What the Color of Your Snot Really Means

Decoding the various possible hues
woman blowing her nose

The color of mucus can tell you a lot about what’s going on inside your nasal passages. And although doctors rarely use nasal mucus as the primary diagnosis of disease, it can shed light on other conditions.   

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Otolaryngologist Raj Sindwani, MD, shares what the various shades could mean for your health.

  • Clear. You’re in the normal range. Straight mucus is mostly water, with proteins, antibodies and dissolved salts. Your nasal tissues produce it 24/7. Most of it flows down the back of your throat to be dissolved in the stomach.
  • White. You’re congested. Swollen, inflamed tissues in your nose are slowing the flow of mucus, causing it to lose moisture and become thick and cloudy. This can be a sign of a nasal infection or cold.
  • Yellow. Your cold or infection is progressing. Infection-fighting cells might be rushing to the site of the microbial infection. White blood cells are among them as well. Once exhausted, they’re carried off on the mucosal tide, lending it a yellowish tinge. Colds inevitably last 10 to 14 days. Hunker down and wait it out. 
  • Green. Your immune system is really fighting back. The mucus is thick with dead white cells and other wreckage from the battle. If you’re still sick after about 12 days, you may want to see a doctor. It could be sinusitis, a bacterial infection. If you’re feverish or nauseated, see a doctor soon.
  • Pink or red. This is blood. Your nasal tissue in the nose has somehow become broken — perhaps because it’s dry, irritated or suffered some kind of impact. You didn’t stick anything up there, did you?
  • Brown. This shade could be blood, but likely it’s something inhaled, like dirt, snuff or paprika.
  • Black. If you’re not a smoker or user of illegal drugs, black mucus may mean a serious fungal infection. These infections usually occur in people with compromised immune systems. If you are one of them, you’re probably already seeing a doctor. If not, go.

More facts about your nasal mucus 

Q: How much nasal mucus is normal?
A: You produce and swallow about 1.5 quarts of nasal mucus every single day.

Q: Why does a single drop of snot sometimes come out of my nose?
A: Your nostrils usually get runny on a cold day. When this happens you might notice that one drop sometimes hangs from the tip of your nose. That drop is mostly water that has condensed out of the cold air passing over warm nasal tissues. So, it’s actually not snot!

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Q: What is Wegener’s granulomatosis?
A: It’s a rare disease, whose symptoms include nosebleeds and a constantly runny nose with pus-filled discharge.

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