Expectoration: What is it? Causes, Characteristics, Diagnosis and Treatment

It is a mucous secretion that arises from the bronchial membrane, it is also usually known as sputum.

This mucus is necessary for cleaning the bronchi , which is why the membrane usually produces between 100 ml and 150 ml per day.

This secretion is usually unconsciously discharged by the body through the windpipe and is made up of water, cells, and mucus.

If the consistency, viscosity, color and amount of this mucus changes suddenly, it can be synonymous with a disease or condition in the respiratory tract or a sudden allergy.

The tone of this discharge can vary from transparent to:

  • Greenish.
  • Purulenta.
  • Yellowish
  • Reddish
  • Brown.

If this secretion tends to maintain a bad odor and is increasingly thick, the affected person should be examined with a doctor to determine if there is presence of blood or pus in the expectoration to indicate the ideal treatment that he needs depending on the disease.

Also the expectoration can be thick or with a reddish or brown hue if the individual is an active smoker. This is usually accompanied by a chronic cough and throat irritation.

Causes of Expectoration

There are various factors that can generate unusual changes in the expectoration. In order to determine these causes, the treating physician must know if the patient is an active or passive smoker and since when has he been under this condition.

Similarly, the doctor should evaluate the hoarseness or possible sore throat, the color, appearance, and consistency of the mucus.

Also diseases such as conical bronchitis, asthma , allergies, fungi, pathogens such as tuberculosis, aspergillosis, actinomycosis or any condition in the airways or lungs can influence the appearance and condition of the discharge.

The change in the fluids of the expectoration can be a sign of the presence of a benign, malignant tumor or cancer in the lungs .


Depending on the condition, the characteristics of the expectoration may vary, including:

  • Chronic bronchitis: the discharge is mucous, glassy, ​​whitish and constant.
  • Bronchial asthma: the discharge becomes greenish or yellowish when the infection appears viscous and in some cases purulent.
  • Cystic fibrosis: Phlegm tends to be greenish and thick in color. This appearance is generated by the presence of an infection.
  • Tuberculosis and actinomycosis: this type of lung condition causes the expectoration to have a brittle, slimy and yellowish appearance.
  • Bronchiectasis: the discharge is excessive, thick and greenish.
  • Hemoptysis: this condition causes the expectoration to contain a thread of blood product of an acute infection and in some cases it can be the beginning of the symptoms of cancer in the lungs.
  • Active smokers: due to its condition, it tends to have a brownish expectoration or in some cases an almost black and very thick tone.

Diagnosis of the Expectoration

The change of the expectoration must be analyzed by a specialist doctor to determine the causes and the condition or disease that the organism possesses.

If the doctor when performing a checkup on a patient coughs with irregular expectoration, he should proceed to medical tests to determine the type of respiratory infection and proceed to indicate the treatment.

In most cases, the sputum is benign when the illness is a viral cold or an allergy.

On the other hand, if the expectoration has a long period with an abnormal color, odor and texture, it can be symptoms of a dangerous or risky disease for the patient’s health such as lung cancer.

To rule out any type of serious condition, the doctor may request:

  • Broncoscopia.
  • Chest X-ray.
  • Bronchoalveolar lavage.
  • Biopsy.


Depending on the condition, the treatment to be followed by the patient is determined.

In some cases, such as bacterial infections in the respiratory tract, it is necessary to take antibiotics, drink plenty of fluids, and keep the body at rest.

On the other hand, if the condition is a common cold, the usual thing is to use medications that expel the phlegm, move away from dust and the cold environment. The expectorants are a relief by reducing the viscosity of the discharge.

If the massive expectoration is due to allergies, it must be fought with drugs that eliminate or control it.

In the case of serious diseases such as lung cancer, treatment with chemotherapies should be followed.

For smokers the recommendation is to stop this habit to reduce the risk of future diseases that can be harmful to health or even fatal.