How to Get Rid of Phlegm: Remedies, Medications, and More

Medically Reviewed By Thomas Johnson, PA-C
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Phlegm is thick mucus produced in the upper airways and lungs. Though it prevents harmful substances from entering the airways, excess phlegm can be uncomfortable. Home care methods and treatment can help to alleviate phlegm buildup. The body produces phlegm in response to an irritant or foreign substance that triggers inflammatory or immune responses. This can include environmental allergens or infectious pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. It can also occur due to respiratory conditions such as cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The thick texture of phlegm helps it to trap foreign or harmful substances and help the substance to be coughed out with the phlegm. As a result, removing phlegm can be beneficial.

This article will discuss different ways to get rid of phlegm, including home remedies and clinical treatments. We’ll also answer some frequently asked questions about phlegm and how to get rid of it.

1. Use a humidifier

A person holding a bag of eucalyptus leaves
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Breathing in dry air or air with very low humidity can be irritating or dehydrating for your airways. This may exacerbate or lead to an increase in mucus.

Using a humidifier can help to hydrate the airways and phlegm, allowing the phlegm to more easily move along the airways so you can cough it up more easily.

If you use a humidifier, be sure to keep it clean to prevent the growth of bacteria and molds. Use any instructions that came with your unit or contact the manufacturer to learn how to clean and use the humidifier safely.

2. Inhale steam

Steam inhalation is a common remedy for a variety of illnesses. While further evidence is necessary to confirm the effects of inhaling steam for other conditions, it may help to hydrate the airways and relieve mild congestion.

However, a 2017 review suggests that evidence is conflicting on how effective steam inhalation is at improving symptoms and overall feelings of well-being. While researchers observed some improvements, they also noted a lack of improvement in other areas.

Additionally, steam inhalation can present a risk of burning or scalding.

Take the following steps to steam safely:

  • Boil water and leave it to cool for a few minutes before use.
  • Breathe in and out normally and allow the steam to enter your airways.
  • Breathe in the steam for up to 15 minutes once or twice a day.
  • Replenish the water with more hot water if it cools and stops producing steam.
  • Take care not to touch any hot surfaces or containers, or knock over the container of water.
  • Do not inhale steam if you have heart failure.

3. Stay hydrated

While staying hydrated is an essential part of all health, it can also be beneficial if you are experiencing congestion with phlegm.

This is because drinking plenty of fluids can help to thin or loosen phlegm and ease its removal from the body.

Read more about how much water you should drink.

4. Gargle with salt water

Gargling salt water may help alleviate soreness and irritation.

Additionally, a 2019 controlled trial observed that using salt water sprays may also reduce mucus secretions and lead to a decrease in the use of medicinal decongestants and mucus medications. Furthermore, gargling with salt water and irrigating the nose with saline solution may reduce the duration of mild viral illness.

5. Try eucalyptus oil

Many natural and pharmaceutical remedies use eucalyptus products to alleviate respiratory symptoms. Over-the-counter (OTC) vapor rubs and inhaled decongestants often contain eucalyptus oil or its major constituents, eucalyptol or cineole.

A 2020 review reported that eucalyptol has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antimicrobial, and bronchodilatory properties that may help protect against and control inflammatory airway diseases. A 2015 study examining the effects of cineol in human cells also observed reductions in mucus production.

Contact a pharmacist for advice on what products with eucalyptus might be safe and effective for you.

6. Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke

Smoking and secondhand smoke may cause the body to produce more mucus and phlegm.

If you do smoke or experience regular exposure to smoke, avoiding these triggers can help resolve mucus production.

Quitting smoking can lead to restored mucus function in the airways within approximately 1 to 12 months.

Clinical treatment options

If home remedies are not alleviating your symptoms of phlegm, medication may help. OTC medications for congestion are available without prescription, although it is advisable to seek advice from a doctor or pharmacist before taking any new medications.

Medication options include:

  • Expectorants: These are cough suppressant medications, but they may also be effective at thinning and clearing mucus from the airways. Options include guaifenesin (Mucinex) and dextromethorphan (Robitussin).
  • Decongestants: Decongestants work to reduce congestion and are available in forms such as nasal sprays, liquids, tablets, or vapor rubs. OTC products can include oxymetazoline (Vicks Sinex) and pseudoephedrine (Sudafed).
  • Mucolytics: These are mucus-thinning medications that you inhale. They can include hypertonic saline (Nebusal), mannitol (Bronchitol), and dornase alfa (Pulmozyme).

Further or more intensive treatment options may be necessary depending on the underlying cause of your condition. Doctors may seek to resolve or improve the underlying condition as well as focusing on alleviating secondary effects such as phlegm buildup.

If your condition or symptoms are not improving with OTC medication or your current treatment plan, contact your doctor.

When to seek medical help

Excess phlegm on occasion may not be a cause for concern, especially if it links to mild, temporary causes such as dry air, mild infections, or seasonal allergies.

However, it is advisable to contact your doctor if you have symptoms of phlegm buildup that last for a month or longer, or that are not improving with self-care or OTC treatments.

Additionally, seek your doctor’s advice if you have an underlying condition that affects your respiratory system and your treatment is not effectively managing your symptoms.

Inform your doctor of your medical history and any other symptoms you are experiencing, such as:

Outlook

The airways can increase phlegm production for many different reasons. This can include benign, mild, or temporary causes, as well as more serious clinical conditions.

The outlook of your symptoms and other health effects will vary depending on the underlying cause. While some cases require minimal or temporary treatment, others with chronic respiratory conditions such as cystic fibrosis may require regular care. However, home remedies and medicinal treatments can alleviate many cases of phlegm overproduction.

FAQs

Thomas Johnson, PA-C, has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

How do I get rid of phlegm naturally?

There are several natural or nonpharmaceutical ways to help get rid of phlegm.

These options can include using a dehumidifier, staying hydrated, and gargling with salt water.

What causes phlegm in the throat?

Phlegm in the throat occurs as a response to an inflammatory trigger or irritant. This can include causes such as allergens, infections such as the common cold, and chronic respiratory conditions.

The body produces phlegm to protect and lubricate the airways, trap potential irritants, and combat inflammation.

What foods get rid of phlegm?

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce inflammation. Some foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • chia seeds
  • walnuts
  • flaxseeds
  • fatty fish like salmon, herring, and sardines

Learn more about How to reduce inflammation with an anti-inflammatory diet.

How do I get rid of phlegm at night?

Medications and home remedies such as gargling with salt water or using a humidifier can help to get rid of phlegm.

Some people report that lying down causes them to feel like mucus is building up in the upper airways, such as the throat. Changing your position to what you find most comfortable, such as in a slightly elevated position, may help with this sensation.

Sitting upright can also help you take medications such as hypertonic saline more effectively.

Summary

Phlegm is a type of thick mucus that the respiratory passages secrete as a response to irritation. It can help to trap and remove irritating particles and substances such as pathogens and allergens. However, a buildup of phlegm can be uncomfortable.

Many home remedies and medications can help to remove phlegm. At-home options include inhaling steam or eucalyptus products, salt water gargles, and humidifiers. Medication can include both OTC and prescription options that help thin or remove mucus.

If you experience ongoing symptoms of phlegm buildup despite initial self-management, contact your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Thomas Johnson, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 29
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