What Does It Mean When I Have Green or Yellow Mucus?

Sick woman blowing her nose.
Sick woman blowing her nose. Tom Merton/OJO Images/Getty Images

Many people believe that the color of your mucus is an indicator of how sick you are. If it's clear, then it's just a cold but if it turns yellow or green then you need antibiotics. Surprise! This is all wrong. 

Trying to determine what type of infection you have based on the color of mucus is not effective or accurate. Both viral and bacterial infections can cause mucus to change color, so just because your nose is full of yellow or green stuff doesn't mean you need an antibiotic.

 

Why Does the Mucus Change Color?

Typically when you or your child has a cold, mucus starts out clear. When germs get into your body and make you sick, one of the first ways your body works to fight the infection is by creating extra mucus to try to flush out the virus. 

A few days later your immune cells may be activated and turn the mucus to white or yellow. If bacteria is mixed in with the mucus, it could turn green. However, this doesn't mean you need antibiotics. Bacteria is present in our bodies all the time but that doesn't mean it is making us sick or that we need antibiotics to get better

When Should You Be Concerned?

If you have symptoms that persist for more than two weeks or if you start to feel better but then get sick again, usually with a higher fever and cough, you should contact your health care provider. These are signs that you have developed a secondary infection and you may need additional treatment.

You don't need to rush to the doctor as soon as your mucus turns yellow or green, but if it doesn't get better after two weeks and you have pain and pressure in your sinuses and face, you may have a sinus infection that needs to be treated. Many sinus infections go away on their own without antibiotics but some do require treatment.

Your health care provider can determine what medicine is best to help relieve your symptoms and will prescribe antibiotics if they are necessary. 

What You Can Do

If you (or your child) don't need antibiotics for your illness or your mucus has just changed color and you don't need to see your doctor, you can take steps to relieve your runny nose and congestion just like you would if it was clear. 

Saline spray or nasal rinses can help clear the mucus out of your sinuses. If you have a young child that cannot blow his nose, using saline drops and a bulb syringe to suction mucus out of his nose will help him breathe easier. Using a cool mist humidifier at night and drinking plenty of clear fluids will also help. 

If you aren't sure what to do, contact your health care provider to get recommendations for your specific situation. 

Sources:

"One Page Sheet: Runny Nose Q&As". Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work 17 Apr 15. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. Department of Health and Human Services. 30 Mar 16. 

"Caring for a Child With a Viral Infection". Healthychildren.org 21 Nov 15. American Academy of Pediatrics. 30 Mar 16. 

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