- What Is It?
What Is Mucus Plug in the Lungs?
Phlegm is mucus that is naturally secreted by the glands in the lungs and is an essential part of keeping the lungs healthy. Phlegm in the lungs traps and removes inhaled particles, cellular debris, and dead and aging cells.
Mucus can accumulate in the lungs and can plug up the airways, reducing airflow. In the smaller airways, mucus plugs can lead to collapsed air sacs (alveoli), impacting oxygen levels. If the mucus plugs are in the larger, upper airways, this can lead to shortness of breath or a choking sensation.
What Are Symptoms of Mucus Plug in the Lungs?
Symptoms of mucus plugs in the lungs include:
- Shortness of breath
- Choking sensation
- Shallow breathing
- Rapid breathing
What Causes Mucus Plug in the Lungs?
Mucus plugs in the lungs are usually a result of certain medical conditions such as:
- Respiratory disorders
- Cystic fibrosis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis
- Nervous system disorders
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease
- Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA)
- Chronic illnesses
- Medications given during surgery cause patients to inhale less deeply so normal lung secretions may accumulate and build up
Some things may also contribute to the development of mucus plugs in people with the above conditions, such as:
- Being sedentary
- Weak diaphragm (results in the inability to fully expand the lungs)
- Weak abdominal muscles (causes coughs to be ineffective)
- Impaired or absent vocal cord function also inhibits the ability to generate an effective cough
- Dehydration contributes to thicker mucus
- A tracheostomy tube can stimulate the lungs to produce more mucus
How Is Mucus Plug in the Lungs Diagnosed?
Mucus plugs in the lungs are diagnosed with a history and physical exam.
Tests for lung function may include:
- Lung function tests
- Peak airflow
- FeNO tests (exhaled nitric oxide)
- Provocation tests
- Chest X-ray
- Arterial blood gas test
What Is the Treatment for Mucus Plug in the Lungs?
In some cases, mucus plugs in the lungs go away on their own. Treatment of mucus plugs usually depends on the underlying cause and may include medications such as:
- Bronchodilators to open airways
- Expectorants to loosen phlegm
- Guaifenesin (Robitussin and Mucinex)
- Decongestants to reduce mucus production
- Mucolytics to thin lung secretions
Other treatments include chest physiotherapy (CPT):
- Manual chest physiotherapy involves cupped hands repeatedly clapped against the chest or back (percussion) and flat hands vibrating the chest wall (vibration) to loosen the mucus and induce a cough
- Airway clearance devices use high-frequency vibration, low-frequency sound waves, and other techniques to break up mucus and can be used by patients
Home remedies to help relieve symptoms may include:
- Controlled coughing
- Deep breathing exercises
- Steam inhalation
- Drinking warm fluids
- Eating spicy foods to help thin the mucus
- Gargling using salt water to soothe the throat
What Are Complications of Mucus Plug in the Lungs?
Complications of a mucus plug in the lungs include:
- Airway obstruction
- Complete or partial collapse of the lung (atelectasis)
- Limitations of airflow
How Do You Prevent Mucus Plug in the Lungs?
For those prone to developing mucus plugs in the lungs, they may be prevented in some cases with:
- Don’t smoke
- Get adequate hydration
- Mechanical lung expansion and coughing exercises
- Manually assisted cough (abdominal thrusts)
- Use of a portable suction unit to capture mucus that has been moved into a trach tube or the back of the throat
- Manual sigh or stacked breaths using a self-inflating manual ventilation bag (“Ambu” bag)
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