Coughing Up Brown Mucus

Aspergillus is a fungus that’s widely found in soil, plants, and rotting vegetation. If you’re allergic and breathe it in, it can inflame your lungs. You might wheeze and cough up brown-flecked mucus. You might get a fever. If you have cystic fibrosis or asthma, you’re more likely to have this allergy. If so, your doctor will call it allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis.

Brown Mucus/Phlegm Symptoms

Shamard Charles, MD, MPH is a public health physician and journalist. He has held positions with major news networks like NBC reporting on health policy, public health initiatives, diversity in medicine, and new developments in health care research and medical treatments.

Published on October 31, 2022

Susan Russell, MD is a board-certified pulmonologist and currently the Medical Director for Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Inpatient Pulmonary Unit.

Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Mucus comes in a variety of colors (green, white, reddish-pink, or brown), textures, and even names (such as sputum and phlegm ). Clear or watery phlegm is usually not worrisome. It is associated with benign conditions like seasonal allergies, post-nasal drip, or a cold.

Less commonly, you may find yourself coughing up brown mucus, which may be associated with a number of conditions, including smoking, chronic lung disease, or infections.

The presence of tar, dirt, or old blood or the inflammation of the lower portions of the throat and upper airways are the most common reasons for brown phlegm. This article will explain the symptoms associated with brown mucus, its many causes, and how to treat it.

Person on couch appearing sick

Symptoms of Brown Mucus/Phlegm

The presence of brown mucus may be worrisome, especially if you are a current or former smoker. The most common symptom associated with brown mucus or phlegm is a cough. A cough associated with any type of mucus is called a productive cough. Other symptoms associated with brown phlegm include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Congestion
  • Sneezing or sniffles
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain, especially pain on inspiration (breathing in) or expiration (breathing out)
  • Sore throat
  • Sweating
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Causes of Brown Mucus/Phlegm

If you notice you have brown phlegm, you don’t need to be excessively alarmed, especially if you are young, generally healthy, and have no smoking history or other risk factors.

Still, you should never take the presence of brown phlegm lightly. Get checked by a healthcare provider to make sure that more serious underlying conditions are not the cause of your symptoms.

Brown phlegm can be caused by a wide range of conditions, including:

  • Smoker’s cough: Tar from the lungs due to chronic smoking may be brought up with coughing.
  • Exposure to air pollution.
  • Inhalation of toxic environmental or occupational substances such as coal dust from mining (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis).
  • Viral infection.
  • Chronic lung disease: Chronic lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis, bronchiectasis, and emphysema are often associated with long-term smoking, although genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis and interstitial lung disease may also cause brown mucus.
  • Lung cancer: Smoking is the major risk factor for lung cancer, but it can occur in non-smokers. Your risk of lung cancer remains high even 15 years after quitting smoking. Quitting early, before the age of 40, has also been associated with a lower lung cancer risk.
  • Bacterial pneumonia: Bacterial infections damage the tissues that line the lungs. Bleeding, especially old blood that remains in the lungs, can taint the mucus in your upper airways and make it appear brown.
  • Lung abscess: This is a pocket of infection in the lung, often caused by aspirating material into the lungs. Sometimes a productive cough is the first sign of a lung abscess.
  • Asthma (rarely).

How to Treat Brown Mucus/Phlegm

The presence of brown phlegm can be alarming, but if you are generally healthy and have no history of smoking, chances are you have a benign condition that can be treated.

The most definitive way to get rid of your brown phlegm is to resolve the underlying condition that is causing your symptom in the first place.

If the cause of your lung damage is primarily due to smoking, your healthcare provider will suggest that you quit immediately. You may notice that your symptoms are getting better in just a matter of days or weeks.

If air pollution or toxic substances are the cause of your lung damage, it may be best for you to move or quit your job, although understandably, this may not be feasible for everyone. Sometimes contaminants in the home (such as mold) can be mitigated if identified.

Antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial pneumonia and lung abscesses. Antivirals may be used in some types of viral infections. Finally, lung cancer is often treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Complications and Risk Factors Associated With Brown Mucus/Phlegm

Your mucus turns brown because damage to the upper respiratory tract from chronic inflammation mixes mucus with old blood, tar, or debris (or a combination of all three). Inflammation within the lung also leads to an overall increase in mucus production which can cause a chronic cough.

Medical complications associated with the development of brown mucus or phlegm include:

  • Lung cancer
  • Lung abscess
  • Bacterial pneumonia
  • Black lung (coal miners’ lung or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis)
  • Fungal infections of the lung, such as aspergillosis
  • Lung damage due to smoke inhalation from a house fire or wildfire

The following risk factors are associated with an increased risk of upper respiratory lung damage:

  • Older age
  • History of smoking (especially a history of early smoking before age 45 for 10 or more years)
  • Occupational exposure to chemicals toxic to the lungs
  • Weakened immune system

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Brown Mucus/Phlegm?

The tests for diagnosing the cause of your brown mucus will depend on your clinical presentation, medical/smoking history, and physical examination.

  • Labs: A complete blood cell count with differential, viral tests (flu and COVID-19), and a basic metabolic panel can help detect underlying infections.
  • Imaging: A chest X-ray is a quick, cheap, and effective way to identify the presence of infection (pneumonia or abscess) in the lungs. Computed tomography (CT) scans of the lungs can provide a more detailed look at the damage, especially by tumors or chronic lung diseases.
  • Bronchoscopy: A scope with a camera at the end can look at your lungs and even be used to biopsy (take a sample for analysis) suspicious lesions or masses that may be the cause of your brown phlegm.
  • Sputum culture: This test looks for organisms (fungi or bacteria) that may be causing an infection in the lungs.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If your symptoms do not improve or worsen even after treatment or present with ominous signs such as thick or smelly discharge, fever, shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, or unexplained weight loss, seek immediate medical attention.

Consulting a healthcare provider may help you to determine new or better treatments or help you determine if there is a need for more imaging and a bronchoscopy to figure out the precise cause of your brown sputum.


Brown mucus is a less common form of phlegm that is caused by a variety of conditions, ranging from smoking and air pollution to chronic lung disease and bacterial or viral infections. See a healthcare provider if this symptom persists or is accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, or unexplained weight loss.

A Word From Verywell

Mucus production is important to your health because it protects against infection. It serves the dual role of trapping debris and foreign substances while also keeping your airways moist. Under normal circumstances, mucus is clear and thin, but if it changes color, it may be a sign of underlying disease.

If your mucus has changed color, texture, or volume, worsened despite treatment, or is associated with systemic symptoms like fever or significant weight loss, seek immediate medical attention because this may be a sign of a medical emergency.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. What does the color of phlegm mean?
  2. American Cancer Society. What causes lung cancer?
  3. Thomson B, Emberson J, Lacey B, et al. Association of smoking initiation and cessation across the life course and cancer mortality: prospective study of 410,000 US adults. JAMA Oncology. 2021;7(12):1901-1903. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2021.4949
  4. Kuhajda I, Zarogoulidis K, Tsirgogianni K, et al. Lung abscess-etiology, diagnostic and treatment options. Annals of Translational Medicine. 2015;3(13):183. doi:10.3978/j.issn.2305-5839.2015.07.08
  5. Kuhajda I, Zarogoulidis K, Tsirgogianni K, et al. Lung abscess-etiology, diagnostic and treatment options. Ann Transl Med. 2015;3(13):183. doi:10.3978/j.issn.2305-5839.2015.07.08
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By Shamard Charles, MD, MPH
Shamard Charles, MD, MPH is a public health physician and journalist. He has held positions with major news networks like NBC reporting on health policy, public health initiatives, diversity in medicine, and new developments in health care research and medical treatments.

Brown Phlegm: What Causes It?

Phlegm. Mucus. Sputum. These are different names for the slimy, slippery stuff that flows out when you cough, sneeze, or sniffle.

This gunk is your body’s defense weapon against infectious microbes and allergens that irritate your lungs or sinuses. The color and texture can vary widely, from clear sticky strings to stretchy yellow messes to thick green clots.

Brown phlegm is less common. Here are some reasons why you might get it.

It can be a sign of old blood, chronic — ongoing — inflammation, or tar that loosens up after you’ve quit smoking.


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease happens when your lungs get so swollen over time that air can’t flow freely. Cigarette smoke is usually the reason. You might cough, wheeze, and have trouble breathing. If your mucus turns brown, yellow, or green, it can be an early warning sign of a flare-up. It’ll be stickier and thicker, and there’ll be more of it.

Treatments for COPD include medications, pulmonary rehab, supplemental oxygen, and surgery to open up blocked pathways. In severe cases, you may need a lung transplant.

Acute Bronchitis

This is when the linings of your bronchial tubes, the air passageways in your lungs, get inflamed. Viral infections are the most common cause of acute bronchitis. But it also can be brought on by bacteria, an irritant such as smoking, an allergy, or certain chemicals.

If you have it, you’ll first notice a cough. It could be dry or bring up phlegm. The mucus can range from clear to cloudy, brown, yellow, or green. Your chest might feel tight or tender. Other signs are a fever, tiredness, shortness of breath, a sore throat, and a stuffy nose.

Bronchitis usually goes away on its own. Your doctor might suggest ways to thin out your mucus to make it easy to cough up. You can run a vaporizer, stand in a hot shower, or hover over a steam tent over hot water. If your symptoms don’t go away and your doctor strongly suspects a bacterial infection, they may prescribe an antibiotic.

Bacterial Pneumonia

A dry cough that brings up thick phlegm is one of the main symptoms of pneumonia. The mucus might be yellow, green, red, brown, or rust-colored. Sometimes the color can be a tip-off of the type of bacteria that caused the illness.

Pneumonia starts with tissue swelling in one or both of your lungs. The tiny grape cluster-like air sacs at the tips of your breathing tubes can swell and fill up with fluid. You’ll need antibiotics to treat bacterial pneumonia.

Chronic Lung Disease

This term includes a wide range of lung disorders that don’t go away or worsen over time. They can be hereditary, be triggered by things in the environment, or start with a habit like smoking.

Two forms of chronic lung disease, cystic fibrosis (CF) and bronchiectasis, might lead you to cough up clingy, dark-brown phlegm.

Cystic fibrosis. People with CF are born with a faulty gene that makes their mucus very thick and sticky. Instead of lubricating, the phlegm clogs the lungs and holds onto germs that lead to lingering infections. Adults with CF often may cough up mucus that’s tinged with blood. That can happen if repeated infections irritate a small blood vessel.

CF is a lifelong condition. Treatment includes techniques to keep the airways clear and break up mucus, inhalers, antibiotics, enzyme supplements, and targeted fitness programs that boost energy and help your lungs work better.

Bronchiectasis. This happens if the airways that join your windpipe to the lower part of your lungs are too wide. Mucus can build up and make you more likely get lung infections. Bronchiectasis can result from such conditions as childhood whooping cough, pneumonia, severe asthma, and COPD. A main symptom is mucus in a variety of shades, from white to brown.

Since bronchiectasis is a long-term condition, you may need to stay on inhalers and other drugs to lower your swelling. Antibiotics and flu vaccines can help prevent infections.

Fungus Allergy

Aspergillus is a fungus that’s widely found in soil, plants, and rotting vegetation. If you’re allergic and breathe it in, it can inflame your lungs. You might wheeze and cough up brown-flecked mucus. You might get a fever. If you have cystic fibrosis or asthma, you’re more likely to have this allergy. If so, your doctor will call it allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis.

Your doctor may prescribe medications that help tame inflammation, as well as antifungal drugs.

Lung Abscess

This is a painful pocket of pus wrapped in inflamed tissue. It can happen if the bacteria in your mouth or throat, such as from gum disease, gets down to your lungs. If you can’t cough it out, infection can set in and form a cavity.

Your symptoms will start slowly. You might feel tired, have night sweats or fever, and cough up foul-smelling, brown- or blood-specked phlegm. You’ll need a course of antibiotics over at least a few weeks to clear it up.

Quitting Smoking

Within a week after your last cigarette, your lungs start cleaning themselves. Smoke slows down the tiny cilia that sweep mucus from your lungs. Once they can do their job right, you might start to cough up brown mucus from the tar you’ve inhaled over time. This might go on for a few weeks. You can help get rid of it faster by drinking lots of fluids and running a humidifier or vaporizer to help moisten and thin out your phlegm.

If your cough lasts more than a month or if you see blood, see your doctor.

Show Sources

Harvard University: “All About That Mucus: How It Keeps Us Healthy.”

The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: “What Does the Color of Phlegm Mean?”

Western Australia Department of Health: “Facts About Giving Up Smoking.”

Mayo Clinic: “COPD.”

Breathe: The Lung Association (Canada): “Recognize the Early Warning Signs of a Flare-up.”

American Lung Association: “Treating COPD,” “The Basics of Pulmonary Rehabilitation.”

Harvard Medical School: “Acute Bronchitis.”

Medscape: “Bacterial Pneumonia.”

National Health Service (UK): “Pneumonia.”

John Muir Health: “Chronic Lung Disease.”

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: “About Cystic Fibrosis.”

Mount Nittany Health: “Allergic Bronchopulmonary Aspergillosis.”

Merck Manuals: “Abscess in the Lungs.”

BMJ Case Reports: “Unusual case of a lung abscess.”

Mayo Clinic: “Quit Smoking FAQ.”

Yellow, Brown, Green, and More: What Does the Color of My Phlegm Mean?

Phlegm is naturally clear. If your phlegm is yellow or green, you may have a viral or bacterial infection. If it’s another color like brown, red, or black, you may have coughed up blood and may be experiencing a more serious condition.

Phlegm is a type of mucus made in your chest. You typically don’t produce noticeable amounts of phlegm unless you are sick with a cold or have some other underlying medical issue. When you cough up phlegm, it’s called sputum. You may notice different colored sputum and wonder what the colors mean.

Here’s your guide to different conditions that produce phlegm, why it might be different colors, and when you should see a doctor.

green or yellow brown white black clear red or pink
allergic rhinitis
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
congestive heart failure
cystic fibrosis
fungal infection
gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
lung abscess
lung cancer
pulmonary embolism

If you see green or yellow phlegm, it’s usually a sign that your body is fighting an infection. The color comes from white blood cells. At first, you may notice yellow phlegm that then progresses into green phlegm. The change occurs with the severity and length of the potential sickness.

Green or yellow phlegm is commonly caused by:

  • Bronchitis. This usually starts off with a dry cough and eventually some clear or white phlegm. Over time, you may start coughing up yellow and green phlegm. This is a sign that the illness may have progressed to a secondary bacterial infection. Coughing can last up to 90 days.
  • Pneumonia. This is typically a complication of another respiratory issue. With pneumonia, you may cough up phlegm that is yellow, green, or sometimes bloody. Your symptoms will vary based on the type of pneumonia you have. Cough, fever, chills, and shortness of breath are common symptoms with all types of pneumonia.
  • Sinusitis. This is also known as a sinus infection. A virus, allergies, or even bacteria can cause this condition. When bacteria cause it, you may notice yellow or green phlegm, nasal congestion, postnasal drip, and pressure in your sinus cavities.
  • Cystic fibrosis. This is a chronic lung disease where mucus builds up in the lungs. This disease often affects children and young adults. It can cause a variety of phlegm colors, from yellow to green to brown.
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You may also consider this color “rusty” in appearance. The color brown often means old blood. You may see this color after your phlegm appears red or pink.

Brown phlegm is commonly caused by:

  • Bacterial pneumonia. This form of pneumonia can produce phlegm that is green-brown or rust-colored.
  • Bacterial bronchitis. This condition can produce rusty brown sputum as it progresses. Chronic bronchitis may also be a possibility. You may be more at risk of developing chronic bronchitis if you smoke or are often exposed to fumes and other irritants.
  • Cystic fibrosis. This chronic lung disease may cause rust-colored sputum.
  • Pneumoconiosis. Inhaling different dusts, like coal, asbestos, and silicosis, can cause this chronic lung disease. It can cause brown sputum.
  • Lung abscess. This is a cavity filled with pus inside your lungs. It’s usually surrounded by infected and inflamed tissue. Along with cough, night sweats, and loss of appetite, you may experience a cough that brings up brown or blood-streaked sputum. This phlegm also smells foul.

You may experience white phlegm with several health conditions.

White phlegm is commonly caused by:

  • Viral bronchitis. This condition may start off with white phlegm, indicating a viral infection. However, this can lead to a secondary bacterial infection that will produce green or yellow phlegm.
  • GERD. This chronic condition affects your digestive system. It may cause you to cough up thick, white sputum.
  • COPD. This condition causes your airways to narrow and your lungs to produce excess mucus. The combination makes it hard for your body to get oxygen. With this condition, you may experience white sputum.
  • Congestive heart failure. This occurs when your heart isn’t effectively pumping blood to the rest of your body. Fluids build up in different areas, leading to edema. Fluid collects in the lungs and may lead to an increase in white sputum. You may also experience shortness of breath.

Seek immediate medical attention if you’re having difficulty breathing.

Black sputum is also called melanoptysis. Seeing black phlegm may mean you have inhaled a high amount of something black, like coal dust. It may also mean you have a fungal infection that needs medical attention.

Black phlegm is commonly caused by:

  • Smoking. Smoking cigarettes or certain drugs like crack cocaine may lead to black sputum.
  • Pneumoconiosis. One type in particular, black lung disease, may cause black sputum. It mostly affects coal workers or anyone else who has frequent exposure to coal dust. Coughing up black sputum may also be accompanied by shortness of breath.
  • Fungal infection. A black yeast called Exophiala dermatitidis causes this infection. It’s an uncommon condition that can cause black phlegm. It more often affects people who have cystic fibrosis.

Your body produces clear mucus and phlegm on a daily basis. This phlegm is mostly filled with water, protein, antibodies, and some dissolved salts to help lubricate and moisturize your respiratory system.

An increase in clear phlegm may mean that your body is trying to flush out an irritant, like pollen, or some type of virus.

Clear phlegm is commonly caused by:

  • Allergic rhinitis. This is also called nasal allergy or sometimes hay fever. It makes your body produce more nasal mucus after exposure to allergens like pollen, grasses, and weeds. This mucus creates postnasal drip and may make you cough up clear phlegm.
  • Viral bronchitis. This is an inflammation in the bronchial tubes in your lungs. It begins with clear or white phlegm and coughing. In some cases, if a secondary bacterial infection sets it, you may find that the phlegm progress to a yellow or green color.
  • Viral pneumonia. This form of pneumonia is caused by an infection in your lungs. Early symptoms include fever, dry cough, muscle pain, and other flu-like symptoms. You may also see an increase in clear phlegm.

Blood is likely the cause of any shade of red phlegm. Pink is considered another shade of red, so it may also indicate that there is blood in your phlegm, just less of it.

Red or pink phlegm is commonly caused by:

  • Pneumonia. This lung infection may cause red phlegm as it progresses. It may also cause chills, fever, cough, and chest pain.
  • Tuberculosis. This bacterial infection can be transmitted from one person to another in close quarters. Main symptoms include coughing for more than 3 weeks, coughing up blood and red phlegm, fever, and night sweats.
  • Congestive heart failure (CHF). This happens when your heart isn’t effectively pumping blood to your body. In addition to pink or red-tinged sputum, you may also experience shortness of breath.
  • Pulmonary embolism. This happens when the pulmonary artery in your lungs becomes blocked. This blockage is often from a blood clot that travels from somewhere else in the body, like your leg. It often causes bloody or blood-streaked sputum. This condition is life threatening and may also cause shortness of breath and chest pain.
  • Lung cancer. This condition causes many respiratory symptoms, including coughing up red-tinged phlegm or even blood.

Contact your doctor if you’re producing more phlegm than normal, having intense coughing spells, or notice other symptoms like weight loss or fatigue.

The consistency of your phlegm can change due to many reasons. The scale ranges from mucoid (frothy) and mucopurulent to purulent (thick and sticky). Your phlegm may get thicker and darker as an infection progresses. It may also be thicker in the morning or if you are dehydrated.

Clear phlegm that’s associated with allergies is generally not as thick or sticky as the green sputum you see with bacterial bronchitis or the black phlegm from a fungal infection.

Moving beyond colors now: Is your phlegm frothy? Another word for this texture is “mucoid.” White and frothy phlegm may be another sign of COPD. A secondary bacterial infection may also occur, which may change the phlegm to yellow or green.

Is it both pink and frothy? This combination may mean you are experiencing congestive heart failure in a late stage. If you have this condition along with extreme shortness of breath, sweating, and chest pain, call your local emergency services immediately.

While phlegm is a normal part of the respiratory system, it’s not normal if it’s affecting your everyday life. It may be time to call your doctor if you notice it in your airways, throat, or if you start coughing it up.

If your sputum is clear, yellow, or green, you may be OK to wait a few days or even weeks before making an appointment. Still keep watch over your other symptoms to see how your illness is progressing.

If you see any shade of red, brown, or black phlegm, or are experiencing frothy sputum, make an appointment right away. This may be a sign of a more serious underlying condition.

It can be difficult to self-diagnose what type of lung issue you’re having. A doctor can perform a variety of tests, including X-rays and sputum analyses, to determine the cause.

If you’re not sure what’s causing the change in color or are experiencing other unusual symptoms, contact your doctor.

There are times when phlegm is a reason to call your doctor right away. Some phlegm-causing conditions respond best to antibiotics, other medications, and breathing treatments. In some cases, surgery may be necessary.

Some of the conditions on this list are viral. That means they don’t respond to antibiotics. Instead, you simply need to eat well, hydrate, and rest to heal.

You can also try measures like:

  • Using a humidifier in your home. Keeping the air moist can help loosen phlegm and allow you to cough it up more easily.
  • Gargling with salt water. Mix a cup of warm water with 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of salt, and gargle to loosen any mucus from allergies or a sinus infection that’s affecting your throat.
  • Using eucalyptus oil. This essential oil works by loosening the mucus in your chest and can be found in products like Vicks VapoRub.
  • Taking over-the-counter expectorants. Medications like guaifenesin (Mucinex) thin your mucus so it flows more freely and you can more easily cough it up. This medication comes in formulations for adults and children.

Phlegm is produced by your respiratory system as protection for your lungs. Unless you have an underlying medical condition, you may not notice your sputum. You may only cough it up if you are sick or develop a chronic lung disease.

If you do cough it up, pay attention to its appearance. If you notice a change in color, consistency, or volume, contact your doctor to make an appointment.

Last medically reviewed on February 7, 2022

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Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population []; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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