Phlegm Color Chart: Your Guide to What Phlegm Colors Mean
Several factors can affect the colors of phlegm, including an underlying medical condition, environmental factors such as the temperature and humidity levels found in certain areas, and smoking.
While the color of phlegm is not an indicator of your overall health, it may provide an insight into how well your body is fighting off an infection.
Read on to learn the different colors of phlegm and what they might mean, when to contact a doctor, and how to treat phlegm.
Many different colors of phlegm exist. These colors depend on what the fluids in your body are made of.
Each color has its own meaning. The most common colors of phlegm are clear, yellow, and green. Other colors — such as white, black, red, or pink — are also possible.
|Clear||Your body is protecting itself from inflammation or allergies.||allergic rhinitis, asthma|
|Yellow or green||Your body is fighting off an infection.||sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, cystic fibrosis|
|White||Your body is protecting itself from allergies or an infection.||asthma, COPD, sinusitis, congestive heart failure|
|Red or pink||This can be due to a condition that causes inflammation or the presence of blood.||bronchitis, bronchiectasis, chest infection, lung cancer, pulmonary embolism, pneumonia, tuberculosis|
|Brown||This can be a sign of a chronic lung condition.||bronchiectasis, cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, stopping smoking|
|Black||This is a rare occurrence that can happen due to inhalation or an infection.||pneumonia, rhinocerebral mucormycosis, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, inhaling fire smoke|
Learn about symptoms you can experience alongside phlegm.
Clear phlegm means your body has produced extra mucus to help protect itself from a virus or bacteria.
Yellow or green phlegm is a sign that your body is fighting off an infection, experts advise.
Yellow or green phlegm is a symptom of several conditions, including:
- sinusitis, which is an inflammation of the sinuses
- bronchitis, which is inflammation of the bronchi, or the air passages that connect your windpipe to your lungs
- pneumonia, which is a lung infection that causes the accumulation of phlegm in the lungs and airways, leading to coughing and difficulty breathing
- cystic fibrosis, which is a genetic condition that can cause thick, sticky mucus
When this occurs, your body’s mucus will turn white instead of clear. This happens when the mucus contains large numbers of white blood cells.
Possible causes of white phlegm include:
Pink or red phlegm can signify inflammation or bleeding in the lungs. This can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, says the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), such as:
- chest infection
- lung cancer
- pulmonary embolism, which occurs when a blood clot in the leg or elsewhere in the body travels to the lungs
If you cough up pink, red, or bloody phlegm, it is important to seek medical help.
Learn more about the possible causes of spitting blood.
You can also learn more about coughing up blood.
Brown phlegm can be a sign of a chronic lung condition, according to experts. The color of the phlegm comes from the presence of red blood cells and other debris from the body.
Common causes of brown phlegm include:
- bronchiectasis, which can cause a persistent cough and shortness of breath
- cystic fibrosis
- stopping smoking, as you may cough up tar as your body tries to rid itself of the substance
- lung cancer, which can cause you to cough up rust-colored phlegm
Black phlegm, also known as melanoptysis, is an uncommon phlegm color, 2025 research notes. It can occur if you have inhaled certain substances or if you have an infection.
Possible causes of black phlegm include:
- fungal infections like rhinocerebral mucormycosis, which is a rare and serious infection caused by filamentous fungi
- inhaling irritants like smoke from a large fire
- coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, which is a chronic progressive respiratory condition caused by long-term exposure to coal mine dust
- primary pulmonary malignant melanoma in rare cases
The texture of phlegm can vary, depending on the underlying cause.
Phlegm or mucus is mostly made of water, explains the National Institutes of Health. The body makes a lot of mucus, and you may only notice it when it becomes a little thicker than usual. This happens due to a viral or bacterial infection.
If you have pink and frothy phlegm, this can indicate heart failure, according to researchers in 2022.
It is important to pay attention to the color and texture of your phlegm. This can help doctors diagnose the underlying cause of your symptoms.
You should contact your doctor if you:
- have phlegm that is yellow or green and smells foul
- have phlegm that has blood or pus in it
- are coughing up blood
- have a fever or cold symptoms like a runny nose or sore throat
- are having difficulty breathing
Contact your doctor if you are unsure about what is causing your phlegm or if you are experiencing any other symptoms with it.
Doctors diagnose the cause of phlegm by asking about your medical history and your symptoms, such as how long you have experienced phlegm and whether it has changed color or texture.
They may also perform a physical examination. This can include examining your throat, nasal passages, and chest region. They may also use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs while you breathe in and out.
To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may perform additional tests, such as a chest X-ray and analysis of phlegm. When doctors send a sample of phlegm for laboratory analysis, it is known as sputum culture. This allows them to test for bacteria or other causes of infection.
Several treatments for phlegm exist. The one that works for you depends on what is causing your phlegm. In most cases, your doctor may prescribe the following:
- antibiotics for a bacterial infection
- expectorants to clear the airways and make phlegm thinner
- corticosteroids to reduce inflammation
- saline nasal spray to relieve congestion and reduce excess phlegm production in the throat
Phlegm is a common symptom of respiratory conditions. The colors of phlegm can vary depending on the underlying cause.
Possible causes of phlegm include bacterial and viral infections, allergies, and chronic lung conditions. To diagnose the cause of phlegm, your doctor may ask you about your medical history; perform a physical examination; and carry out some tests, such as sputum culture.
The treatment for phlegm depends on its cause and severity. Your doctor may be able to prescribe you medication to reduce phlegm and make it thinner.
Contact your doctor if you have phlegm that does not go away or that you cannot explain. They will be able to carry out tests to reach an accurate diagnosis and advise on the right treatments for you.