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What is a Chest Cold?

A chest cold is the non-medical term for an upper respiratory infection, such as bronchitis. Bronchitis causes the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from the lungs to become inflamed and irritated. This leads to increased mucus production and smaller openings for air to flow, which makes it harder to breathe.

Types

chest coldThere are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis comes on suddenly with symptoms that last for just a few weeks. Chronic bronchitis is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that’s associated with long-term symptoms that keep reoccurring or are never-ending.[1]  For the purpose of this article, we will only be referencing chest colds associated with acute bronchitis. More information about chronic bronchitis can be found here.

Chest Cold Symptoms

A chest cold can cause the following symptoms:[2]

  • Runny, stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Increased mucus production
  • Chest congestion
  • Wheezing
  • Pleuritic chest pain that hurts when you take a deep breath
  • Low-grade fever

Chest Cold Treatment

Most chest colds are the result of a viral infection and are thus treated with supportive therapy to help relieve symptoms. It’s important to note that antibiotics are ineffective in treating viral infections.

The following therapies include some of the best ways to relieve symptoms associated with a chest cold/acute bronchitis:

  • Ease symptoms with OTC cold medicationsover-the-counter decongestants and cough suppressants appear to be somewhat effective in relieving symptoms associated with chest colds, but the results are inconsistent. One study found that oral decongestants reduced nasal congestion by 6% with a single dose and 4% with subsequent doses. OTC cough medicines were shown to have a small benefit in relieving a cough with one study showing that 75% of participants reported that guaifenesin (Mucinex) was helpful for their cough.3 Oral antihistamine-decongestion tablets such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) combined with an analgesic such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) are shown to have some general benefit for adults with chest colds.[3]
  • Eliminate aches and fever with NSAIDS – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and acetaminophen (Tylenol) are effective in reducing pain and fever associated with an upper respiratory infection like a chest cold. Studies show that ibuprofen (Motrin) is more effective than Tylenol in reducing fever.[4]
  • Stay hydrated with fluids – increasing fluid intake during an upper respiratory infection is commonly recommended by many doctors, and is said to loosen congestion and prevent dehydration, although there is little evidence to support this. Water, juice, clear broth and warm lemon water with honey are just a few of the ways you can attain adequate hydration.[5] TIP: increasing fluid intake may be contraindicated in certain health conditions, such as congestive heart failure (CHF) and chronic kidney failure. Talk to your doctor first to make sure it’s appropriate
  • Recuperate with a little R & R – there’s nothing like a little rest and relaxation to rejuvenate and recuperate your body during an upper respiratory infection. To rest is to heal, so make sure to take a few days off to give your body a chance to restore itself back to health.
  • Break-up congestion with a humidifier – a cold-mist humidifier or vaporizer helps add moisture to the air, which may help loosen congestion.5 Don’t want to put out the money for one of these gadgets? Sitting in a hot shower filled with steam for 10-15 minutes will achieve the same results.

Chest Cold Prevention

Remember the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” To follow are some important tips for preventing chest colds before they start: 

  • Halt it with handwashing – because approximately 80% of infectious diseases are transmitted by touch, frequent, vigorous handwashing is one of the most important ways to prevent infections like a chest cold.[6] TIP: for handwashing to be most effective, scrub your hands, nails and wrists vigorously for 20 seconds with warm soap and water. If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.[7]
  • Zap it with zinc – zinc appears to be effective in reducing the number of colds per year in children, significantly lowering the annual rate of school absences and the use of antibiotics. Although the evidence for cold prevention comes from studies with children, there is no biological reason that it wouldn’t work for adults, as well.3 
  • Don’t forget your flu shot – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting an annual flu shot to protect yourself from flu viruses and bronchitis.5 
  • Keep your distance – cold and flu viruses are highly contagious and passed through the air and through touching something that a sick person has previously touched. You can prevent infection by staying away from people who are sick and avoiding crowds.5

When to See a Doctor

It’s important to visit your doctor as soon as possible if you develop any of the following:[8]

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • A fever that doesn’t go away
  • You’re unable to keep anything down
  • Severe pain when you swallow
  • You have a persistent cough that doesn’t resolve
  • Chest pain that radiates to your jaw or down your arm

If you have a chest cold that doesn’t want to go away, visit your primary care provider.

[1] WebMD. What is Bronchitis? Accessed June 27, 2018.

[2] STD-gov.org. Chest Cold: Everything You Need to Know. Accessed June 27, 2018.

[3] McCoul, Edward D., MD, MPH. Upper Respiratory Infections. American Rhinologic Society.Revised February 17, 2015.

[4] Allan, G. M., & Arroll, B. (2014). Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal186(3), 190–199. http://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.121442.

[5] Mayo Clinic. Cold Remedies: What works, what doesn’t, what can’t hurt.

[6] Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, MD. Tips to Help Prevent Colds and Flu. WebMD. Accessed January 23, 2014.

[7] Mayo Clinic. Hand-washing Do’s and Don’ts. January 10, 2018. 

[8] WebMD. When to see a doctor for a cold or flu. Last reviewed September 17, 2016.

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