22 August 2017

It’s icky, but you need it – the truth about mucus

Sponsored: Most people only notice mucus when they are sick. But there's more to it than you think, especially when you have a cold or the flu.


When you’re under the weather, a stuffy nose and a wet cough can be the source of much misery. But as you reach for yet another tissue, it helps to know that mucus also has a role to play within your body – it just needs to be managed and controlled.

The role of mucus within your body

It’s gross, and you may wonder why it exists in the first place, but mucus has an important job. This sticky gelatinous material lines your lungs, throat, mouth, nose, and sinuses and keeps them from drying out.1pg1a Your nose and throat glands make just under two litres of it every day.2pg1a

Most people only notice mucus when they are sick. But there's more to it than you think, especially when you have a cold or the flu. Mucus also helps shield your lungs from bacteria, dust particles, exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, viruses, and other intruders.2pg1b

When mucus turns into a dilemma

When you're coming down with a cold or flu, however, mucus starts to thicken as it helps you to fight off viruses and ward off infections. If you have an infection that blocks the normal passage into the airways and throat, the mucus doesn't get drained, and it accumulates.3pg1a It becomes harder to clear and tends to pool, making you feel miserable.2pg1c.

This is known as phlegm – it is made up of mucus, dead bacteria and viruses, living and dead white blood cells (immune cells that are there to battle a cold) and various tissues and cells, all of which thicken the discharge.4pg1a It’s a "goop" that contains cells and chemical compounds that help fight off whatever bug is making you ill. Think of excess mucus production as the body’s way of doubling down on viral or bacterial invaders.4pg1b

Although cough is an important reflex defence mechanism to protect your lungs and keep them clear when there is over-production of mucus, it can have a major impact on sleep, as well as school and work performance. Coughing also disturbs other family members’ sleep and may be disruptive in the classroom or at the office.5pgiiic

How to deal with the mucus dilemma relating to cough

As coughs may often be caused by thick, sticky phlegm irritating the chest, a solution for these coughs may be to target the phlegm and thin it down, so the body can absorb it or expel it more efficiently. A recent survey of liquid cough syrups found no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of these medicines in acute cough.6pg3a

One alternative to ease a chesty wet cough is an over-the-counter mucolytic treatment called N-acetylcysteine (NAC).

NAC helps to clear excessive phlegm in the chest. It is the active ingredient in products like ACC 200, Solmucol and Mucofizz. NAC is a quick and effective OTC treatment method which breaks the links that bind the phlegm together, loosening or breaking down mucus in the chest, making it easier to cough up, and helping to alleviate congestion and cough.7pg3c

Scientific studies have shown that NAC reduces cough and has good overall safety in children older than 2 years. 7pg3c

Ask your healthcare provider for a mucolytic suitable for the whole family that can help you and your children feel better, sooner.

1. WebMD [Internet]. The Truth About Mucus. Atlanta: WebMD; [updated 2014; April 10; cited 2017 March 09]. Available from:
2. WebMD [Internet]. What Your Mucus Says About Your Health. Atlanta: WebMD; [updated 2016 June 06; cited 2017 March 09]. Available from:
3. MedicineNet. [Internet]. Chronic rhinitis and post-nasal drip definition and facts; [updated 2016; September 14; cited 2017 March 09]. Available from:
4. [Internet]. What Is Phlegm and Why Is It Good for Your Health? [updated 2017; February 09; cited 2017 March 09]. Available from:
5. Shields MD, Bush A, Everard ML, et al. Recommendations for the assessment and management of cough in children. Thorax 2008;63(Suppl III):iii1-iii15.
6. Smith SM, Schroeder K, Fahey T. Over-the-counter (OTC)medications for acute cough in children and adults in community settings. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 11. Art. No.: CD001831. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001831.pub5.
7. Hanson C. Cough mixtures – an overview. S Afr Pharm J 2016;83(5):14-17


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Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

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