Tightness or heaviness in your chest: if you've ever had a bad cold, you know how that feels. Chest congestion is a common symptom of respiratory infections like the common cold, but it can also be a sign of other, more severe conditions. Knowing what to watch out for can help you protect yourself, and knowing how to treat congestion for less serious conditions can make them more comfortable to endure.
Common Causes of Chest Congestion
Most chest congestion is related to fairly common conditions that are usually manageable, including the common cold and other respiratory infections, allergies, and asthma. At the mechanical level, congestion happens when you inhale particles floating in the air, like dust or allergens that irritate the mucus membranes, or harmful viruses or bacteria that cause an infection. In either situation, mucus is produced as a way of removing these foreign bodies and protecting your airways. That's why you have so much tissue in your body that secretes mucus -- it's in your mouth, throat, nose, sinuses, lungs, and even your gastrointestinal tract.
Below, we have provided an overview of the most common conditions that result in chest congestion. We're also going to be saying the word "mucus" a lot, so you may want to resign yourself to that right now:
Upper Respiratory Infection, or the Common Cold: One of the most common illnesses in the world and the likely reason for your chest congestion. An estimated one billion colds are suffered per year in the United States, caused by such viruses as the rhinovirus. Symptoms are mostly caused by your immune system's reaction to the virus. Chest congestion symptoms may include:
- Excess mucus production: Mucus production is uncomfortable and frankly gross, but it's actually a feature of your immune response, designed to protect your respiratory tract. Mucus is a trap for foreign particles and germs, capturing them and preventing them from further inflaming your respiratory system.
- Coughing: The persistent cough that comes with a cold is disruptive and unpleasant, but it too serves a purpose. Excess mucus triggers nerve endings called mechanoreceptors, causing a cough reflex that expels the mucus, and with it, the germs or particles that are causing your inflammation.
Acute Bronchitis: Also called a chest cold, this is similar to the common cold and may accompany or follow it. It's when the bronchi, the airways of the lungs, become inflamed, usually as a result of a virus. Similar treatments to the common cold are recommended, as this usually also requires letting a virus run its course. Repeated instances of bronchitis, or a period of bronchitis lasting three months or more, suggest COPD, discussed below.
Allergies: This is when your immune system has a reaction to a foreign substance that's not necessarily harmful. The substance itself may not be a threat, but your body doesn't recognize it as natural, and triggers a response that may cause uncomfortable physical symptoms. Mucus production is a way to trap the particles of this foreign substance and cough them out of your body. This is most likely to happen with a lot of common allergies, including pollen, dust, and pet dander.
Asthma: A condition in which your airways become inflamed and then swell and produce extra mucus, which can make breathing difficult. You may have a wheezing sound when you breathe, and the condition may get worse during or after exercise, when you have a cold, or in response to allergy triggers. Coughing and shortness of breath are also common. People with asthma may have inhalers or nebulizer machines to treat the condition, as well as vibratory PEP devices to clear mucus secretions.
More Severe Causes of Congestion
Those are the most likely causes of chest congestion, and whether it's a temporary condition like a cold or a chronic disease like asthma, they're all experienced by many people every year. Although the following illnesses are not uncommon, they're more urgent conditions and not manageable on your own.
Pneumonia: A lung infection that inflames the air sacs in your lungs and may come from bacteria, fungus, or a virus. It can fill your lungs with fluid and is sometimes triggered by a bout of influenza. You may cough up mucus which may also be bloody. You may also experience:
- Localized chest pain when breathing in.
Pneumonia may be mild or severe, but it most dangerous in infants, smaller children, and adults over 65. Many cases require an antibiotic to kill the bacteria or fungi that caused the infection.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: COPD, also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, is a disease where the airways in your lungs get inflamed and thicken over time. Smoking often causes COPD. This makes it harder to both breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, which causes shortness of breath that worsens over time. Many COPD patients have rescue inhalers, in addition to other medications, and some use oxygen tanks.
Lung Cancer: Like COPD, this is often caused by long-term smoking or exposure to cigarette smoke, as well as to dangerous substances like asbestos or radon gas. Symptoms may include:
- Chest pain.
- Shortness of breath.
- Coughing up blood.
- Frequency of lung infections like pneumonia or bronchitis.
Heart Disease or Failure: When your heart weakens and doesn't pump blood as strongly, your lungs can fill with blood or fluid. This is an extremely serious condition, and one that requires immediate medical intervention. Other indicating symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath, especially while lying down.
- Coughing, particularly at night.
- Fatigue, tiredness, and weakness.
- Weight gain.
- Swollen legs and ankles.
Treating Chest Congestion
Now that we've identified the causes of congestion, we're going to discuss how best to prevent and treat it. Some of these conditions require specialized care, but there are some basic health and treatment guidelines that can be used to avoid or improve any respiratory conditions:
Avoid Smoking: This also goes for exposure to secondhand smoke. Smoke irritates the airways and lungs, and the results of that long-term exposure can be fatal.
Stay Hydrated: The same properties that make mucus effective in trapping substances also make it hard to get rid of. If you're suffering from congestion, drinking water will help thin the excess mucus, allowing you to expel it more easily. This can also be achieved with nasal irrigation, in which devices like Neti pots or nasal syringes are used to help flush mucus and substances out of nasal and sinus passages.
Steam Power: Steam can both provide moisture for your airways and loosen mucus that has dried, which can happen due to dry environments, smoking, lack of hydration, and some medications. You can use a humidifier or vaporizer, or even just take a hot shower or boil some water and inhale the steam.
Vibratory Devices: PEP, or Positive Expiratory Pressure, therapy devices create pressure in the lungs and keeps airways from closing, which helps mucus to move into the larger airway. This allows the mucus to be more easily cleared by coughing, in the case of some PEP devices, with vibrations to loosen it. These are particularly useful for those with chronic respiratory conditions.
Air Purifiers: If you have allergies, an air purifier to remove particles in the air can help prevent you from breathing in allergens, which prevents your airways from being inflamed and an allergic response triggering.
Decongestants: These medications constrict blood vessels, which prevents liquid from entering the nose, throat, and sinus linings. This decreases mucus production as well as inflammation of the nasal membranes. Common decongestants include pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, or oxymetazoline. You'll usually find decongestants in two types:
- Pills & Syrups: If you've ever seen a medicine's name followed by the letter "D," you've seen a medicine that includes a decongestant.
- Nasal Sprays: As topical decongestants, nasal sprays work more quickly, but can only be used for short periods of time, usually 2-3 days.
Antihistamines: These medications are typically for treating allergies. They work to block histamines from binding to receptors that create an allergic reaction. Common antihistamines include diphenhydramine or chlorphenamine. They may have some inconvenient side effects: some create drowsiness, or cause dryness in the eyes, nose, and mouth -- that dryness may worsen congestion, so make sure you're staying hydrated.