Phlegm Color Chart: Your Guide to What Phlegm Colors Mean

Medically Reviewed By Carissa Stephens, R.N., CCRN, CPN
Was this helpful?
9

Phlegm, sometimes called sputum, is a type of mucus that your respiratory tract produces as part of the body’s natural defense against bacteria, viruses, and allergens. The color of your phlegm can indicate an underlying condition. Typically, phlegm is clear and thin. Yet its color can vary depending on the underlying reason why your body is producing the phlegm.

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.

What are the different colors of phlegm?

A person is holding a tissue on their nose and looking at their phone.
Oscar Wong/Getty Images

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.

ColorPossible causeConditions
ClearYour body is protecting itself from inflammation or allergies.allergic rhinitis, asthma
Yellow or greenYour body is fighting off an infection.sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, cystic fibrosis
WhiteYour body is protecting itself from allergies or an infection.asthma, COPD, sinusitis, congestive heart failure
Red or pinkThis can be due to a condition that causes inflammation or the presence of blood.bronchitis, bronchiectasis, chest infection, lung cancer, pulmonary embolism, pneumonia, tuberculosis
BrownThis can be a sign of a chronic lung condition.bronchiectasis, cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, stopping smoking
BlackThis 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.

What does clear phlegm mean?

Clear phlegm means your body has produced extra mucus to help protect itself from a virus or bacteria.

Allergic rhinitis can cause clear phlegm, as mucus in the nose drains down the throat, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Asthma can also cause clear phlegm if your airways become inflamed, explains Asthma and Lung UK. This can be a sign that your asthma is worsening.

What does yellow or green phlegm mean?

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

Learn more about green phlegm.

What does white phlegm mean?

White phlegm occurs when your immune system responds to an allergy or infection, which causes inflammation and swelling in your airways, experts explain.

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:

What does red or pink phlegm mean?

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:

  • bronchiectasis
  • bronchitis
  • chest infection
  • lung cancer
  • pneumonia
  • pulmonary embolism, which occurs when a blood clot in the leg or elsewhere in the body travels to the lungs
  • tuberculosis

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.

What does brown phlegm mean?

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:

What does black phlegm mean?

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:

  • pneumonia 
  • 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

What does the texture of my phlegm mean?

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.

In some cases, phlegm can become thick and sticky. This can happen as a result of a lung infection, such as bronchiectasis, the NHS says.

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.

When should I see a doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you:

Contact your doctor if you are unsure about what is causing your phlegm or if you are experiencing any other symptoms with it.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of phlegm?

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.

What are the treatments for phlegm?

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

Summary

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.

Was this helpful?
9
Medical Reviewer: Carissa Stephens, R.N., CCRN, CPN
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 29
View All Ear, Nose and Throat Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Bhandari, J., et al. (2022). Rhinocerebral mucormycosis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559288/
  2. Channa, S., et al. (2021). Colour vision deficiency and sputum colour charts in COPD patients: An exploratory mixed-method study. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41533-021-00225-z
  3. Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis symptoms and diagnosis. (2020). https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/black-lung/symptoms-diagnosis
  4. Cohen, Y. Z., et al. (2015). Exophiala pneumonia presenting with a cough productive of black sputum. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4436473/
  5. Corticosteroids. (2022). https://www.nhsinform.scot/tests-and-treatments/medicines-and-medical-aids/types-of-medicine/corticosteroids
  6. Coughing up blood (blood in phlegm). (2021). https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coughing-up-blood/
  7. Cystic fibrosis. (2022). https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/cystic-fibrosis
  8. Filippini, A., et al. (2015). Dark sputum: An atypical presentation of primary pulmonary malignant melanoma. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4501519/
  9. Guaifenesin. (2022). https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a682494.html
  10. Health risks of smoking tobacco. (2020). https://www.cancer.org/healthy/stay-away-from-tobacco/health-risks-of-tobacco/health-risks-of-smoking-tobacco.html
  11. Heart failure signs and symptoms. (2017). https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-failure/warning-signs-of-heart-failure
  12. How smoke from fires can affect your health. (2021). https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/how-smoke-fires-can-affect-your-health
  13. Iqbal, M. A., et al. (2022). Cardiogenic pulmonary edema. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK544260/
  14. Marvels of mucus and phlegm. (2020). https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2020/08/marvels-mucus-phlegm
  15. Overview: Bronchitis. (2019). https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/bronchitis/
  16. Parsons, J. (2017). What does the color of phlegm mean? https://wexnermedical.osu.edu/blog/what-does-the-color-of-your-phlegm-mean
  17. Phlegm, mucus and asthma. (2020). https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/understanding-asthma/symptoms/phlegm-mucus-and-asthma/
  18. Pneumonia. (2021). https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/lungs-and-airways/pneumonia
  19. Reasons to quit smoking. (2019). https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/quit-smoking/reasons-to-quit-smoking/health-benefits-of-stopping-smoking.html
  20. Rhinitis (nasal allergies). (2015). https://www.aafa.org/rhinitis-nasal-allergy-hayfever/
  21. Signs and symptoms of lung cancer. (2019). https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-symptoms.html
  22. Sinusitis (sinus infection and sinus inflammation). (2021). https://www.aafa.org/sinusitis-sinus-infection/
  23. Sputum culture. (2021). https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/sputum-culture/
  24. Tuberculosis symptoms and diagnosis. (2020). https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/tuberculosis/symptoms-diagnosis