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Green or Yellow Mucus: What Is My Body Trying to Tell Me?

cold, cough, blowing nose, green mucus, yellow mucus, sick,Today we’re going to talk about mucus. Green mucus and yellow mucus to be more specific. Many of you were probably taught that green or yellow mucus was a sign of a respiratory infection that required antibiotics. While having green or yellow mucus may mean you have a respiratory infection, it’s not always the case. And, not every respiratory infection calls for antibiotics. So what does a change in the color of your mucus mean? Should you run to the doctor for an antibiotic every time you hack up a big green gob of goo? The answer to this question isn’t always so black and white, or should I say, green and yellow?

Why Do We Need Mucus?

The human body produces about 1 ½ quarts of nasal mucus daily. Where does it all go? Most of it is swallowed or drips down the back of your throat without detection. Your body needs this sticky, gooey substance to maintain homeostasis (balance). Many parts of your body, including your mouth, nose, sinuses, throat and GI tract, are lined with mucus-secreting cells that have amazing protective properties. Mucus acts as a protective lubricant to keep these important bodily tissues from drying out, which may open them up to infection. Mucus also traps dust and germs in the air passages, protecting your lungs from dust and bacteria. While it may be a useful tool to help determine what’s going on in your nasal passages, mucus alone isn’t typically used to diagnose disease.[1]

Green or Yellow Mucus May Indicate You Have an Infection

A study published in the European Respiratory Journal in 2012 examined the correlation between sputum (mucus)  color and the presence of potentially pathogenic bacteria (potential to cause disease) in people with acute exacerbations (worsening of symptoms) of chronic bronchitis (AECBs). Of the 4,089 sputum samples taken, 4,003 were reported as having color with 1,898 having cultures that were positive for the presence of potentially pathogenic bacteria. Of all colors reported, green and yellow sputum were most likely to yield potentially pathogenic bacteria (58.9% and 45.5% respectively). Mucus color, particularly green mucus and yellow mucus, was a stronger predictor of potentially pathogenic bacteria than sputum thickness and increased shortness of breath. But, it did not necessarily predict the need for antibiotics in all patients with AECB.[2]

Green or Yellow Mucus Doesn’t Always Mean You Have an Infection

Not every medical expert agrees that green mucus or yellow mucus is a strong indicator of infection. Some sources say that when you have a cold, the yellow or green hue in your sputum isn’t due to bacteria, but to infection-fighting white cells called neutrophils. Neutrophils are power-packed cells sent by your immune system to eradicate foreign substances that have invaded your respiratory tract. Because they contain a greenish-colored enzyme, an accumulation of them in large amounts can cause your sputum to appear green.[3]

When to Call the Doctor about a Change in Your Mucus

Medical sources seem to differ in their opinions about the significance of mucus color. One thing they all agree upon, however, is that if green mucus or yellow mucus persists, or if a change in your mucus color is accompanied by other symptoms like a fever and chills, you should make an appointment with your primary healthcare provider.[4]

At your doctor appointment, your doctor may, or may not, give you antibiotics. Remember, antibiotics don’t work for viral infections, only infections that are caused by bacteria. You may have a bacterial infection requiring antibiotics if:[5]

  • Your illness lasts more than 10 days or gets worse instead of better after a week’s time
  • You have a high fever that doesn’t go away
  • You have severe symptoms that aren’t responding to over-the-counter cold remedies
  • Your mucus is thick, uniformly white and looks like pus

Each patient is different. If you have questions about your green mucus or yellow mucus or if you should seek medical attention, contact your primary care provider.

[1] Cleveland Clinic. What the Color of Your Snot Really Means. Last reviewed June 28, 2017.
[2] Miravitlles, Marc, et. al. Sputum colour and bacteria in chronic bronchitis exacerbations: a pooled analysis. European Respiratory Journal Jun 2012, 39 (6) 1354-1360; DOI: 10. 1183/09031936.00042111.
[3] WebMD. The Truth about Mucus. Last reviewed April 10, 2014.
[4] Crampton, Linda. Mucus in the Human Body: Functions and Health Problems Updated on January 24, 2017
[5] Schmerling, Robert J. Don’t Judge Your Mucus by its Color. Harvard Health Publishing. February 8, 2016.


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