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What Is the Significance of Sputum Color?

Sputum or phlegm is expelled from the body by sneezing and coughing.
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  • Written By: Maggie J. Hall
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 22 October 2014
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At one time, many thought that changes in sputum color were a sign of infection. When accompanied by other symptoms, this may be true. There are variables other than illness, however, that contribute to phlegm color. Healthcare providers suggest that allergies, types of foods eaten and the time of day also contribute to various sputum colors.

Bacterial colonies produce a wide range of colors when their numbers reach certain levels. Certain strains of staphylococcus appear yellow, pseudomonas may appear green and serratia colonies are typically clear. These colors may or may not appear in phlegm until an infectious process progresses and is accompanied by many other symptoms. Various sputum colors might be related to irritants or pollutants inhaled in the air or related to the amount and thickness of the phlegm.

Generally, people consider clear phlegm to be normal, but individuals sneeze and cough up clear phlegm when experiencing allergies, viral or certain bacterial infections. Many fail to recognize an illness because of the presence of clear secretions, but sputum color alone is not an indicator of good health. Clear mucus accompanied by nasal congestion, sore throat, breathing difficulties and a fever, typically represents a more serious condition, and under these circumstances, clear mucus generally becomes thicker and more prevalent.

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Many associate yellow sputum and nasal discharge with the onset of an infection, but this is not the case unless an individual has other symptoms. Yellow phlegm first thing in the morning may be the body ridding itself of old mucus. This is especially true if someone does not see this color in phlegm the rest of the day. Yellow mucus may also be associated with allergies. White phlegm is also not generally a concern unless it is thick and followed by other indications.

Green mucus coughed up first thing in the morning may also be harmless if not seen the rest of the day. In the presence of infection or irritant, white blood cells rush to the area in order to protect the body. Health care providers believe the green color may be the result of an enzyme produced by white blood cells called myeloperoxidase. Fungal infections also typically generate green or sometimes black colored phlegm.

Bleeding in the respiratory tract often appears as blood tinged, rusty or red sputum, and may indicate pneumonia, chronic lung conditions or cancer. This sputum color may also appear after eating or drinking certain foods. This is the case with persons who have recently consumed colas, dark wines or after eating chocolate.

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popcorn
Post 7

@manykitties2 - Despite your grandmother's protests you really should get her into the doctor's office as soon as possible. If the sputum is green and hasn't changed to any other color the chance of her having a sinus infection is actually pretty high and she'll need to get medication to beat her condition.

Most doctors will take a sputum culture to determine which bacteria or virus is affecting your grandmother, if the first general antibiotics don't work. The first round of medication is usually enough to do the trick, so she may not need any additional testing or visits to the doctor after initial diagnosis.

manykitties2
Post 6

Does anyone know if having green sputum means that you are seriously ill?

Over the last few days my grandmother has been coughing up sputum, green in colour, and I am really starting to get worried. She is quite stubborn and is insisting she is fine though her coughing would certainly suggest otherwise.

I know that the sputum colour can tell you all sorts of things, so I am wondering if she has some sort of horrible fungal infection. I want to get her to the doctor right away, but she can be so against having anyone look at her. She hates clinics and hospitals.

lonelygod
Post 5

I've had asthma for most of my life and I always know when I get a case of bronchitis because the color of my sputum changes to a dark yellow. I can also taste the infection and I go straight to the doctor's office to get some antibiotics because I know how bad my lung infections can get.

I think it is important for people to know the sputum color meanings because you have a better chance of recognizing when something is wrong with you. If you are curious there are actually sputum color charts that can help give you an idea of what might be wrong with you. Though nothing beats a trip to the doctor for diagnosis.

orangey03
Post 4

Anyone who has ever eaten chocolate while they’ve had a chest cold or bronchitis has probably produced brown sputum. I am addicted to chocolate, so even if I feel terrible, I usually have to eat some anyway.

It improves my mood a little bit, but it sure does seem to aggravate my cough. Since I always cough up phlegm with an illness like that, I produce lots of extra creamy brown phlegm after eating chocolate.

It looks really gross, and I choke a little on it as it gets caught in my throat. It feels almost like trying to swallow pasta saturated in a creamy sauce in reverse!

kylee07drg
Post 3

@StarJo - I think you do have a sinus infection. You probably started out with just regular allergy symptoms, but once it has progressed to an infection, you need to get antibiotics to clear it up.

I have suffered from allergies all my life, so I’ve had my share of sinus infections. The mucus is always bright yellow.

When it’s still in the moist stages, it’s more of a creamy yellow, but once it dries up, it turns a bold yellow, and sometimes brown is mixed in with it.

Every time I’ve had one, even if I’ve waited for several months to see if it would go away on its own, I have ended up having to see a doctor. I suggest that you go now and put an end to your misery.

StarJo
Post 2

Does anyone know if yellow mucus is a sign of a sinus infection? Mine has been bright yellow for awhile now, and I’ve been having a lot of congestion.

The mucus has the appearance of dried fruit. Even though it isn’t moist, it reproduces quickly, and I have to keep blowing it out. It gets stuck way up in my nasal passages, and it makes it really uncomfortable to breathe.

I feel like I might have a sinus infection, but I do suffer from allergies. I hate to go to the doctor if I am only experiencing allergy problems. I do know that sinus infections often don’t go away on their own, though, so if I have one, I need to get it treated.

wavy58
Post 1

Sometimes when I have a bad cold, my phlegm is totally clear. Regardless of the lack of color, I know that something is wrong, because my nose has become a leaky faucet.

I have to blow my nose every few minutes when I have a head cold. The mucus is really loose and juicy, and there is so much of it.

During my recent cold, I had to plug my nostrils with tissue to keep mucus from running everywhere. I had to change out the tissue every fifteen minutes, because it became completely saturated with clear mucus.

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