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Phlegm (//; Greek: φλέγμα "inflammation, humour caused by heat") is a liquid secreted by the mucous membranes of mammalians. Its definition is limited to the mucus produced by the respiratory system, excluding that from the nasal passages, and particularly that which is expelled by coughing (sputum). Phlegm is in essence a water-based gel consisting of glycoproteins, immunoglobulins, lipids and other substances. Its composition varies depending on climate, genetics, and state of the immune system. Its color can vary from transparent to pale or dark yellow and green, from light to dark brown, and even to dark grey depending on the constituents.
Contrary to popular misconception and misuse, mucus and phlegm are not always the same.
Mucus is a normal protective layering around the airway, eye, nasal turbinate, and urogenital tract. Mucus is an adhesive viscoelastic gel produced in the airway by submucosal glands and goblet cells and is principally water. It also contains high-molecular weight mucous glycoproteins that form linear polymers.
Phlegm is more related to disease than is mucus. Phlegm is a secretion in the airway during disease and inflammation. Phlegm usually contains mucus with bacteria, debris, and sloughed-off inflammatory cells. Once phlegm has been expectorated by a cough it becomes sputum.
There are multiple factors that can contribute to an excess of phlegm in the throat or larynx.
Phlegm may be a carrier of larvae of intestinal parasites (see hookworm). Bloody sputum can be a symptom of serious disease (such as tuberculosis), but can also be a relatively benign symptom of a minor disease (such as bronchitis). In the latter case, the sputum is normally lightly streaked with blood. Coughing up any significant quantity of blood is always a serious medical condition, and any person who experiences this should seek medical attention.
Humourism is an ancient theory that the human body is filled with four basic substances, called the four humours, which are held in balance when a person is healthy. It is closely related to the ancient theory of the four elements and states that all diseases and disabilities result from an excess or deficit in black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Hippocrates, an ancient Greek medical doctor, is credited for this theory, about 400 BC. It influenced medical thinking for more than 2,000 years, until finally discredited in the 1800s.
Phlegm was thought to be associated with apathetic behaviour; this old belief is preserved in the word "phlegmatic". This adjective always refers to behaviour, and is pronounced differently, giving full weight to the "g": not /ˈflɛmatɪk/ but /flɛgˈmatɪk/.
The phlegm of Humourism is far from the same thing as phlegm as it is defined today. Nobel laureate Charles Richet MD, when describing humorism's "phlegm or pituitary secretion" in 1910 asked rhetorically, "this strange liquid, which is the cause of tumours, of chlorosis, of rheumatism, and cacochymia - where is it? Who will ever see it? Who has ever seen it? What can we say of this fanciful classification of humours into four groups, of which two are absolutely imaginary?"
Sir William Osler’s 1889 Aequanimitas discusses the imperturbability or calmness in a storm required of physicians. "'Imperturbability means coolness and presence of mind under all circumstances, calmness amid storm, clearness of judgment in moments of grave peril, immobility, impassiveness, or, to use an old and expressive word, phlegm." This was his farewell speech at the University of Pennsylvania in 1889 before becoming Physician-in-Chief at the recently founded Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. This is from "Celebrating the Contributions of William Osler" in the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions."
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