Good Samaritan Hospital
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What does it mean when you cough up phlegm?

Phlegm is a sort of mucus that most people don’t notice too often. Usually, a person will only cough up phlegm when he or she is ill. Although a phlegmy cough usually is not a situation that requires emergency care, it can be distressing to experience this problem. When you watch this featured video, you’ll hear a doctor at Good Samaritan Hospital explain some of the common causes of phlegm. He also discusses when it’s a good idea to visit the hospital to talk to your doctor.

The colors of phlegm

Only your doctor can accurately diagnose the cause of your phlegmy cough, but the color of the sputum may give you some clues. White phlegm, for example, may be caused by viral bronchitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Green or yellowish phlegm might be caused by:

  • Bacterial bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Sinus infections
  • Cystic fibrosis

Black phlegm can be particularly distressing for patients to see on a tissue. It can be caused by:

  • Smoking
  • Coal dust inhalation
  • Pneumoconiosis (black lung disease)
  • Fungal infection (uncommon)

The right time to see a doctor

Your primary care doctor is a trusted source of medical information and advice. He or she genuinely wants to help you enjoy good health, but you’ll have to take the first step by making an appointment. Even if your phlegmy cough turns out to be inconsequential, talking to your doctor about this issue can give you peace of mind.

Every patient has unique health needs, but in general, you may wish to consider seeing your doctor if:

  • Your phlegmy cough doesn’t go away
  • Your symptoms seem unusual to you
  • You experience other troublesome symptoms along with the cough
  • You have a compromised immune system
  • You have a history of lung cancer or other lung diseases

The emergency care physicians at Good Samaritan Hospital are firmly committed to providing all of our patients the superior, compassionate care they deserve. Whether you have a minor medical emergency or a serious condition, we’re here to provide sound medical guidance within a supportive setting. You can speak with a registered nurse at our hospital in San Jose by calling (888) 724-2362.


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