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Does the Color of Mucus Really Matter?

It is that time of year and everyone seems to have a cold, including me!! I am actually “on” my second cold of the month, so I am feeling like...

It is that time of year and everyone seems to have a cold, including me!! I am actually “on” my second cold of the month, so I am feeling like a toddler who gets sick every two to three weeks.  

This is really a good time to talk about mucus. I wonder how many people will keep reading now? But I do get lots of questions and comments from parents who are worried about the color of their child’s mucus. Runny noses and mucus color are discussed as often as color of poop. And just like poop, the color of your nasal mucus is usually not terribly significant. 

If you happen to have a cold yourself, you probably notice that your nasal discharge changes throughout the day, that is unless you are a teenager, and they swear they never look at mucus or stool color!! I think we notice “green snotty noses” among children between the ages of six months and four years, when they typically don’t blow their noses and many times the mucus is either wiped off of their face or they wipe it themselves on their shirt sleeve, (which then leaves a telltale sign of the color of the mucus). Once a child can blow their nose and dispose of the Kleenex, the color of the mucus does not seem to be a hot topic of discussion.

So, what does color of mucus mean? When you have a cold, the nasal discharge associated with that viral infection typically begins as a clear discharge, that changes over several days into a thicker and more purulent (green) discharge. The color may be due to the white cells that are in the mucus that are producing antibodies to fight the cold. 

As a cold progresses the green mucus then changes back into a more clear discharge and eventually goes away, but that is usually after a seven to 10 day course. It is also common to see thicker “booggers” in the nose in the morning or after your child’s nap as the dry air they are breathing makes the mucus thicker and they are not wiping or blowing their noses so the mucus is thicker. Same for us, we also usually have thicker greener nasal discharge in the morning, while the “snot’ has been sitting overnight. The best way to clear out any color mucus is by using saline nasal irrigation. It works great for all ages. By clearing the nasal passages, it will prevent a secondary bacterial infection which and cause a sinus infection.   

Most doctors use length of time of nasal discharge as more indicative of an infection than color of mucus. Typically in a pediatric patient an antibiotic for a “presumed” sinus infection is not even considered until a child has had over 14 days of a “gunky” green nasal discharge. Remember too, that the nose can clear up and the cold can go away, only to be followed in another week or two by another cold. It is the season. With that being said I am off to blow my nose again and wash my hands! 

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.

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About Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award winning pediatrician and medical editor for www.kidsdr.com.  She is a native of Washington, D.C. who travelled south to attend the University of Texas at Austin and never left.Read More

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