Airway Clearance

What are Airway Clearance Techniques?

Airway clearance techniques are exercises that loosen sticky excess mucus in your lungs to keep your airways clear and help you breathe more easily. 

Mucus is produced naturally in the lungs and helps to keep them moist and protected, however some lung conditions increase the amount of mucus in your lungs so that it becomes a problem. Excess mucus may also be extra thick or sticky, which makes it difficult for you to clear your chest by coughing alone, especially if your lungs are weak. Excess or hard-to-clear mucus can make you more feel more breathless and make you more at risk from repeated chest infections. 

Mucus in the lungs is also known as ‘sputum’ or ‘phlegm’.

How do I know if Airway Clearance is right for me?

Airway clearance can benefit anyone with a lung condition who struggles with a lot of thick or sticky mucus, which is hard to clear. People with Cystic Fibrosis, Bronchiectasis, and COPD can be particularly affected by problem mucus. If you think this sounds like you, speak to your GP, practice nurse or specialist respiratory team; they will know which chest clearance exercises are right for you and will be able to teach you when and how to do them correctly. If you do not have a GP, you can find out about local services using our service finder

Some of the signs and symptoms of problem mucus:

  • Noisy breaths, that may sound ‘musical’
  • A ‘rattling’ sound when you breathe or speak
  • Coughing more than normal
  • A ‘vibrating feeling’ if you place your hand on the outside of your chest
  • Oxygen levels that are lower than is normal for you

Examples of airway clearance exercises are listed below. Click on each exercise to find more information or a video. Please seek professional medical advice and training before using these exercises:

  • Postural drainage” (using different body positions to shift mucus after you have been sitting still or sleeping for a while) 
  • Huffing” (a technique to loosen mucus by breathing out as if you were steaming up a mirror)
  • Breathing control” (a method of gentle breathing that helps you to fill your lungs with oxygen)
  • Deep breathing/coughing” (a method of taking deep, relaxed in and out breaths to move mucus in a way that is less tiring than normal coughing)
  • Active Cycle of Breathing technique” (a combination of breathing control, huffing and deep breathing in a cycle to help loosen sticky stubborn mucus)
  • Autogenic drainage” (special breathing exercise to loosen and move mucus from different areas of your lungs so that it can be coughed out)
  • Percussion” (clapping the chest with a cupped hand to break up thick mucus so that it can be more easily coughed up)
  • Vibration” (using hands to gently shake or vibrate the chest to break up thick mucus so that it can be more easily coughed up)

You may also be offered a special device to help with chest clearance; these include:

Your GP or healthcare provider may prescribe you with mucolytics, which are drugs which help you to cough up mucus, and they work by making your mucus less sticky.

Where can I find out more?

To find out more about chest clearance techniques, speak to your GP, practice nurse or specialist respiratory team. The sites listed below also have lots of useful information:

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation- Airway Clearance

Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Respiratory Care