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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.

17 thoughts on “Green or Yellow Mucus: What Is My Body Trying to Tell Me?”

  1. Avatar Catherine Williamson says:

    Excellent information! Well written and easy to understand. Please continue to provide this type of information because it gives us piece of mind.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Thank you Catherine! We will continue to try to provide this type of information to our readers.

  2. Avatar Elwood Carpenter says:

    Helpful for sure !

  3. Avatar Terry Zinger says:

    Good input. This is what I call "prospective advice", meaning input that can reasonably be predicted to be useful to a person with a certain disease or condition, based on widespread experience among similar patients. Medical providers, even ones as good as Kaiser offer little or next to nothing of this kind of input. The result is that thousands of patients are out there wondering if they are the only one with a certain experience when it could be anticipated by healthcare professionals that the experience is likely to occur. Good job.

  4. Avatar Tom B says:

    What about a darker "brown" mucus which I spit out after a coughing spell?? Tom

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Tom, Brown mucus could contain dried blood. Please consult your primary care doctor immediately.

  5. Avatar shelbyann says:

    what cause you to spit up chunks of blood and how do you cure this tryed several different pills but it always come s back please help me the drs here dont even know why

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Shelbyann, There are a variety of reasons why you might be experiencing this. Please work with your primary care doctor and if necessary, a specialist like a Pulmonologist.

  6. Avatar M Sadar says:

    Helpful information appreciated.

  7. Avatar DORETHA says:

    I HAD A BAD COLD IN MARCH 2018 WAS COUHING UP GREEN MUCUS, RUNNY NOSE, FEVER, BODY ACH , I TOOK MEDICATION OVER THE COUNTER EVERY THING DIAPPEARED EXCEPT THE GREEN MUCUS. IT STILL EXSIST NOW FEBRUARY 2019 CAN YOU TELL ME WHY ITS ANOYING

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Doretha,
      I am glad to hear all the symptoms disappeared except for the green mucus. I cannot give medical advice, but suggest you speak to the doctor to see if it is advisable to get checked again. Best of luck and health!

  8. Avatar Reinaldo Alicea says:

    I began 4 days ago with a cough, then oughing up green and or yellow mucus, sometimes white, then last night I had a fever that had me shaking uncontrollably , now a cough with white mucus. Oh by the way, urine very or orange. What's going on, can you tell me.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Reinaldo,
      We are sorry to hear of your discomfort. We suggest you visit a doctor for a proper diagnosis if your symptoms haven't improved since you wrote us. We are not medically trained professionals, so please seek professional advice. We hope you feel better soon though.

  9. Avatar AmyTC says:

    Even for an older article, this information is still super relevant and extremely helpful for people who have heard over and over that the color of sputum/mucus means you MUST have an infection… not necessarily so! It seems the best advice is to watch your body closely and in extreme symptoms or drastically changed symptoms it would be time to visit the MD. Thank you for this and other wonderfully informative articles that can help patients know more without being "self-diagnosing know it alls" that Doctors dread these days. You have helped me immensely during my current cold-turned-bronchitis this year!

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Thank you so much for your comments. We are happy to hear our articles help you. Take care!

  10. Avatar Carl S says:

    What about increased mucous production? It is clear or opaque but much greater in quantity.
    My IPF has had an exacerbation over the past 6 months.

  11. Avatar Barbara Ogletree says:

    Thanks so much, now I know what to look for, my sputum is yellow and green and sometimes white, but I don’t have a fever or a constant cough. Your information is highly appreciated

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