700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

The Snot Palette: What Do All Those Colors Mean?

Oct 31, 2023
child missing their two front teeth blowing a bubble out of their nose

‘Tis the season for runny noses, sneezing, and congestion… You may be thinking, “Where is the ‘off valve’ for my child’s dripping nose?” or wondering why their snot is changing color. And what does all this mean? The mucous (snot) your nose makes can give you a glimpse about what is going on inside your body, but it doesn't mean as much as some people think.

Mucous is our body’s natural barrier that lines the nose, upper airway, and digestive tract. It traps unwelcome bacteria, viruses, or irritating particles from the air that we breathe and limits how much these things get into our lungs.

If your child has an abrupt increase in mucous production, this could be a warning that something is irritating the mucosal tract. These could include allergies, illnesses, temperature change, or cigarette smoke. If the consistency is thick or sticky, this could also be a sign that your child is not hydrated enough.

Snot can be a variety of colors for many different reasons. Changes in nasal mucous color are a normal part of illnesses and a sign that your immune system is working to help you get better.

Let’s explore a little more about what the color of your child’s snot can mean:

Clear Mucous: Healthy mucous is clear, everyone has it. If your child has an increase in clear nasal drainage, it could be a sign of environmental or seasonal allergies.

White Mucous: White mucous can be normal but might also indicate increased nasal congestion, which is when inflammation in the nasal passage slows the movement of mucous, making it thick and cloudy. This can be caused by a common cold, allergies, or other causes of infection.

Yellow Mucous: Yellow nasal mucous might be normal but could also mean your child’s inflammatory cells have collected in the nose because of allergies or to fight an infection.

Green Mucous: Thick, green snot can indicate that the body’s immune system is working hard to protect the body’s defense. Green color indicates even more active and dead immune cells.  Green or yellow phlegm does not always mean a sinus infection, but if it lasts for longer than 10 days you should have your child see a doctor.

Pink or Red Mucous: Pink or red snot typically means that there is blood in your child’s nose, though this isn’t always a reason to be alarmed. Pink or red snot is seen when there is irritation to the nasal passage tissue which can be caused by frequent nose blowing, dryness, or some form of trauma (picking nose vs. getting hit in the face).

If your child has continuous red nasal drainage that doesn’t stop when you apply pressure, evaluation by a healthcare clinician is recommended.

Brown Mucous: Brown nasal mucous could be from drainage of old blood, dryness or crusting, infection or from breathing in fine particles of something, like dirt.

Black Mucous: Black nasal mucous is less common, It can also be seen with inhalation of debris, like dirt or cigarette smoke. It could also be a sign of a more serious problem, like a fungal infection. If you have black nasal drainage that doesn’t go away, you should see a healthcare clinician for evaluation.

When it comes to mucous, consistency, color, volume and duration, should be assessed as well as other symptoms and the overall wellness of the child. Despite many myths, most mucous produced in the nose is normal, or caused by allergies and viruses, so antibiotics may not be the best treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s nasal drainage, please contact their pediatrician.

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Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Carly Schuett, APRN
ENT Department

Carly Schuett, APRN works in the ENT Department on the inpatient consult team.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.