Barking out a loud cough in the middle of a big meeting or on a quiet train car is enough to make you want to be invisible. But trying to stifle your cough is way worse than dealing with any possible embarrassment — especially if you cough up a little mucus or phlegm. It turns out, you're way better off trying to hack it up than keep it down.
Even though it can feel gross to hurl phlegm out of your throat, you probably should, says Erich Voigt, MD, clinical associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at NYU Langone Medical Center. "If the mucus sits and accumulates, it can become infected with bacteria" and cause secondary illnesses, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
But phlegm and mucus are actually totally normal bodily products, so there's no need to be embarrassed about your need to hock a loogie. We all make and need mucus regularly because it acts as a protective layer over our cells. It's "designed to catch and trap particles," such as dust, pollen, or bacteria, Dr. Voigt explains. Mucus also contains antibodies that help develop immunity and fight infection.
When you get sick with an upper respiratory infection, a cold, or allergies, the mucus secreted by your respiratory tract becomes thicker and denser, Dr. Voigt says. At that point, it's called phlegm, and it's harder to clear out of your airways — your nose, sinuses, and lungs — because it's so much thicker. But that phlegm is one of your body's ways of collecting and getting rid of bacteria.
"[Phlegm] may drip down from the nose and sinuses, or get coughed up from the lower airway," Dr. Voigt says. But, sometimes, it accumulates in your throat. In that case, you usually end up swallowing it or coughing it up. That's why you sometimes cough up boogers (sorry).
Now let's say you cough, but the phlegm gets stuck halfway between your mouth and your throat. Do you swallow? Dr. Voigt says that spitting it up is ideal, actually. But if you can't get to a tissue (or are completely disgusted by the prospect), swallowing isn't the end of the world. In that case, the mucus will "flow to your stomach and be burned by stomach acid," Dr. Voigt says. Delicious.
So how do you actually make it go away? Well, duh, you cough! Coughing is your body's natural mechanism for clearing mucus and phlegm out of the lungs and throat, Dr. Voigt says. However, dry, thick phlegm is harder to clear, he says, and all that extra coughing and throat clearing can make your throat sore.
If you want to speed up the process, make sure to stay hydrated to keep your mucus as thin as possible. You can also try taking a hot shower or inhaling steam, both of which will make the mucus thinner. And, if you can get someone to pat your back, that can loosen the phlegm's attachment to the bronchial walls, which "allows it to be coughed out more easily," Dr. Voigt says.
If you want to move your mucus along a bit, you can try taking OTC expectorant medicines, such as Mucinex or Robitussin. These drugs "pull water into the phlegm, making it easier to cough out," Dr. Voigt says. But any time you're concerned about how much phlegm you're making or how long you've been coughing that stuff up, you should see a doctor so they can figure out exactly what's causing it. In some cases, your doc might prescribe a steroid inhaler, nebulizer, or nasal spray (such as Flonase) to make it easier to breathe while clearing out your mucus.
At the end of the day, you know when you've gotta cough, and you really should just go for it (maybe step out of the big, important meeting first, though). And if a little phlegm comes out too, it's not necessarily a big deal — it's just a sign that your body's doing its thing to make you feel better.