Key Learning Points
Before going into what phlegm colour means, phlegm is a major syndrome in Chinese medicine.
You can read more about it here, explaining why it can be such a nuisance.
I’ve also written a book about it: see my YouTube video for more:
What does your phlegm colour say about your health? And what does this mean from the point of view of Chinese medicine?
More important, what does Chinese medicine suggest you do about it?
I hope you’ll find this page useful, but if you want more information, a lot more!, I’ve written a book “Yuck! Phlegm!” about the best ways to deal with each kind of it, including an analysis of many of the different suggestions made elsewhere on the web: what works and what won’t work – and why it won’t work.
Your organic bodily fluids are vital for your health, in Chinese as much as Western medicine. These fluids are the oil that keeps your body moving smoothly. They moisturise it, inside and out, they cool it, they carry nutrients to it and waste away from it.
Where are they made? According to Chinese medicine, they arise from your Stomach and Spleen energies working on what you eat and drink (not really so different to Western medicine!).
How they are filtered, purified and separated comes under other energy organs (zang-fu is the correct term), but they start with your Stomach and Spleen.
So what you put down your throat is your first step, for better or worse. As they say, ‘food is your first medicine’.
In Chinese medicine, you can sometimes alter the colour of your phlegm by eating different foods, if you go on for long enough. I don’t mean that if eating something purple, like beetroot, you clear your throat and inspect the phlegm to find it’s purple. I mean that foods have energetic effects – which means some foods have a cold energy and some have a hot energy.
Heat and Cold affect your health by ‘invading’ you! Specifically, they enter by overcoming your body’s defences. In reaction, your body produces symptoms, which are its way of dealing with the problem.
They demonstrate where your body has put the problem: in particular, how far away from your vital ‘core’ it is maintaining the ‘dis-ease’.
Those symptoms are described in Chinese medicine according to a well-developed theory which goes back at least 3000 years.
Acute reactions often come in one of two forms:
Your body has a whole set of genetic or inherited templates to use when confronted by different diseases. They give it a huge range of solutions. Your symptoms show how your body is using its resources the best way it knows how.
Modern medicine has ways to ease the pain of these genetically inherited solutions, but if you read my page on Suppression, you’ll understand perhaps why sometimes you are better off allowing your body to deal with the problem its own way.
For example, if your body can clear the disease its own way, you don’t usually get stuck with what is called a ‘remaining pathogenic factor‘ which often follows the use of modern medicines like antibiotics.
Anyway, diseases (ie, your body’s best responses) can change your phlegm colour.
These diseases can be acute or chronic. Chronic means that your body has given up trying to expel the disease (an acute reaction being its first line of defence), and has been forced to allow the disease to penetrate inwards to a deeper level where, with luck, it can ‘hold’ it.
But … this means it (ie you!) has to learn to live with it.
Acute diseases last a few days or, at most, weeks. Chronic diseases can last as long as you do, in theory, unless you get help and/or make a huge change in your life.
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Where your phlegm appears from makes a difference.
The more energy your body puts into defending itself, the more ‘vital’ will be your symptoms, including your phlegm colour.
‘Vital’ means full of life, which in the case of phlegm colour means vibrant, not perhaps an adjective you’d use normally but
The less energy it has to put into defending itself, or the more chronic its condition, the less coloured will be the phlegm:
The longer it has been cooking it, the darker will be the phlegm colour. So brown, even black, suggests a more chronic condition.
That brown or black phlegm might have been any colour before it cooked. However, just as when you leave a stew cooking on the hob for too long and find charcoal when your return to it, so has your body been cooking your mucus!
Brown or black is not a healthy phlegm colour.
Do remember that what you have recently eaten may colour your phlegm: this discolouration soon disappears, however. It is harmless.
Darker phlegm colours mean that your body has had phlegm for some time. It is trying to clear it with heat, but, just as charcoal in your saucepan stuck to the bottom of the pan can’t be shifted by applying extra heat, so also with your body. Your body can only clear this black stuff by hawking it up and out. It’s hard to shift. Probably some remains.
Phlegm Colour is one thing. What the phlegm looks like is another!
The denser the phlegm, either the greater the Heat applied to it, or the longer it has cooked.
Just like on your stove, if you turn up the heat on a soup you are making, it will become thicker. Or you could put it on low, forget about it, and then be reminded only too late by the smell of burning, at which point the fluids have boiled away, leaving just solids, which quickly carbonise.
So, thick lumpy or stringy phlegm has been cooking for longer.
This is a sign of Cold. What does this mean? One or more of the following might apply:
If you always have mucus that is clear and watery, ie chronic:
White phlegm and sputum (especially if sticky) suggests not that you have great Yang deficiency, but that your Spleen and Stomach Qi are deficient. This produces, together with Kidney Yang deficiency, a condition called Cold-Phlegm’
White mucus is typically coughed or hawked up or appears in your nose.
White mucus or phlegm colour appears
You can help yourself by
White mucus is a step towards other forms of phlegm. It easily obstructs normal bodily processes and can become heated, leading to more highly coloured forms of phlegm (for example, yellow or green) with the additional problems they bring.
Try to clear white mucus before it changes to something worse!
The phlegm colour yellow indicates Heat. It might be a lot of heat, or only a little. The thicker, more sticky, more colourful, stronger-tasting or more smelly it is, the more heat.
Where has this heat come from?
What kind of internal syndrome?
‘Purulent’ phlegm colour means containing pus. This may be yellow or yellow-green. The pus might contain blood, making it red.
Purulent phlegm colour is a step further down the scale from cold to hot, and indicates – if from the lungs – ‘Lungs Toxic Heat’.
Green phlegm colour is usually a warmer version of yellow phlegm.
But not always:it could just be older. It depends on the vibrancy of the colour. The more vibrant the colour the more it suggests Heat and an active Phlegm-Heat or Damp-Heat syndrome. By ‘active’ I mean developing, growing, like the ivy in the picture above. For example:
Or both, as may occur, for example, in end-stage tuberculosis.