I disgust myself
December 28, 2007 8:07 AM   Subscribe

I'm sick. Gross bodily fluid question involving phlegm, etc,. inside.

So I have this wretched chest cold. I sound like a Sleestak when I breathe. I'm not running a fever, and I figure with rest and water I'll be fine in a few days, so this is not a request for medical advice. Really, I'm just curious. Why does ingesting phlegm make me nauseated? I always get a little sick to my stomach when I have a bad cold, but I just figured it was a reaction to medication. It still may be, but last time I saw my doctor, he mentioned that swallowing phlegm can make you nauseated. Why is this? Surely it's not the quantity. Is it something in it? Is it just the thought that YOU'RE SWALLOWING PHLEGM? I'd much rather spit it out, of course, but that isn't always possible.

Thanks! Enjoy your breakfast!
posted by Evangeline to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Maybe it's because your stomach recognizes that it's a product of illness and doesn't want it or something. I am curious to see other responses as I have idly wondered about this as well.

I always get sick to my stomach when I am feeling phlegm-y, too. I have an overly sensitive stomach and get nauseated at the drop of a hat, though, so I figured that it was just my sensitive stomach acting up as per usual.
posted by bedhead at 8:26 AM on December 28, 2007

Just anecdotal here, but I get nauseated and will even vomit a little just from phlegm or nasal drip during the night. I always assumed it was the consistency, the nasty stuff trapped in it and because phlegm doesn't break down very easily in stomach acid (this it coats the throats of GERD sufferers like me).
posted by Pollomacho at 8:28 AM on December 28, 2007

I get this, too, and I've always thought it was because your stomach recognizes the phlegm as belonging to the Not Food category. As in, "Hey, this isn't food, what are you doing sending me this?! Here, take it back!"
posted by cerebus19 at 8:31 AM on December 28, 2007

I think it's a combination of the type of material itself AND the volume of it. You may not think there is a large quantity but remember that you've constantly got it draining down the back of your throat even when you're well. You just don't always notice it. When you're snotty, you get tons of it. Blowing it out of your nose. Hacking it and spitting it. What's not expelled, flows down. I think this has a lot to do with why you can also have a sore throat associated. These are all my guesses, so I could be entirely wrong. IANAD. Just my 2 cents.
posted by MrToad at 8:40 AM on December 28, 2007

the stomach makes its own mucous to protect its lining from the strong stomach acid.

it is by design indigestible.

yes it is nauseating. post nasal drip is the worst!

it will also give you weird runny poo and "oh no, that turned out to NOT be just a fart!" accidents.
posted by KenManiac at 8:45 AM on December 28, 2007

I'm going through the same thing right now. My current theory is that the crud dripping down the back of my throat is constantly tickling my gag reflex, not quite enough to make me puke but just enough to make me feel like I might.
posted by vytae at 8:45 AM on December 28, 2007

I never noticed this, myself, but then this girl I dated was all, "Don't swallow phlegm! You'll get Sour Tummy!" which I remembered because the phrase "Sour Tummy" amused me greatly. So I guess this happens to other folks, too.

As a layman with the medical expertise of a medeival town crier, my guess is this: according to wikipedia, there's always a thin layer of mucous coating the stomach and esophagus, protecting organs from DEADLY ACID. Perhaps the excess amount prevents both foodstuffs and acid from reaching organ walls? And then you have a lot of undigested food sloshing around in the stomach without being digested? Which causes nausea? Maybe? I recommend leeches as a cure.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:49 AM on December 28, 2007

I find that using a Neti Pot helps me expel a ton of phlegm that otherwise would be trapped in my sinuses and swallowed when I'm sick. It's a little rough to get the hang of using it but the results are less congestion and less colds throughout the season. Here's a creepy video of the process.
posted by any major dude at 8:51 AM on December 28, 2007

Since most of the responses have been more of the "Yeah! Phlegm swallowing sure is gross!" variety than an actual answer, I figured I'd chime in with a gross story of my own!

My girlfriend was once on a bus between two remote villages in South Africa and the "headlight" (read: flashlight taped to the front of the bus) broke in the middle of the jungle in the middle of the night, so they had to just sit there until morning.

Long story short, she had a really bad cold, and had to sit in a cramped, hot, smelly bus for hours, just swallowing her phlegm, eventually causing her to vomit out the window. By her recollection, nobody even batted an eye.

posted by SpiffyRob at 9:15 AM on December 28, 2007

I asked my wife who always advised me to not swallow mucous/phlegm when I had a cold.

She said that it can contain live-bacteria and it's never a good idea to swallow something your body wants to expel.

I asked her where she got this advice and she said the doctors advised her mother of this when she was quarantined with TB. This was back in the 1950s when TB patients entered hospitals for quarantine, so your mileage may vary.

For what it's worth, I know the feeling you describe.
posted by tcv at 9:31 AM on December 28, 2007

The volume of phlegm is relatively small compared to what normally goes into the stomach, but you are probably swallowing a lot of air with it, which will give you a bloated/nauseated feeling. Patients under anesthesia can end up with air in their stomachs from positive pressure mask ventilation, and we often pass a suction catheter into their stomach and empty it before they wake up to decrease the risk of nausea.
posted by TedW at 9:34 AM on December 28, 2007

She said that it can contain live-bacteria and it's never a good idea to swallow something your body wants to expel.

I asked her where she got this advice and she said the doctors advised her mother of this when she was quarantined with TB.

As an aside, people swallow pulmonary secretions all the time without knowing it. For this reason, one of the most sensitive tests for TB is to suck out the stomach and look for TB bacteria in the aspirate.
posted by TedW at 10:07 AM on December 28, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks guys. I'm glad I'm not alone. I would have chimed in earlier but I've been napping.

I recommend leeches as a cure.

I already tried that. Wait - was I suppose to swallow them?

any major dude, I've heard that neti pots can be great, but I keep forgetting about them. I'll have to try that. Mucinex works well for me, but unfortunately, it either doesn't solve the nausea problem or it's contributing to it. However, it does significantly reduce the length of the cold.
posted by Evangeline at 10:58 AM on December 28, 2007

FWIW, I have never, ever felt nauseous from swallowing phlegm or from post-nasal drip, so it's certainly not a rule, unless I'm the exception to it.
posted by macdara at 1:03 PM on December 28, 2007

Evangeline, I ascribe to the theory (my own) that merely the thought that you are actually swallowing this globby ball of yellow-green blech (phlegm, mucous, mucus, whatever) will make you retch. At least I do when I swallow that crap.

I love all the responses you got, but my super-favorite is from KenManiac who said, "it will also give you weird runny poo and "oh no, that turned out to NOT be just a fart!" accidents." Are you kidding us, KenManiac? Does phlegm really have that power?

Anyway, phlegm/mucous/globsh-t is just downright gross, and why God made phlegm, I'll never know. (I'll put it on my list of things to ask when I get to heaven ... oh, wait, I'm not going there....)
posted by Smalltown Girl at 11:00 PM on December 28, 2007

yes, it has the power.

i had a bad, phlegmy week that i'm finally getting over right now. at least i made headway on the stack of reading materials in the 'library'.

spicy food is my favorite antidote to the queasy effects of the gross green slime. OJ works too. V8 with 10 good shakes of habanero hot sauce is my favorite.
posted by KenManiac at 9:10 AM on December 29, 2007

Response by poster: I'm going to have to come out and second Ken here on the secondary powers of phlegm. Yep.
posted by Evangeline at 10:26 AM on December 29, 2007

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