Milk Products and Mucus in COPD
This article was reviewed by Senior Director of Community Engagement and COPD360social Community Manager, Bill Clark, as well as certified staff Respiratory Therapists on April 18, 2020.
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.
Based on recent literature and studies primarily in asthmatics, there is some evidence that a dairy-free diet reduces mucus production. We do not know enough about COPD and dairy.
A 2018 reference for asthma Frosh, A., Cruz, C., Wellsted, D. and Stephens, J. (2019), Effect of a dairy diet on nasopharyngeal mucus secretion. The Laryngoscope, 129: 13-17. doi:10.1002/lary.27287.
A diet rich in antioxidants (mostly fresh, hard fruits and some vegetables), has been recommended for COPD patients in 2019: Scoditti, Egeria et al. “Role of Diet in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Prevention and Treatment.” Nutrients vol. 11,6 1357. 16 Jun. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11061357.
You may find helpful information and delicious dairy free recipes here: https://switch4good.org/food/
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
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