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Coughing Up Black Stuff: What You Need to Know

Updated on August 10, 2016
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Trained in dentistry, Sree is currently pursuing lab sciences. She loves researching and sharing information on various health topics.

The presence of mucus in your throat plays an essential role in your health. It provides your respiratory system with the moisture that it needs. Think of your body as a machine. Then think of the mucus as the oil in the machine. Its presence is necessary for the engine to run smoothly. More than that, the secretions in your throat make sure that the area maintains the elasticity needed for normal contraction and expansion during breathing. The mucus also serves as a protective sheath which helps prevent irritation and inflammation as well as bacterial and viral invasion and infection. Furthermore, the mucus contains useful enzymes which assist your body in battling against the onset of illness. Needless to say, there's absolutely nothing to fear about the manifestation of mucus. That is, unless you've been coughing up black stuff or expelling pinkish, reddish, or brownish sputum.

What you need to understand is that the normalcy of your state of health depends greatly on the color of the mucus rather than its presence. Like everyone else, you're likely to have experienced observing at least two different colors of secretions when you cough. The normal color of sputum should be clear. Its composition consists mostly of water and liquefied salts. It's also made up of proteins which create an inhospitable environment to invaders. Additionally, it contains antibodies which detect foreign substances. Its consistency is normally viscous, designed so that it can trap things. It can be likened to a flytrap which catches foreign and potentially harmful pests before they invade your home which is your body.

Mucus is manufactured by the nasal tissues all throughout the day and the bulk of it ends up flowing down your throat and then brought to your stomach to be dissolved. If you cough up secretions which are other than clear, then this is suggestive of on ongoing disturbance in your normal bodily balance. The problem can range from mild to severe. View the table below to differentiate between the various types of mucus with regard to color and what they mean for your state of health.

Coughing Up Black Stuff: What You Need to Know
Coughing Up Black Stuff: What You Need to Know | Source
Color
Meaning
Why
The Best
The Worst
Clear
Normal
 
 
 
White
Congestion
Inflamed tissues slows flow of secretions making mucus thick and cloudy
Common cold symptom, Allergies
Asthma, Viral respiratory tract infection, Pulmonary edema, GERD
Yellow
Normal immune function for colds/infection
WBC run toward area of infection. After being used up, they’re taken away by the mucosal tide, thus causing the mucus’s yellowish tinge.
Common cold in progress
If thick and dark yellow, possible acute bacterial infection like pneumonia or bronchitis, Needing immediate medical attention
Green
Chronic infection
Neutrophils broken down leading to the release of enzymes which affects color
Conditions may be inflammatory but not infectious
If with pus, possible pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, bronchiectasis, lung abscess, cystic fibrosis
Reddish or Pinkish
Blood
Tissue injury
May have occurred due to irritation or dryness Presence of small foreign body
Tuberculosis, Lung trauma, Lung cancer, Pulmonary embolism, Lunch abscess, Tropical eosinophilia, Requires immediate medical attention
Black or Brown
Old blood; Discoloration may only be due to inhaled/ingested items
RBC breakdown
May be caused by brown/black colored beverages or food (ex. chocolate, coffee); Inhaled foreign object like dirt or spices
Chronic smoking; Chronic pneumonia; Lung cancer; Tuberculosis; Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis

What most people don't realize is that the culprit for coughing fits isn't the mucus itself. Rather, the cough is caused by the inflammation and the irritation occurring in the respiratory system, the very things that the mucus is helping to prevent. Coughing up mucus is your body's way of ejecting the bad stuff like bacteria and viruses each time you are suffering from an illness like bronchitis or influenza. In other words, it's your body's natural defensive mechanism implemented by forcing out things which shouldn't even be inside you in the first place. To find yourself coughing up black stuff can be a terrifying experience but before you self-diagnose, calm down and explore other possible explanations as to why your snot seems darker than usual.

Possible Reasons You’re Coughing Up Black Stuff

You've ingested dark foods or drinks: Before you start panicking about what might or might not be ancient blood in your sputum, think back of the food items and beverages you've consumed over the past 24 hours. After all, it could be just licorice or chocolate or coffee.

You've inhaled some dirt and dust: What have you been doing in the past few hours? Perhaps you've been cleaning your attic. Or maybe your job exposes you to a great deal of dirt. Tiny dirt particles can cling to the viscous mucus and therefore stain its color. What's more, dirt and dust can potentially cause irritation in the airways leading you to experience coughing fits with black-tinged mucus. After staying in dusty places for a certain period, coughing up black-colored secretions means that your body is just doing its job to prevent you from getting ill.

You're a heavy smoker: Moderate smokers may experience coughing up yellowish or brownish sputum. However, heavy cigarette smokers can cough up blackish phlegm.

A chronic smoker's lungs are jammed with tar, aluminum, and other toxins. Note that tobacco serves as a bronchial constrictor. Each time you smoke tobacco, the terminal bronchioles become tightened, therefore trapping the tar in the tissues where it discolors the mucus. Eventually, you cough it up.

The black sputum may also be a symptom related to an undiagnosed disease caused by your smoking habit. This includes cancer and emphysema where the black color of the secretions is indicative of the presence of blood.

You smoke weed: Coughing up black phlegm may also be experienced by individuals who smoke marijuana or use cocaine. However, compared to tobacco, cannabis has an opposite effect on your lungs. Marijuana dilates your bronchioles. Instead of closing up the pathways in your lungs, the chemicals found in the drug open them up. This is why you may experience coughing up black mucus almost immediately after you smoke weed.

You don't happen to work at a coal mine, do you? Individuals who have jobs which constantly expose them to smoke and dust commonly experience changes in the color of their mucus. Such careers include coal mining, beryllium mining, and firefighting. Even so, this isn't something to be taken lightly. Remember that coughing up black stuff can be a symptom of respiratory problems. Such jobs also predispose workers to what is called the Black Lung Disease.

You've contracted a serious bacterial respiratory infection: This ranges from chronic tuberculosis to chronic pneumonia. Even sinusitis can cause you to produce blackened phlegm.

You've contracted a fungal infection: There are two types of infections caused by fungi which can also cause your phlegm to blacken. One is known as Aspergillosis. The other is Mucormycosis which is common in diabetics and patients with HIV. These fungi are usually found in decomposing plants.

Another possibility is the development of pneumonia which was brought about by a dark-pigmented species of fungi. Such condition is referred to as Exophiala Pneumonia. This usually affects individuals who are immunocompromised such as those who are suffering from malnutrition, pregnant women, the elderly, HIV and cancer patients, people with chronic diseases, those on chemotherapy, and persons taking steroids and other immunosuppressive drugs.

You've accidentally stuck something in your mouth or your nose: This usually applies to children but adults have their weird and awkward moments too. It could be that you've unintentionally snorted some paprika or that you've unwittingly swallowed a fly. Kids can easily swallow small toys.

Tiny foreign bodies can lodge into the nooks and crannies in your respiratory passages and do their damage there, from eroding the mucus lining to causing infection. The destruction of the mucus lining discolors the mucus. Meanwhile, the resulting infection ends up with black mucus among other secretions.

how do you stop yourself from coughing up black sputum?
how do you stop yourself from coughing up black sputum? | Source

But What if it isn't just your sputum that's turned black?

Two of the most definitive symptoms of Black Lung Disease are coughing up black stuff and difficulty in breathing. The disease gets its name from the fact that the lungs appear black instead of the usual pink. It is more formally referred to as Coal Workers' Pneumoconiosis or CWP. They are categorized to simple and complicated types. People who are most susceptible to this disease are those working in coal mines and workers who load coal for stowage. This disease also affects individuals who mine or mill graphite and manufacture carbon black which are used in making tires and other rubber products.

The thing about coal dust within the lungs is that it is not easily expelled from or destroyed by the body. In an attempt to protect the body, the foreign substance is swallowed by the interstitial macrophages (white blood cells). The combination results to a coal macule. Imagine a flat area of discoloration in your lung tissues. Consequently, the coal dust remains within the lungs where they dwell within the connective tissue or stay in the pulmonary lymph nodes. The presence of the coal dust triggers the macrophages to produce and release enzymes, oxygen radicals, cytokines, and other products. This leads to inflammation and fibrosis. The latter refers to the scarring of connective tissue in response to injury. There occurs an accumulation of carbon-loaded white blood cells where they may be viewed under a microscope as black and grainy. In more severe cases, nodular lesions form in the lungs. The lesions are too thick so as to allow sufficient flow of blood to the area and thus, causing the tissues in the area to die prematurely. The result is that huge fissures or cavities develop within the lung. To put things plainly, black lung disease results as a reaction to the accumulation of irritating dust in the lungs. The affected individual expectorates blackish secretions when the fibrosed mass undergoes liquefaction. In other words, the black-tinged liquid comes from the dark clumped masses of excessive connective scar tissue. The medical name for this symptom is melanoptysis.

Melanoptysis or coughing up black stuff is not limited to cases of CWP. As a matter of fact, it is a symptom which occurs in any disease where there is ischemic necrosis or cavitation as well as liquefaction of clumps of excessive connective scar tissue. This same phenomenon occurs in grave respiratory conditions like tuberculosis.

The ugly thing about CWP is that it may start out as asymptomatic, not giving out any warning signs until you've reached a severe state. Some go on without suspecting that they have the disease until they experience serious negative changes in the quality of their lives. The disease may worsen during your exposure to the triggering substance or it may worsen after your exposure has ended. According to research, the average coalmine worker will inevitably develop this disease over a career span of two decades. The detection of this disease is done by X-rays, supported by occupational history.

Before progressing to CWP, the disease starts out as a condition referred to as Anthracosis. At this phase, it is still possible to arrest the progression to black lung disease simply by cutting off exposure to coal dust.

The earliest symptoms of black lung disease are difficulty of breathing, coughing, and excessive production of phlegm. The disease's severity depends on the amount and type of dust in the air and the length of your exposure to it. Among the most serious complications of CWP is Cor pulmonale, a condition where the person suffers from right side heart failure. Note that this side is the one responsible for pumping blood toward the lungs. To put things simply, due the fact that the heart is having trouble delivering blood to the scar tissue-covered lungs, it ends up working harder to the point of utter exhaustion until it eventually gives up.

There are cases when the cause of coughing up black stuff by coal miners is not exactly CWP but rather coal dust-induced bronchitis. According to research, the incidence of CWP in smoking coal miners is higher compared to non-smoking workers.

Warning!

Anthracosis does not only affect coal miners but may also be present in most urban dwellers. This is due to the long-term albeit low-level exposure to air pollution and the continuous inhalation of inactive carbon dust particles. Anthracosis also affects chronic smokers. Furthermore, it's not just carbon dust you should be afraid of; prevent yourself from unnecessarily inhaling wood smoke too.

So How Do You Stop Yourself from Coughing up Black Sputum?

Treat the underlying disease: The most obvious solution to stopping yourself from coughing up black stuff would be to treat the root cause of the problem.

Mucormycosis may be treated by administering prescription anti-fungal pharmaceuticals such as Amphotericin B intravenously. Medications such as Posaconazole may be taken per orem. Cases of Aspergillosis may be treated with antifungals, particularly Voriconazole. During treatment, use of any immunosuppressive drugs is prohibited. Pneumonia is treated with antibiotics, home rest, and plenty of fluids. Black sputum caused by tuberculosis can be stopped by taking the prescribed antibiotics.

Unfortunately, there is no known effective cure for Coal Workers' Pneumoconiosis. Thankfully though, there is a way to treat its complications. In the US, the government may help with the treatment of individuals afflicted with CWP.

Black Lung Disease can be prevented by effective dust control and the provision of proper ventilation in the workplace.

Drop the MJ or the ciggies: If you suspect that tobacco or marijuana smoking is the reason why you're coughing up black stuff then do yourself a favor and quit immediately. If you can't do it, try gradually lowering the number of sticks that you smoke per day.

After you attempt to quit smoking, you may notice an increase in the production of black mucus. Don't worry. This means that your lungs are detoxifying. After several weeks, you can expect to cough up clear mucus again. That said, it won't take back any of the damage that smoking has done to your lungs.

Let it out: By drinking more fluids, you are aiding your body in producing more mucus. However, water dilutes the stuff and makes it thinner and easier to expel. This means you are also helping yourself get rid of more of the black stuff from your body. Deep breathing exercises also help in clearing black phlegm from the airways. Breathe in some home-made steam remedies or drink hot herbal tea to help loosen copious phlegm. A nasal rinse will also aid in eliminating any black mucus from your nose. This entails flushing sterile water and saline solution through your sinuses. Another way to loosen and get rid of black mucus is by performing chest physiotherapy.

Gear up: Always wear a face mask when you know you'll be exposed to conditions where there are lots of dust or smoke. If you work in a coal mine or if you handle chemical smoke, then a filter mask is a must. Even if you're just doing some job in your yard or passing by a construction site, make sure you don an N95. Ensure that the mask fits properly and that it thoroughly covers your mouth and your nostrils. If your mask comes with a flexible nosepiece, try pinching it tightly so as to obstruct the dust particles more effectively. Wash reusable masks regularly. If your disposable mask gets soiled, don't even think about reusing it. Masks, too, can be a breeding ground for bacteria and may do more harm than good. Never share masks with other persons to cut the risk of acquiring or spreading respiratory infections.

Arrest disease at its earliest phase: If you think you have some kind of fungal or bacterial infection, don't hesitate to seek medical advice. Resist the urge to self-medicate to prevent the risk of developing super-infections. Don't ignore mild symptoms of sore throat or fever.

Don't forget that coughing up black stuff may be a sign of lung cancer. Get yourself checked immediately if you experience this symptom while suffering from recurrent lung problems like bronchitis.

To prevent acquiring fungal infections like Aspergillosis, make sure that you wash your hands after handling soil. Cleanse and disinfect wounds immediately. If you're at high risk for developing fungal infections, request some prescriptions of prophylactic meds from your doctor.

Consider using a HEPA filter at home or in the workplace.

Astragalus is a good immune system booster. Meanwhile, lactobacillus acidophilus supplements can help alter the chemistry of your tissues to make you less susceptible to fungal infections.

Be mindful of what you eat: Avoid foods that cause excessive mucus build-up which may clog the air passageways. Examples of which are wheat and dairy products.

Make your home a safe place to live in: Another thing you need to do when you're coughing up black stuff is to check your home for things which may be triggering it. Check places that are conducive to fungal growth such as dark and damp spots in the basement. Individuals and families who dwell in high humidity areas are more predisposed to contact with various types of molds and fungi. You can always hire the services of a professional for an assessment of your home.

Get some fresh air: If you know you're at high risk for developing respiratory infections or if you have an existing illness which renders you immuno compromised, then try to lessen your susceptibility. Consider moving to rural or suburban areas with less air pollution.

Simple Home Remedies for Getting Rid of Black Phlegm

For days when you're coughing up black stuff you may consider trying this simple home remedy:

  • Obtain 8 oz. of boiling water.
  • Add about three drops of eucalyptus essential oil.
  • Bend your face down over the bowl of water and cover your head with a towel to trap the steam in.
  • Inhale deeply.
  • Exhale outside the towel.
  • Keep doing this for up to five days to ensure continuous expulsion of the black-pigmented phlegm from your lungs.

Here’s another simple home remedy that anyone can do:

  • Adjust your shower to full heat.
  • Close the bathroom door and remain inside for up to 10 minutes.
  • Inhale deeply and feel the difference as the black mucus is broken up and expelled.

Another home remedy for when you’re coughing up black stuff is the saltwater gargle.

  • Combine ¼ tbsp. of salt with 8 oz. warm water.
  • Gargle.
  • This is to be done several times a day.

Or you can try this Ginger Tea Recipe:

  • Combine a tablespoonful of fresh ginger slices with 8 oz. boiling water.
  • Allow steeping for four minutes.
  • Add two tablespoonsful of raw honey.
  • Take this several times a day.

This doesn’t just work as an expectorant and a decongestant but also as a potent killer of virus and bacteria. Don’t like tea? An alternative would be to just chew fresh ginger slices at least four times a day.

Now you know all that you need to know about why and what to do when you’re coughing up nasty black sputum. It’s time to answer the following question :)

What is the first thing you need to do when you cough up black phlegm?

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