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Why Do I Snot So Much When I Work Out? [5 Reasons You May Have a Lot of Phlegm When You Exercise and What To Do About It]

Posted Jan 22 2014 12:40am


Let’s be honest: These are disgusting and I’d still eat them. Because they look like jelly beans. Sigh. 

Runners are a strange breed and as such they do lots of stuff you wouldn’t find normal people doing. For instance, they have their own code of hand signs. (Some other day we’ll have to discuss the significance of the one-finger wave, two-finger wave, full-hand wave and head nod. I’m solid on the one-finger salute though so no need to explain that one.) They carry more baggies than a crack dealer. They can identify the type and degree of pronation in toddlers walking. Oh and remember that time Paula Radcliff scooched her shorts to the side and politely defecated right before the finish line of the London Marathon and no one batted an eyelash because anyone who’s ever had “runner’s tummy” felt her pain? (She still won, by the way.)

But by far my fave runner trick is the “farmer blow.” You know, where you hold one nostril shut and then blow as hard as you can and shoot boogers ten feet away? It’s closely related to the ability to hock a loogie so precisely that you can judge wind conditions just from its arc and distance. Runners got mad snot skillz, is what I’m saying. When I first started running, I was hesitant to do something so socially repugnant but I got over myself pretty quickly when I realized how much better I felt after getting that gunk out of my throat! (Still, I have rules: No spitting on sidewalks, no spitting in the general direction of people, no spitting when I’m running with a group unless I know them really well and NO SPITTING IN DRINKING FOUNTAINS BECAUSE GROSS.) But why the need for all that nasal passage clearing?

Today I found myself pondering that as I left the gym today doing my usual post-workout ritual of coughing and hacking up phlegm. For me, it usually only happens after a cardio workout of fairly high intensity – yoga and weight lifting normally don’t have this effect on me – and it has gotten worse since I moved from sea level to 6,000 feet up the side of a mountain. It starts about ten minutes into the workout when my nose starts getting kinda runny and I feel like I need to clear my throat every few minutes (yeah, I’m super fun to stand next to – maybe that’s why I couldn’t make any friends at my old gym?). But the worst hits after the workout is over. I keep a box of Kleenexes in my car so I can blow my nose and then cough up phlegm for the next couple of hours. It’s weird because it really doesn’t feel like it’s coming from my nose or sinuses but more like from my lungs? TMI? And it’s not a cough like you get with a head cold – it’s pretty minor, consistent and – as they say - very productive. A few hours later I’m back to good, no worse for wear!

It’s a minor annoyance but it’s still annoying so I did what I always do with weird bodily symptoms – I Googled them. Turns out my snottiness is pretty common! Maybe some of you are at this very moment coughing delicately into a tissue and then looking at it to see what color it is? Or just snorking loudly and driving your housemates nuts? But however you do it, what causes it can be harder to pin down. So in case this ever happens to you or someone you love, I present:

Why do I have so much phlegm when I exercise? 

1. Exercise Induced Asthma. The most common answer I found is a type of asthma that only occurs during cardio exercise. Symptoms include wheezing, cough, chest tightness, unusual fatigue during exercise, shortness of breath beyond what one would normally expect from exercise and, yep, lots of phlegm. The interesting part is that symptoms usually don’t really kick in until the workout is finished, which is consistent with my experience.

Fix it: I’ve actually been asked before if I have EIA by a nurse who saw me trying to recover from doing Tabata sprints and thought I sounded asthmatic. At the time I didn’t really follow up with it as one of the most effective “cures” for EIA is a long, slow warm-up before exercise and then simply increasing your lung capacity by increasing your exercise – both of which I was already doing. Yes, the one thing that heals EIA is the one thing that EIA makes extremely hard to do. Irony is not rain on your wedding day, it’s EIA.

2. Allergies/Environmental irritants. The second most common answer was related to seasonal allergies like hay fever, pollutants in the air like dust or smog, and/or cold, dry weather. Also listed? Living at a higher altitude. I can get mild seasonal allergies and the dry winter air also fits so this makes sense too.

Fix it: To help this, its generally recommended to workout in a more temperate environment and take allergy meds. They also recommend not exercising outside where pollutants are more prevalent in the air. Which… eh. I can’t control my gym environment and I’m not taking meds to deal with some phlegm that only bothers me for a couple of hours. Besides antihistamines make me crazy hyper and paranoid. Also, I like exercising outside and if I pay for that in snot then at least I am well skilled in the Farmer Blow.

3. Underlying illness. Hey, did you know if you work out while you have pneumonia or bronchitis that it might make you cough more? I’m kidding a little bit but if you recall I’ve actually done exactly that , so yeah, consider this your PSA: Don’t work out if your lungs are full of germs and gunk. Other illness ranging from the benign like head colds to the life-threatening like lung cancer and cystic fibrosis can also make you cough up a lot of junk.

Fix it: Obviously the cure is to get proper treatment and then rest and recover from your illness. And I was just going to write that I’m 35 so I’d probably know by now if I have cystic fibrosis but apparently it’s not unheard of to get diagnosed as an adult, as evidenced by this article in the news today! But I still don’t think I have CF. Finally becoming reasonable or just bumped up against the limit of my hypochondria? You choose!

4. Dairy. One of the more interesting causes of workout phlegm I found was dairy. Lots of people report personal experiences of removing dairy, particularly cow’s milk, from their diet for other reasons and suddenly finding themselves snot-free! Since I already don’t really eat dairy because I’m lactose intolerant this isn’t my problem but I still find it really interesting. Apparently some scientists think it’s a mild allergic reaction to the milk proteins (as opposed to the lactose) that causes people’s nasal passages to swell!

Fix it: Try eliminating dairy. If your phlegm clears up, you have your answer! And stop tongue kissing cows.

5. Pulmonary edema. Pulmonary edema is simply fluid in your lungs. There are many things that can cause this to happen including some illnesses, congestive heart failure and – I swear I’m not making this up – exercising at high altitudes. The symptoms are wide ranging but include a feeling of weight on your chest, especially when lying down, difficult breathing (duh), fatigue during exercise and heart problems. The Mayo Clinic adds that if you start to cough up “pink, frothy sputum”*, taste iron in your mouth and start to turn blue or gray you should go to the hospital immediately.

Fix it: If it’s chronic and related to an underlying condition, treat the condition. If it’s an acute attack, go to the hospital immediately. Basically see a doctor no matter what if you think you have this problem.

Any of you get all phlegm-y after a tough workout? Any other causes for this that you know of? Any of you have Exercise Induced Asthma – has an inhaler been helpful to you? And by a show of hands: How many of you can hawk a loogie or farmer blow and hit a target?

*I’ve actually seen this in action when I pulled a drowning toddler out of a lake. When I dropped the kid on the sand to start rescue breathing he started vomiting red, frothy stuff. FREAKED ME THE HECK OUT. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: I’m really not the person you want in an emergency situation. But he’s okay now so everything’s good.

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