December 27th, 2010
09:16 AM ET

Is nasal mucus always a sign of infection?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu.

Question asked by Amy, Minnesota:

Is colored (yellow, green or brown) nasal mucus always a sign of infection?

Expert answer:

Thanks for your question. Nasal discharge that is yellow, green or brown can be a sign of an infection of the upper respiratory tract. In the vast majority of instances, the infection is caused by a common cold virus and will get better on its own within seven to 10 days.

There are also several noninfectious causes of nasal discharge, such as allergies, trauma, the use of intranasal drugs or medications, and anatomical problems of the nasal passages or sinuses. In noninfectious conditions, however, the discharge is more likely to be clear.

Sometimes nasal discharge can be a sign of a sinus infection caused by bacteria. While the color of the mucus does not distinguish between a viral or a bacterial infection, several other signs make it more likely that bacteria are present and an antibiotic may be needed.

These include having a thick nasal discharge of any color for more than seven days or having mucus that gets a little better at the beginning of an illness but then worsens.

A bacterial infection is also more likely if the mucus is accompanied by headache or facial pain especially when bending forward, fever, bad breath, loss of smell, stuffy ears or a persistent cough.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.