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The Truth About Mucous And Phlegm

While nobody likes to cough, it can actually be good for you. In order to better understand this, it is important to understand what mucous is, how it is different to phlegm and the role that both play in our bodies, especially in relation to coughs.

Mucous is the slippery liquid made by our mucous membranes or mucosa. These membranes line the passageways in our bodies that come into contact with the outside environment; these include the nose, mouth, airways, digestive tract, the reproductive tract, the white part of the eye and on the inside of the eyelids. Mucous is a useful material with important functions in the body.

  • It acts as a thin, protective blanket preventing the tissue underneath from drying out. Without mucous, the mucosa will be exposed to elements from the outside world, which will cause it to dry out and crack, so mucous serves an important role to keep these tissues healthy.
  • Mucous is also able to trap unwanted substances like bacteria and dust before it gets into our bodies.
  • Mucous contains elements of the immune system that kill any invaders it traps.

How mucous moves along the mucous escalator

The respiratory tract is a mucous-making machine, producing over a litre of mucous a day. This ensures that the protective mucous blanket is constantly supplied with newly made mucous. Many cells lining the airways have long, tail-like hair called cilia, which beat 10 to 12 times per second. The mucous blanket rests on top of the cilia, which propel it forward like an escalator. Once mucous reaches the throat, it is swallowed, usually unnoticed, and recycled in the stomach. The normal amount of mucous produced daily is very effectively handled and cleared by the mucous escalator to prevent it from accumulating. 

Phlegm: Mucous Accumulation

A bad cold or an allergy can throw the body’s mucous production into overdrive. This is the body’s way to flush away infection, irritants or allergens. However, the mucous escalator may not be able to keep up with the increased volume of mucous, or may become inefficient due to the stickiness of the mucous. As a result, large volumes of thick, sticky mucous accumulate in the airways. Mucous from the lungs is sometimes referred to as phlegm and is produced by the lower airways.

A Chesty Cough

When the mucous escalator can’t keep up, the body deploys other strategies such as coughing. A cough that produces mucous is known as a chesty or wet cough. Unlike a dry cough, a wet cough should be encouraged because it prevents mucous from pooling in the lungs, which can impair breathing and the ability of lungs to fight infection.

Mucous plays an essential role in the maintenance of a healthy body and respiratory tract. Infections, irritants and allergies can stimulate mucous overproduction, causing large volumes of thick, sticky mucous to accumulate in the respiratory tract. A wet cough helps to remove mucous and should be encouraged, rather than suppressed and a mucolytic can break the chemical bonds that hold mucous together, making it less thick, less sticky and easier to cough up.

By: Supplied. Image: Pixabay

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