Milk Products and Mucus in COPD

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Dear COPD Coach,
I have always been told that if you have COPD you should not drink milk or milk products such as ice cream because it will produce mucus. Is this true? Why do I seem to have more problems with mucus since I was told I have COPD?

—Do Milk Products Affect COPD?

Dear Milk Products,
The idea that milk causes the body to produce mucus has actually been around for centuries. Finally, after all these years, studies have actually been performed to determine if this is indeed the case. The results were that milk does not cause the body to produce mucus, BUT it does cause the phlegm to thicken. It is believed that it is the fat content in the milk that causes this reaction. Milk has lots of benefits for the body, including being an excellent source of calcium and vitamins, so you have to weigh the benefits. There are ways to thin out the mucus, which will be mentioned later in this response.

Mucus actually performs an important purpose as it traps dirt and bacteria and small foreign objects and keeps them from entering our lungs. It also aids in digestion and keeps our respiratory tissues from drying out. It is secreted from membranes in our nose, airways and windpipe. Cilia, the microscopic hairs in our respiratory system, sweep the dirty mucus upwards through the airways and move it towards the windpipe so that the particles can be coughed out or swallowed.

Why do COPD patients seem to have more problems with mucus? There are actually three explanations.

First of all, as a result of COPD, in most cases the cilia in our respiratory system is damaged and are not capable of moving the mucus through the tissues as efficiently as it should.

Secondly, as a result of inflammation, our mucous membranes are producing excess amounts of mucus in an effort to protect our respiratory tissues and lungs. The body senses this extra mucus and tries to eliminate it by triggering coughing.

The third problem is that since we generally have a limited lung function, our cough response is not as strong as it should be which makes it more difficult to cough the mucus out. As the mucus becomes thicker, the task of eliminating excess mucus becomes even more difficult!

Obviously, we don’t want to eliminate all the mucous in our body, but it is important to rid ourselves of the large amounts that are obstructing our breathing, as well as eliminating the dirt and foreign particles it contains as these can become very irritating to our tissues and could cause infections.

If you have COPD, the key is to keep the mucus thinner, so it is easier to remove. Oftentimes this requires using an airway clearing device. Drinking lots of water can go a long way in helping thin the mucus and make the task of eliminating it much more efficient. Some health care providers suggest drinking club soda because the carbonation also helps loosen the mucus.

Certainly, mucus is not a pleasant thing to discuss, but the management of it is very important for a COPD patient. Hope this helps!

All my best,
The COPD Coach

Ask the Expert is aimed at providing information for individuals with COPD to take to your doctor, and is not in any way intended to be medical advice. If you would like to submit a question to the Coaches Corner email us atcoachescorner@copdfoundation.org. We would love to hear your questions and comments. You can address your emails to any of the following: COPD Coach, Caregiver Coach, COPD Doctor or COPD RT.

29 Comments



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  • I found this very interesting. Good to know about mucous and its thickening. Thanks.

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  • I have been having lots of problems with this lately together with a dry cough. I live in Houston, so thought with pollution, humidity, allergens, etc. that this was my problem. Thanks for info.
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  • my GP (not pulmonologist) suggested taking Guafenesin to help thin the mucus. As long as you drink extra water, also recommended) it seems to help cough it up.
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  • I use Guafenesin 600 mg twice a day. I love this stuff. It keeps the mucus thin and manageable. I have coughed up mucus that is thick and had little hard chunks in it. Very scary stuff, can't breathe around it sometimes. My body has been producing more mucus lately, and my chest hurts all of the time now. I am already taking Morphine, so I take Ibuprofen for this added pain. This works ok for right now. I don't want my head to be in a fog from pain killers. I bite the bullet and deal with the pain as best I can.

    I would like to know if there is anyone out there who is in the same condition as me.

    My GP and my pulmonologist both think its awesome that I am still alive. I'm not sure what to think, I haven't seen anyone else, that seems comparable. Again, I would like to talk to someone who is at the same stage or has the same problems that I do.


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    • I have been told that you can take up to 2400 mg of mucinex in a 24 hr period.
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    • I am 79' and have been "end stage" for several years. Lots of water and 400 mg Guaifineses every 4 hours, supplemented with Albuterol Nebulizer treatment 4 times daily are the best I can come up with. Harold B
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    • I bought mucinex yesterday because I felt congested, I took one, late coughed up a lot of mucus, Today I took one and did cough a few times and got something up. I thought some Dr. told me to never use cough medicine, or be careful using mucinex. I am drinking a lot of water. I am going to bed , be back on tomorrow. I have learned several good things in here, Very important things Thank you. so much.
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    • My wife uses saline in her nebuliser along with Ventolin to thin the mucus and sometimes just saline alone which seems to do the trick if she is coughing a lot and cannot shift the mucus making her cough >>> it seems to work for her >>> 2.5 ml of saline solution at 0.9% >>> UK Mike
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    • ..... also milk products and chocolate are bad for my wife and cause her to cough >>> UK Mike
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    • I would like to comment on the dairy/mucus. Dairy products do cause me to produce excessive mucus. It is a thick mucus. I eat yogurt for the acidophilus benefit. I eat it earlier in the day. I add banana or berries. I never ever ever eat ice cream after 3 pm. I rarely eat ice cream. Once, several years ago, I ate it around 7 pm. After I laid down and fell asleep, I woke up with a very much closed airway. I used my rescue inhaler, and luckily was able to cough up tons of mucus. I am careful with eating dairy and I do not consume it later in the day.
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    • Been taking Mucinex at bedtime for a few years now and it helps tremendously. I might switch to twice a day after I ask my pulmo. But first I need his okay. I have been on oxygen 24/7 for 17 years and actually had lung volume reduction surgery in 2004. Happy to be here.

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  • This has been very helpful. I have noticed when I have had dairy it seems like the mucus is worse. My friend said she thought I may be lactose intolerant, but it has never bothered me before. I always wake up in the middle of the night coughing up mucus and trying to breathe. I have started sleeping with my head elevated and that has helped some.

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    • My mucus is alot worse when i have dairy. I have also noticed mine is worse with salt. I am not sure if i have copd have had severe allergys the last 7 years. Terrible.
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  • Not lactose tolerant here but....I won't drink milk. For me, other dairy products are okay but not milk and this is my reason.
    My sister and brother in law got on a milk drinking kick (1/2 gal per day or more), rationalizing it would benefit their bone density good for their health, etc , a few years back and they both gained a whole lot of weight because of it. Their excessive weight gain started presenting it's own problems associated with it. Their bones may have gotten denser (like a brontosaurs') but the weight gains were a big negative factor for them both.
    My milk moto is: Milk is for baby cows and I don't drink it - AT ALL! And if I even look at a glass of milk, it better have bubbles on top of it or it'll make me gag.
    So, if you want to think that milk is an "uber health food" and the more you drink the better it will be for you, you might just end up like a baby cow and then a cow (the real, grown up, Guernsey kind).
    And also, if you just have to have it occasionally, make sure it is fresh and has bubbles on top - please do that for me.
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    • Thanks so much for your response. If I use milk I always use the reduce low fat and only for cereal or in my coffee when I drink that. The once that really set me off was the sour cream. I had a very restful night last night. Thanks for your input.
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  • The topic of mucus is very important and the fact that it thickens is encouraging.
    However, COPD Coach says: "as a result of inflammation". Well that's really the essence of our situation, right? So shouldn't we be looking for the root cause of the inflammation?
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    • I think we already know at least one major cause: it's caused by the things we inhale that don't belong in our lungs like cigarette smoke and other air pollutants. We don't know the cause in those people who've never smoked and have no history of being exposed to air pollutants, with the exception of the Alpha-1 population. There's quite a lot of current research trying to find the causes for those people.
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  • I just learned so much! Thank You!
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  • It still doesn't make sense to me how milk can thicken mucous, nor conversely how carbonation in soda can loosen mucous. It is not like you are inhaling either item into lungs (hopefully not anyway). And intestines break down milk and separate the water from the solid (or whey). And, furthermore, most info I have read recommends abstaining from soda as the carbonation can cause bloating in stomach making it harder to breathe as pressure is put against lungs.

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    • My opinion it's an old wives tale!
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    • I wondered when I read soda water was ok to drink, when
      soft Drinks is a no no. isn't soda water carbonation.? Bill may have a good idea.

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    • Hi Sharo
      A glass of sparkling water. Carbonated water
      (also known as club soda, soda water, sparkling water, seltzer water,
      bubbly water, or fizzy water) is water into which carbon dioxide gas
      under pressure has been dissolved. and is not harmful >>> however other forms of fizzy drinks can be such as >>> Club soda contains sodium >>> Tonic water contains added sweeteners and flavors. >>> Flavored sparkling water may have added citric acid or natural sweeteners, along with caffeine and sodium. >>> so Always read the ingredient list and keep a look out for additives like sodium and sugar to avoid negative consequences for your teeth and body. >> see https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/is-carbonated-water-bad-for-you#takeaway >>> UK Mike

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    • Hi Nancylala >>> the mucus does not accumulate in your lungs it is produced in the airways to your lungs and can cause blockage to your lungs >>> Milk or chocolate mixed with mucus makes the mucus thicker before the milk or solids reach the intestines>>> that is how I see it OK?>>>>UK Mike
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    • It’s definitely not a wives tail. Milk has been shown in studies to thicken mucus. I’ve found that dairy fat seems to be the culprit for me, with the exception of cheese—I have no problem with cheese. But milk other than skim milk is a problem and ice cream gives me awful coughing fits almost immediately, with the feeling of needing to cough or thick mucus but not being able to. And I’ve found that if I drink club soda it is a great expectorant. I find that generally move a lot of phlegm after drinking it. That said of course you’d want to balance the benefits of club soda on loosening mucus with the impacts of the carbonation on your breathing (not a doctor btw). I drink flavored sugar free sparkling water—just water and natural flavors.
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  • (Forgive me if I'm too graphic, but its necessary)

    On the topic of phlegm (which I know can be gross but its also a critical topic)....

    When I experience shortness of breath and its accompanied with wheezing, I know that its due to phlegm build-up. In those cases, I try to purposefully bring it up and cough it out (which I'm still trying to learn how to do -if anyone has any tips, please share!).

    When this happens and I'm able to get it up, it's almost always clear, bubbly, foam-like liquid that includes "chunks" or pieces within it that are light-brown/greenish in color. This debris that comes out embedded within the clear foam is unusually shaped (like spaghettios). I'm guessing its shaped that way because its in the shape of the airways that it was clogged in and is being coughed up from?

    This material when coughed up is extremely sticky. Again, not trying to be gross but, I've inspected it when I first started coughing this up to try to better understand what and why it is. The closest thing I can compare this to is rubber cement. The kind of glue that you would typically see in a jar with a application brush. It's that thick and sticky (which is really scary to think about being in your lungs! :(

    I'm wondering if anyone else can relate to my description and if anyone knows what or why it is? I don't believe what I'm describing is your typical "infection" (I know the difference in phlegm and infections that I've had in the past are a more obvious, darker green color).

    Also, if anyone has any tips for how to easily bring this material up when you are wheezing and want to clear yourself out quickly and easily, please let me know!

    Thanks :)
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    • Hey PrestOn....I have a device called AirPhysio and it has helped me get difficult mucus up. There is another called AerobiKa, You can get them on Amazon. Google them for info. I'm happy to say I haven't needed to use it for a couple of months now--Things CAN get better. Keep the faith
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    • @Das23

      Thanks for the info, both of these options look great -I'll definitely research some more. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction :)
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  • I've experienced this mucous thickening as well, and found that it is under control by drinking only 1% milk instead of regular milk, that is, when I do want milk, either as a thirst quencher, or with a spicy hot meal. Milk is the only thing to quench the burn of really hot peppers. On rare occasion, I do indulge in having some ice cream, which is very high in fatty content, but won't do so when I know I have some obvious congestion/wheezing. Everything in moderation, or minimization when necessary.

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  • Great information. This answered a question I have had for some time now. Thanks.


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