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Certain remedies, such as staying hydrated, using a humidifer, and taking over-the-counter decongestants can all help ease excess phlegm in your throat or chest.
Phlegm is that thick, sticky stuff that hangs around in the back of your throat when you’re sick. At least that’s when most people notice it. But did you know that you have this mucus all the time?
Mucous membranes make phlegm to protect and support your respiratory system. These membranes line your:
Mucus is sticky so it can trap dust, allergens, and viruses. When you’re healthy, the mucus is thin and less noticeable. When you’re sick or exposed to too many particles, the phlegm can get thick and become more noticeable as it traps these foreign substances.
Phlegm is a healthy part of your respiratory system, but if it’s making you uncomfortable, there are ways to thin it or reduce it.
Keep reading to learn about some natural remedies, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, and when you may want to see your doctor.
Moisturizing the air around you can help keep mucus thin. You may have heard that steam can clear phlegm and congestion, but there isn’t a lot of scientific support for this idea.
Instead of steam, you can use a cool mist humidifier. You can run this humidifier safely all day long. You’ll just want to make sure you change the water each day and clean your humidifier according to the package instructions.
Drinking enough liquids, especially warm ones can help with mucus flow.
Water and other liquids can loosen your congestion by helping your mucus move. Try sipping liquids, like juice, clear broths, and soup. Other good liquid choices include decaffeinated tea, warm fruit juice, and lemon water.
Your drinks shouldn’t be the only thing that’s warm. You should be, too! Staying warm is an easy home remedy to soothe your respiratory system. That’s because you’re better able to fight off conditions that cause excess mucus (like the common cold) when you’re at a warmer body temperature.
Methods to stay warm include:
- warm showers
- wearing warmer clothing to fend off cold temperatures
- cuddling up in bed with an extra blanket
Try consuming foods and drinks that contain lemon, ginger, and garlic. A 2018 survey found these may help treat colds, coughs, and excess mucus, though there isn’t much research to back it up.
Spicy foods that contain capsaicin, such as cayenne or chili peppers, might also help temporarily clear sinuses and get mucus moving.
- licorice root
You might also be wondering about the classic many grab when they’re sick: chicken soup. Does it help get rid of phlegm too? Some research suggests yes.
Chicken soup might be good for treating colds and getting rid of excess mucus. This is because chicken soup slows neutrophils’ movement in your body. Neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, fight off infection. When moving slowly, they stay in the areas of your body where infection exists for longer.
Overall, more studies are needed to confirm the effects of these foods, but for most people, adding these ingredients to their diet is safe to try.
If you’re taking any prescription medications, ask your doctor before adding any new ingredients to your diet.
Gargling warm salt water
When gargling salt water, follow these easy steps:
- Mix together a cup of water with 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of salt. Warm water works best, because it dissolves the salt more quickly. It’s also a good idea to use filtered or bottled water that doesn’t contain irritating chlorine.
- Sip a bit of the mixture and tilt your head back slightly.
- Let the mixture wash into your throat without drinking it.
- Gently blow air up from your lungs to gargle for 30 to 60 seconds, and then spit out the water.
- Repeat as needed.
If you don’t want to gargle salt water, there’s an easier, more effective alternative to thin phlegm: saline. Saline is a salt water solution you can use as a nasal spray or in a neti pot. It’s available over the counter and is a natural way to clear out the sinuses.
Using eucalyptus essential oil may help reduce excess mucus in your chest. It works by loosening the mucus so you can cough it out more easily. At the same time, if you have a nagging cough, the eucalyptus may relieve it.
You can either inhale the vapor by using a diffuser or use a balm that contains this ingredient.
While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.
There are also OTC medicines you can use. Decongestants, for example, can cut down the mucus that flows from your nose. This mucus isn’t considered phlegm, but it can lead to chest congestion. Decongestants work by reducing swelling in your nose and opening up your airways.
You can find oral decongestants in the form of:
- tablets or capsules
- liquids or syrups
- flavored powders
There are also many decongestant nasal sprays on the market.
You can try products like guaifenesin (Mucinex) that thin mucus so it won’t sit in the back of your throat or your chest. This type of medication is called an expectorant, which means it helps you to expel mucus by thinning and loosening it.
This OTC treatment usually lasts for 12 hours, but you should follow the package instructions. There are children’s versions for kids ages 4 and older.
Chest rubs, like Vicks VapoRub, contain eucalyptus oil to ease coughs and potentially get rid of mucus. You can rub it onto your chest and neck up to three times each day. Younger children should not use Vicks at its full strength, but the company does make a baby-strength version.
If you have certain conditions or infections, your doctor may prescribe medications to treat the root cause of your symptoms. There are specific medications that can thin your mucus if you have a chronic lung condition, like cystic fibrosis.
Hypertonic saline is a treatment that’s inhaled through a nebulizer. It’s stronger than an OTC saline solution, which means it can sometimes be more effective. It works by increasing the amount of salt in your air passages. It comes in different strengths and can be used on people ages 6 and older.
Hypertonic saline treatment only provides temporary relief and may cause some side effects, like:
- sore throat
- chest tightness
Dornase-Alfa (Pulmozyme) is a mucus-thinning medication often used by people with cystic fibrosis. You inhale it through a nebulizer. It’s also suitable for people ages 6 and up.
You may lose your voice or develop a rash while on this medication. Other side effects include:
Excess or thick phlegm from time to time is usually not a reason for concern. You may notice it in the morning because it’s accumulated and dried overnight. You may also notice phlegm more if you’re sick, have seasonal allergies, or if you’re dehydrated.
If uncomfortable phlegm becomes a regular occurrence, you might want to make an appointment with your doctor. There are several health conditions that may cause a buildup of phlegm, including:
- acid reflux
- cystic fibrosis (although this condition is usually diagnosed early in life)
- chronic bronchitis
- other lung diseases
Contact your doctor if your phlegm has been bothering you for a month or longer. Let your doctor know if you have other symptoms, like:
It’s important to remember that the body produces mucus at all times. When you notice excess mucus, it’s typically a sign your body is fighting off a cold, allergies, or something more serious.
There are many medicines and remedies tailored to different severity levels and preferences. OTC medication and at-home remedies are great places to start.
While many home remedies don’t have a large body of research on their effectiveness, they typically aren’t harmful to most people. OTC saline solutions and medications, on the other hand, have been researched and found effective in many cases.
Severe cases of excess mucus can usually be treated with prescribed medication.
While excess mucus can often be treated at home, contact your doctor if:
- you’re concerned by how much phlegm you have
- the amount of phlegm has dramatically increased
- you have other symptoms that worry you