Fact check: Mucus is a symptom of several diseases, not the cause

·4 min read

The claim: Mucus is the cause of every disease

Mucus does more than cause congestion. It is highly beneficial to our health, trapping pathogens and protecting the body from infection.

But a recent post on Instagram claims mucus has no benefits. Instead, it is the root of all ailments.

"Mucus is the cause of every disease," reads the Sept. 26 post. "Eliminate the mucus and eliminate the disease."

The post received more than 1,500 likes within a week. Similar versions have accumulated hundreds of interactions on Instagram.

The quote is attributed to an herbalist named "Dr. Sebi," born Alfredo Bowman, who died in 2016. He believed mucus and acidity caused disease.

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But the claim has no basis in fact. Experts say that in some chronic diseases, changes in the type and quantity of mucus can contribute to illness. But for the most part, the slimy secretion lining our airways, intestinal tracts and other parts of our bodies is a symptom of a disease – not a cause. And is actually crucial to keeping the body healthy.

USA TODAY reached out to the Instagram user who shared the post for comment.

Mucus a symptom of disease, not cause

Mucus is a gelatinous, slippery fluid created by cells lining the parts of our bodies exposed to the external environment, like the respiratory and intestinal tracts and organs including the liver and pancreas.

To the human eye, healthy mucus’ clear appearance may not seem like much, but it is actually quite complex structurally and chemically. It contains antibodies, enzymes and proteins and serves to protect the organ or organ system producing it, Dr. Enid Neptune, a pulmonologist and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told USA TODAY.

“In the lungs, (mucus) has a function of lubrication, and so it keeps your airways moist," she said. It's "a waste disposal system where it's able to capture lots of cellular debris turning over in the lungs."

But mucus’ most important function, Neptune said, is trapping airborne particulates, like dust, or more crucially, foreign pathogens like viruses and bacteria. Mucus’ filter mechanism is one of the body’s first lines of defense against would-be attackers.

In other words, it serves to stop disease – not originating it as the claim alleges.

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Some illnesses exacerbated by mucus

Mucus can become a problem, however, if the wrong amount is present.

“(The amount of mucus needed) is very similar to the kind of ‘Three Bears’ paradigm with too much or too little is a problem, you have to have it just right,” she said.

For the most part, too much mucus, like when you come down with a cold and have a runny nose, is just a byproduct of being sick and not the principal cause of an illness.

However, in some conditions, abnormalities or overproduction of mucus can actually contribute to disease, Leah Reznikov, assistant professor of physiological sciences in the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, told USA TODAY.

“Abnormal mucus certainly contributes to disease and can be considered a pathologic feature of specific diseases, such as asthma and cystic fibrosis,” she wrote in an email.

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Neptune agreed, saying that in cystic fibrosis – a genetic condition that affects mucus production throughout the body – and a respiratory disease called chronic bronchitis, too much mucus piling up acts as a breeding ground for bacteria.

The average person generates more than a liter of mucus a day. That includes snot, saliva and cervical mucus, as well as protective coatings for the digestive system, urinary tract, lungs, nose and eyes, according to MIT Scope, an online publication from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's science writing graduate program.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that mucus is the cause of every disease. Experts say too little or too much mucus can result in illness, but the sweeping generality in this claim is far from accurate. The slippery secretion is typically a symptom of disease, not a cause. It acts as a barrier against bacteria, keeps the body safe from infection and performs other vital functions throughout the body.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Mucus is a symptom, not the cause, of diseases

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