Composed of thick, stringy secretions of mucus, usually expelled at high speeds from the mouth, nose, and eyeballs from a window shattering sneeze.

It is considered good etiquette to cover one's mouth when sneezing.

This word is a perfect example of how English is a connotative language. Back in Jane Austen days, it was believed that phlegm was a fluid which gave someone a cold personality, probably because an excess of it stuffs up your nose and makes your voice sound distant and coldl that is, someone who was cold, bitter and cruel was said to have a lot of phlegm. As such, an excess of phlegm slowly came to be called a cold, i.e. a disease in which you cough up a lot of phlegm and sneeze it out and stuff.

Warning – this node contains rather graphic descriptions. Readers who want to know more about phlegm and are subject to queasiness might want to search other places on the web that might treat the topic in a more professional manner.

After being a committed smoker for the past 30 years or so I’ve probably hocked up more than my fair share of phlegm over the years than is necessary. However, after a recent bout with a lower respiratory infection which at first was thought to be pneumonia (later disproved via a chest X-ray) I’m here to confide that what was coming out of my lungs in buckets scared the living shit out of me. I never knew a body could produce that much fluid.

Sorry for that visual.

Our Friend Phlegm

Moving on, way back in the days of Hippocrates it was thought that phlegm was one of the four humours that made up the human form. The other three that completed the foursome were black bile, yellow bile and blood. Back in those days and continuing all the way through the 1800’s it was thought that any illness that might befall an individual was due to one or all of the humours being out of balance. For more on that topic, see the not so ancient practice referred to as Bloodletting.

Phlegm – It’s Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

As I said earlier, during my recent illness I was hacking this stuff up by the bucketful but that was especially true early in the morning. It seemed that once I got started coughing I couldn’t stop until I was almost vomiting. This is because that as I slept that gooey shit was slowly building up in my lungs and couldn’t wait to be expelled.

I know that sounds disgusting but actually the process of producing phlegm is a good thing. It’s a sign that your body’s immune system is firing on all cylinders trying to destroy whatever nasty infection got inside you. What you’re really seeing and hopefully spitting out is a combination of mucous, dead bacteria, white blood cells that have died in the course of duty and other assorted tissues.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Phlegm!

You know when you have a nagging cold and your nostrils are all clogged and you snort that shit into the back of your throat and spit it out? That my friends, is not phlegm. It is phlegm’s distant cousin called mucous. The difference is that mucous is produced and inhabits your nasal cavities while our friend phlegm resides in your lungs.

Phlegm - Should I Spit Or Should I Swallow

This is a no brainer. If at all possible you should not swallow the phlegm that you’ve hocked up. Besides being fucking disgusting all you’re doing is putting that dead shit that I mentioned earlier back into your body. This is not a good thing. Your body does not like having dead shit in it in the first place and especially does not like having recycled dead shit in it. It means it has to work twice as hard to get rid the stuff and will likely cause whatever infection you might have to linger longer than it has to.

Saying Goodbye to Phlegm

Drink, and then, drink some more. This will help loosen up all that gunk and make it easier to get rid of. Before phlegm makes its way into your lungs it hangs out in your throat. By drinking plenty of fluids you’ll move loosen and thin out said gunk and make it easier to expel.

Avoid the temptation to take cough medicine or suppressants. Think about it. Your body is trying its damndest to get rid of that shit and coughing is its natural response. By taking cough medicine or suppressants you’re allowing that shit to build up in your lungs and airways. Actually, you should take something known as an expectorant. Taken in conjunction with the plenty of fluids advice offered up earlier, these will help clear the airways and lungs much faster.

Another no brainer. If you smoke, quit. This is not only good advice for other minor health related matters such as lung cancer caused by smoking but smoking also promotes a host of other bronchial related issues. Also, you might save yourself a few bucks. I think here in the States a pack of smokes goes for about $5.50. If you’re a pack a day person like me, that’s $38.50 a week. That works out to a little over two grand a year. That’s a pretty decent vacation/holiday if you ask me.

If your phlegm starts to change colors it’s time to get your ass to the doctor. Normal phlegm, if there is such a thing, is usually clear and white. Yellow phlegm means you’ve come down with something and your body’s immune system is responding to it. Green phlegm means the infection has found a home and you’ll probably need a some kind of prescription from your doctor to help get rid of it. Brown phlegm, not good. It means that resins within your lungs are sticking to the phlegm when they shouldn’t be.

It goes without saying but if at any time you should start seeing blood in your phlegm get your ass to the doctor post haste.

So there you have it. I hope I haven’t grossed any of you out along the way but since I’m not a doctor I figured some real life examples and the use of layman’s terms would work better.

Now, please excuse me while I go spit this out

Phlegm (?), n. [F. phlegme, flegme, L. phlegma, fr. Gr. a flame, inflammation, phlegm, a morbid, clammy humor in the body, fr. to burn. Cf. Phlox, Flagrant, Flame, Bleak, a., and Fluminate.]


One of the four humors of which the ancients supposed the blood to be composed. See Humor.


2. Physiol.

Viscid mucus secreted in abnormal quantity in the respiratory and digestive passages.

3. Old Chem.

A watery distilled liquor, in distinction from a spirituous liquor.



Sluggishness of temperament; dullness; want of interest; indifference; coldness.

They judge with fury, but they write with phlegm. Pope.


© Webster 1913.

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