Brown Mucus: Causes & Symptoms of Coughing Up Brown Sputum

Sputum when coughing or coughing up phlegm refers to the respiratory tract secretion mixed with saliva (tracheobronchial secretion or secretion). This secretion is formed in the trachea and in the bronchi. The sputum can take on different colors, including a brown discoloration. The causes of brown mucus vary. Depending on the cause, brown mucus may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, or sore throat.

  • Coughing up mucus
  • Sputum is coughed up mucus
  • Goblet cells
  • Ciliated epithelium
  • Coughing up mucus
  • Causes of brown sputum
  • Brown mucus in smoker’s cough
  • Self-cleaning system of the lungs
  • An accumulation of bronchial mucus at night
  • Brown sputum as a symptom of COPD
  • Rusty brown sputum as a symptom of pneumonia
  • Coughing up brown mucus in acute bronchitis
  • Consult your doctor if you cough up brown sputum


Coughing up mucus

Sputum is coughed up mucus

Sputum refers to coughed up mucus that comes from the deeper airways. This is called a productive cough; that is a cough in which mucus is coughed up. Unlike saliva, which is produced in the mouth, mucus is produced exclusively in the lungs.

Goblet cells

To better understand how mucus is formed, you need to look at the airways under a microscope. Your lungs have a huge surface area that needs to be protected from external pathogens. The body has various cells for this purpose, such as goblet cells, which are located in the wall of the airways and constantly produce mucus. Bacteria and pollutants get into this slime, like in a sticky fly trap.

Ciliated epithelium

To prevent these potentially dangerous substances from entering the lungs, the airways are lined with what is known as a ciliated epithelium. This transports the mucus upwards with the help of small extensions, the cilia, until the mucus from the respiratory tract reaches the esophagus.

Coughing up mucus

There are two possible routes for the mucus out of the esophagus. Either it ends up in the stomach and is rendered harmless by the stomach acid, or the bronchial mucus is coughed up. Then it is called sputum. In various diseases in which the production of mucus is significantly increased, the body fails to break down all the mucus through the stomach acid. For this reason, it accumulates in the respiratory tract and we have to cough up the mucus produced. The entire process is known as mucociliary clearance, or removal of mucus via cilia.

Causes of brown sputum

The reason for brown spots in the sputum or completely brown mucus is usually old blood. Smokers are more likely to have brown sputum. The color may be caused by the ingredients in the inhaled smoke. There are also many other possible causes of brown mucus, such as COPD, pneumonia or acute bronchitis. Certain foods, such as chocolate, coffee and red wine, can also temporarily cause brown mucus.

Brown mucus in smoker’s cough

Self-cleaning system of the lungs

A smoker’s cough is often accompanied by brown sputum. This occurs during the self-cleaning work of the lungs: the bronchi protect themselves from the pollutants entering through cigarette or cigar smoke through increased mucus formation. Normally, small, so-called cilia in the bronchi are responsible for transporting this mucus to the throat, where it is then swallowed.

An accumulation of bronchial mucus at night

However, if these cilia are constantly exposed to smoke and increased mucus formation, they stick together and can no longer perform their cleaning duties properly. To get rid of the mucus, the body resorts to coughing up this secretion: the result is a cough with thick mucus. Because the airways can do their cleaning work undisturbed and unhindered by smoking at night, a lot of mucus accumulates at night. In addition, the cilia generally work more slowly at night, which further promotes the further accumulation of bronchial mucus in the lungs at night. This is why the sometimes strong coughing attacks mainly occur in the morning.

Brown sputum as a symptom of COPD

If brown mucus occurs with a smoker’s cough, this is a sign that the bronchi are already heavily contaminated by cigarette smoke. As the cough progresses, it can develop into chronic bronchitis or what is known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In addition to chronic coughing with sputum, it is manifested by shortness of breath, noisy breathing and fatigue.

Quit smoking / Source: Serhiy Kobyakov/

The best therapy for that morning cough with brown sputum is to quit smoking. However, after quitting smoking, the cough and sputum usually do not go away immediately, instead the cough may initially get worse. The reason for this is that the cilia regenerate again and then start to clean up with new vigor. However, after about four weeks the cough should subside, otherwise a doctor’s visit is recommended.

Rusty brown sputum as a symptom of pneumonia

If the sputum is rusty brown, it may be bloody sputum. This may be a sign of pneumonia and should be examined by a doctor as soon as possible. Other typical symptoms of pneumonia are fever, general malaise and shortness of breath.
If you have bacterial pneumonia, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics. If you have viral pneumonia, antibiotics will not help. It is recommended to rest a lot, drink plenty of fluids and take medication against fever. Paracetamo l is the safest drug to use for fever.

Coughing up brown mucus in acute bronchitis

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchi. Most often, viruses cause bronchitis. The main symptoms of bronchitis are coughing, a strong urge to cough, increased mucus formation and thick sputum. Acute bronchitis often heals without specific treatment. Symptoms can be relieved with the help of expectorants.
The main symptom of acute bronchitis is a persistent cough. Initially, irritation of the bronchial mucosa leads to a dry cough without sputum (non-productive cough). However, after a few days the airways begin to produce a lot of mucus and a productive cough with thick sputum develops.
As the disease progresses, it becomes easier to cough up the phlegm and the cough gradually resolves. In the majority of those affected, the cough lasts about two weeks, but in a third of those affected it lasts longer than three weeks.
Since bronchitis is usually accompanied by an upper respiratory infection (cold, flu), symptoms such as sore throat, hoarseness or runny nose usually occur during the illness. Common complaints include headaches, body aches or muscle aches, as well as fatigue, exhaustion or weakness.
Some people also get a fever. In rare cases, chest pain occurs, usually in connection with severe, prolonged coughing attacks or a simultaneous occurrence of pleurisy, an inflammation of the pleura or the lining of the lungs.

Consult your doctor if you have brown mucus / Source: Michaeljung/

Consult your doctor if you cough up brown sputum

Brown sputum is always a matter for the doctor. Many smokers tend to ignore the problem and dismiss it as a ‘normal’ phenomenon of smoking. But COPD is a serious disease: the body no longer receives enough oxygen and the condition quickly deteriorates. All this promotes secondary diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, heart failure, arrhythmias and heart attacks.
If the sputum is bloody or rusty brown, a doctor should be consulted immediately.

read more

  • Mucus: clear, white, yellow, green, black, gray, or red sputum
  • Coughing up yellow or green mucus: causes and what to do?
  • Coughing up phlegm: a lot of phlegm in the throat and coughing with phlegm
  • Coughing up phlegm: Coughing up white, yellow, gray, red sputum
  • Snot: function, composition and colors of nasal discharge
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