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 make mucous. Is this true? Why do I seem to have more problems with mucous since I was told I have COPD?
—Do Milk Products Affect COPD?
Dear Milk Products,
The idea that milk causes the body to produce mucous has actually been around for centuries. Finally, after all these years, studies have actually been done to determine if this is indeed the case. The results were that milk does not cause the body to produce mucous, 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 mucous, which will be mentioned later in this response.
Mucous actually performs an important purpose as it is 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 mucous? 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 mucous through the tissues as efficiently as it should.
Secondly, as a result of inflammation, our mucous membranes are producing excess amounts of mucous 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 mucous out. As the mucous becomes thicker, the task of eliminating excess mucous 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 mucous thinner, so it is easier to remove. Often times this requires using an airway clearing device (see our recent ask the coach article on airway clearance devices). Drinking lots of water can go a long way in helping thin the mucous 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 mucous.
Certainly, mucous 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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