and plop down with your child for 10 to 20 minutes. Do it a few times a day if you can. (Hey, you could use the break!)
Clear out the mucus.
If you have a child with thick chest congestion, an over-the-counter expectorant will help liquefy and loosen the mucus, making it easier to cough up. When administering expectorants, always make sure that your child is old enough to take such medication.
Now give yourself a pat on the back.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you’re clearly a devoted parent who wants to be informed so that you can make the best decisions with regards to your child’s health. Take a minute to feel good about that. Caring for the ones we love comes naturally, but it can also feel a tiny bit thankless at times. So let us say it on your family’s behalf: You’re amazing!
This article is intended for educational purposes only and is in no way intended to substitute for professional medical advice, to contradict medical advice given, or for medical care of any kind. If at any time you are concerned with your child’s coughing/appearance of phlegm seek medical attention/go see your doctor.