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Decode the Color of Your Child's Sipon and Phlegm (so You Know When to Really Panic)
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  • With the weather changing rapidly even during the day, respiratory infections will likely be just a cough or sneeze away. Cough, colds, and asthma, while common, can be literally sticky problems many children have to deal because all are mucus-producing illnesses. However, not all “snots” are the same, and their color are your best clues if it’s time to bring your little one to the doctor.

    Snot is not so bad

    Mucus or snots aren’t exactly a bad thing. There’s more to it than just a sticky goo according to WebMD.com. It acts as a protective blanket for the mouth, nose, sinuses, throat, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract, preventing the tissues underneath these surfaces from drying. It also acts as “a sort of flypaper trapping unwanted substances like bacteria and dust before they get into the body — particularly sensitive airways.”

    Moreover, mucus contains antibodies that help the body recognize invaders like bacteria and viruses.  So yes, the mucus is your child’s friend but just as important as knowing its benefits is knowing what its color means, especially among children.

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    No need to panic if the mucus goes from colorless to greenish

    “The colors of mucus may range from colorless to blood-tinged,” says pediatrician Josy Naty M. Venturina-Fano, MD, DPPS, DPAPP. “In young children, expectoration (to eject from the throat or lungs by coughing or hawking and spitting) is unusual and therefore, hard to observe the color of their mucus. This may sometimes be affected by what they previously ate because of the proximity of the gastrointestinal tract to the respiratory tract. Some kids vomit when they cough, hence, their mucus mixes with the gastric secretions.”

    Colorless or watery is normal and may mean the onset of the common cold. It may become thicker taking on the color of yellow or green.

    Yellow-green mucus color doesn’t necessarily mean acute infection among children, according to Dr. Venturina-Fano. “The secretions tend to stay in the respiratory tract longer resulting in the cellular breakdown of leukocytes and the presence of an enzyme protein called myeloperoxidase. This enzyme contains iron that contributes to the greenish color when mucus or sputum is expelled.”

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    Yellow to green snot means that white blood cells are working to fight infection and that your child’s body is doing what it should. 

    “If the mucus is present for more than a week, there is no need to panic especially if there are no other associated symptoms,” says Dr. Venturina-Fano. Acute cough, she adds, may occur for three weeks or less. “The most frequent cause of this among children is viral respiratory tract infections, and these are self-resolving illnesses.” 

    On the other hand, when the mucus is blood tinged — the color of which can range from pink to red — it could be a sign of pulmonary hemorrhage and warrants further workup, says Dr. Venturina-Fano.

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    Apart from the color, monitor the cough

    A lot of diseases may present itself with cough and sputum or mucus production. Apart from its color, Dr. Venturina-Fano advises that parents should be aware of the timing of the cough and its relationship with the daily routine of the child as well as other symptoms specific to certain diseases. She cites these examples:

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    • If the cough is worsening progressively, associated with weight loss, fever, failure to respond to antibiotics, fatigue or reduced playfulness, this may be related to Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
    • If the cough is productive and year-round or occurs early in the morning, it can indicate bronchiectasis or related diseases such as cystic fibrosis and primary ciliary dyskinesia, but these are rare in our setting.
    • If the cough occurs at night, this may be related to asthma or postnasal drip; cough due to asthma is typically associated with wheezing and exerted breathing.
    • If the cough is accompanied by food regurgitation, throat clearing, and throat, chest, or abdominal pain, it may be associated with GER or Gastroesophageal Reflux.

    On the average kids get five to eight respiratory illnesses a year, says to Dr. Venturina-Fano. While most can come in the form of the common cold or an allergy, observing the symptoms and conditions associated with the illness is just as important as knowing the color of the mucus when it comes to children. This way, you’ll know when it’s time to seek a doctor’s expert advice.

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