Mucus is not something any of us enjoys having. It is the slimy, sticky substance that accumulates in the nasal cavities and sinuses when we have a variety of sinus infections or colds. In fact, it is part of how the body is helped when it is fighting off infections, as mucus helps keep the throat and nasal passages moist, while blocking further irritants from entering. But though it can be partly helpful, it can also become thick and gloopy, and this can lead to a clogging of the airways when allergies, colds, or sinus infections are present.
What Causes Mucus Buildup?
There are multiple causes of mucus build-up, but below we outline those linked to most cases of heavy mucus.
These can be a surprisingly frequent cause of mucus. Especially in the summer, when we don’t expect colds, we may still be heavy with mucus, and we can fail to see that it may actually be due to hayfever or some reaction to the season’s particular allergens. Mucus suffering in the summer is likely linked to pollen and our body dealing with the irritant effect of pollen in the airwaves.
The so-called common cold is the most likely cause of mucus for most people. Usually when we have mucus, we are also suffering from a cold. Most colds eventually go, but they tend to last longer than we wish, and some last up to fourteen days. Additional symptoms include a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, and fever. Below, we look at how to cure a cold and get rid of mucus.
A common cause of a sinus infection is a build-up of mucus in the sinus cavities, leading to congestion and inflammation. To clear the sinuses you ultimately need to reduce the mucus inside them. Below, we explain how best to do so.
Though a rarer cause of mucus, this is nonetheless something to be aware of. Asthma is a chronic lung disease that can cause inflammation, swelling, and narrowing of the airways.
To help reduce mucus production caused by asthma, it’s extremely important to manage your symptoms through lifestyle changes and medications like inhalers. Additionally, if you are an asthma sufferer and want to limit bouts of excess mucus, take care to avoid triggers like pollen, smoke, and dust.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Though also a rarer cause of mucus, many people often forget to consider Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It occurs when stomach acid flows back up into the esophagus, causing a wide range of uncomfortable symptoms, including heartburn, chest pain, dry cough, sore throat, hoarseness, difficulty breathing, and an acid or sour taste in the mouth.
Natural Ways to Reduce Mucus
Drinking plenty of fluids
The benefit of drinking plenty of fluids when you are unwell is that it helps to thin out the mucus in your sinuses, making it easier to blow your nose or cough out the mucus and sinus gunk. It can therefore reduce the duration and severity of your suffering. There is no doubt that drinking plenty of fluids and good hydration helps in the fight against any mucus build-up, so do not think of this as an optional approach. It is necessary, as the hydration works to dilute the mucus and breaks up the feelings of heaviness in your head.
However, it really matters what you drink. Make sure most of what you drink is either water; low sugar teas, such as camomile, hibiscus or lemon; green teas; and modest amounts of fresh fruit juice. High sugar and high caffeine energy drinks are not going to optimize your recovery.
Eating spicy foods
It may sound counterintuitive, but spicy foods can for some people be a friend when it comes rto mucus dilution.
This is because spicy foods stimulate the body’s natural production of mucus, so it can make it easier for your body to flush out any excess. Something as simple as adding a few peppers or some spicy seasonings to your meals can boost your body’s ability to clear mucus.
Having said that, take a gradualist approach to this. Do not suddenly overload your body and sinuses, as this can be counterproductive, as the body might produce too much mucus in response. Remember, too, to hydrate as you eat any spiced foods, as this will also help in mucus dilution.
Inhaling moist air
Steam inhalation is perhaps the most well-known of all anti-mucus home remedies, and it is often highly effective for those suffering from mucus. Steam inhalation helps to loosen the mucus that has built up in your sinuses and ease any associated sinus pressure. You can either use a facial steamer or just boil a pot of water and then lean over the pot breathing in the steam. Make sure to keep your head at least 10-12 inches away from the hot water so you don’t burn yourself, and remember that you do not really need to use very hot water. The nose will be stimulated to release mucus with even a relatively mild heat.
Alternatively, simply have a warm hot shower a couple of times a day, and ideally just before bedtime. You can also use an inhaler like a humidifier or saline solution to help break up mucus secretion.
Gargling with salt water
Gargling with salt water is a popular and effective remedy because the salt content in the water helps to reduce swelling in the throat and reduce inflammation. This, in turn, thins out mucus, which makes it easier to expel. Another benefit is that salt’s antibacterial properties keep the throat clean and reduce any infection-causing bacteria. But the most essential factor is that the warm water helps to loosen up any mucus that’s stuck to the back of your throat.
Taking a steamy shower
As we said above, a steamy shower can play its part in being part of the suite of approaches you take to ensuring your nasal passages remain moist. Steam improves mucociliary clearance, as it opens up your nasal passages and loosens phlegm. In addition, of course, to helping clear up mucus, a hot shower can also be relaxing in ways that restore the body’s calm, which is so useful when we feel sub-par.
Applying a warm compress to your face
This is an old remedy, but a highly effective one. It is also very simple and can be done anywhere. Simply find a clean towel or face cloth and soak it in warm water. Don’t make it too hot; it needs only to be warm, as the nose will respond to even modest changes in temperature. Apply it over your nose and forehead for around ten minutes, and you will stimulate the movement of mucus in your sinuses.
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Remedies
Saline nasal sprays
A saline spray is simply a saltwater solution that helps rinse the sinuses. It helps to clear out congestion and decrease inflammation, as the saline thins mucus so that it can be cleared more easily through blowing your nose. Because the saline spray is a natural and gentle solution, it’s safe for regular use. It can be purchased over the counter or you can easily make it yourself at home. To do so, mix a teaspoon of salt with a cup of warm water and use a dropper to scoosh the solution into each nostril. You may need to angle your head to stop the water flowing out, of course, but this is a genuinely useful way of fighting back against any mucus blockages. It works well because the salt helps to draw out excess fluid from the congestion in your sinuses, which helps reduce inflammation and ultimately gives you some relief from the mucus.
Decongestants are meds with which we are all familiar, but we may not know precisely how they work. In effect, they are successful in the battle against mucus because they are vasoconstrictors, which means they reduce swelling in the nasal cavities. This can therefore help to reduce the pressure caused by the mucus and allow it to flow more clearly away. On top of that, some decongestants can also provide relief from itching, sneezing, and other allergy-related symptoms that can be connected to a build-up of mucus in the sinuses.
There is a huge variety of decongestants on the market, almost all of them available as OTC medicines. Talk to a pharmacist to determine the one that will be the most efficacious for your particular ailments and the stage of your progress in treating the mucus.
Nasal irrigation kits
Nasal irrigation kits, sometimes also known as neti pots, can also be an effective way of treating mucus. As with a saline spray, they allow you to flush away mucus and provide relief from any associated congestion. By irrigating your sinuses with a saline solution, mucus is loosened and any excess is able to be flushed out. With regular use, they can lessen your susceptibility to bouts of mucus excess.
Antihistamines work by blocking the release of histamines, which leads to a decrease in mucus production. They come in oral or nasal sprays, or can be applied topically as drops or ointments. Some commonly available antihistamines include loratadine, cetirizine and diphenhydramine. Though it can be tempting to think they are all the same, in fact some work better for some people than others, so you may need to try the different types until you find the one that is most effective for you personally. They are also not always the same price, so check that out too.
They are generally well tolerated and have few side effects, though you may experience drowsiness or an occasional dry mouth. By themselves, they may not necessarily rid you of mucus entirely, but they are very likely to lower the amount of mucus you produce.
Most decongestants do not require a prescription, and we outlined above the ways they work. But if OTC decongestants fail to make a difference to your mucus production, you may be prescribed something stronger by your doctor. Obviously, that will require taking their advice. Be aware that not many people require a prescription treatment to alleviate their mucus, so try the other approaches first.
As we know, reducing inflammation when you have a lot of mucus is important. Corticosteroid nasal sprays do just that and help clear blocked nasal passages and deal with the wide range of symptoms you might be suffering from due to mucus build-up and blockages. They are designed to reduce thick mucus, making it easier to breathe. Though most people use traditional decongestants, many people find nasal steroids more effective due to their increased strength.
Generally, corticosteroid sprays are safe for short-term use in treating any nose-based ailments. However, prolonged use can have some side effects, as with all steroidal treatments, so make sure to use them only for a short period of time.
Mucolytics may not be a word that trips off the tongue, but in fact they are important to know about when you are suffering from mucus based blockages in your sinuses. These are medications that make thick mucus thinner, which assists the body in coughing up mucus or passing it through your nose. As with forms of steroid sprays or decongestants, they work by breaking down molecules in the mucus, which allows it to flow more freely. Some common mucolytics include guaifenesin or N-acetylcysteine, and all of these are only available through prescription, so your doctor will need to sanction their use for you and determine whether any of them is appropriate.
These can be a good way to assist in the dilution of mucus. They work by interfering with the body’s reactions to allergens and various external stimuli that can cause mucus production, headaches, sneezing and a general feeling of irritation in your nose. They work on inflammation and therefore reduce the feeling of mucosal blockage in your sinuses and throat.
Ask your pharmacist for advice here. In reality, most antihistamines – discussed above – will work against many common allergic reactions, so check these OTC antihistamines out. Remember, however, that there are different types, so take advice.
Other Tips for Managing Mucus
Avoiding irritants such as smoke, strong smells, and air pollution
Mucus can be a reaction to poor air quality. It’s therefore important to reduce your exposure to allergens and irritants in the air. In fact, there are more common irritants that stimulate mucus production than you may realize. Common mucosal irritants include smoke, dust, pet food and straw, animals, mold in a damp room, and also chemical fumes from cleaning products. These can all be things we fail to register as possible causes of mucus production, so take care to audit your daily life to see how much contact you come into with them.
Taking regular breaks when engaged in activities that cause mouth breathing, such as exercising
Not many people are aware of this, but in fact exercise can lead to mucus production. This is because breathing heavily through your mouth, as we sometimes do when exercising, can cause the production of excess mucus. Taking breaks gives your body a chance to recover and rest and shift to nasal breathing, which is better for controlling mucus production. In addition, and very importantly, it also gives you a chance to hydrate as you exercise, which helps to counteract the effects.
Using a humidifier to keep your airways moist
There is significant evidence that adding moisture to the air can help thin mucus and reduce the potency of any sinus issues you are having. One way is to use a humidifier or vaporizer, and by running it in your bedroom while you sleep you potentially aid your recovery overnight. This is because you are adding extra moisture to the air throughout the night, allowing you to breathe more easily. When you breathe in air through a humidifier, the air is moist and this helps to loosen and thin out mucus, making it easier for the body to expel it.
Avoiding mucus-producing food and drinks, such as dairy and sugar
This is often a surprise to people, but it is worth being aware that, for many people, eating dairy products or high sugar foods while suffering from a build-up of mucus will likely exacerbate your condition. This is because dairy products have been proven to increase mucus production, resulting in congestion and that mucus-heavy feeling you’re trying to lighten. Processed foods also contain lots of preservatives and sugar, all of which damage your recovery. They also contain very high and dehydrating levels of sodium, which is not what you want when you are fighting off mucus infections. High sugar levels also cause inflammation in your sinuses, which then makes it harder for mucus to exit the body.