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6 Main Chest Congestion Causes

chest congestion, common cold, chest, chest painChest congestion – that annoying tightness you feel in your chest and under and around your breast bone when you have excess mucus you are unable to cough up. It is a common symptom of many respiratory ailments, but when could it be a sign of something more serious? Let’s take a look at chest congestion causes, common symptoms and how to get rid of chest congestion when you have mucus in your chest that won’t come up.

What Is Chest Congestion?

If you were to ask 10 different people to define chest congestion, you would probably get 10 different answers. Put simply, chest congestion is a non-medical term for a build-up of fluids and mucus in the lungs. Your chest may feel heavy and stiff. There may be pain when you try to take a deep breath. You may, or may not, have a cough that produces mucus. You could feel like you have a buildup of mucus in your chest that won’t come up. You may even have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.[1] But what illnesses or diseases cause these symptoms?

Chest Congestion Causes

The following are the six main causes of chest congestion. Some of these chest congestion causes include lung congestion with a cough, while others include chest congestion with no cough. You may even experience chest congestion, but not feel sick. Regardless, knowing the most common chest congestion causes can help you identify a problem before it becomes dangerous to your health.

Common Cold

Colds are the most common cause of chest congestion. They may be accompanied by a sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and coughing up large amounts of mucus. With plenty of rest and fluids, and perhaps some of grandma’s chicken soup, your cold symptoms will usually resolve on their own in about 10 days, although some colds can last longer.

Allergies

Experiencing chest congestion, but not sick? Pollen, dust, pet dander – triggers like these can cause allergies, another common cause of chest congestion. In addition to lung congestion, with or without cough, other symptoms may include itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and wheezing. Allergies occur when the immune system reacts to a foreign substance that is usually harmless to most people. Relief from allergies may be obtained through over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants. Allergy shots may also help.[1]

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection in your lungs caused by a virus, bacteria or fungus. You may start off with flu-like symptoms such as shortness of breath, fever, chills, chest congestion and coughing up green, yellow or bloody mucus. Some of the time, pneumonia can be treated at home. But for older adults and people with underlying health conditions, pneumonia can be quite serious and may have to be treated with intravenous antibiotics in the hospital. If there is concern that your chest congestion has become pneumonia, see a doctor.[1]

chest congestion, bronchitis, bronchi, chest, chest pain

Bronchitis

Bronchitis causes inflammation and swelling of the bronchial tubes, the passageways by which air flows through the nose or mouth to the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs. There are two kinds of bronchitis: Acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term). Acute bronchitis is caused by a viral infection, comes on suddenly and usually resolves itself in a matter of weeks. Chronic bronchitis is mainly caused by smoking, has an insidious onset and is irreversible, although treatment can help manage symptoms. Signs and symptoms of both types of bronchitis include chest congestion, cough with mucus production, wheezing, shortness of breath and fatigue.[2]

Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis, or TB for short, is caused by a bacterium known as Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It spreads from person to person through droplets in the air. Symptoms include cough with mucus production that is sometimes bloody, chest pain, weakness, weight loss, fever and night sweats. TB is a curable and preventable disease that is treated with a standard 6-month course of 4 different antimicrobial drugs.[3]

Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

CHF, or heart failure, occurs when the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the continuous demands of the body. This causes blood and fluid to back up in the lungs, as well as fluid build-up in the feet, ankles and legs (edema). Additional symptoms of CHF include shortness of breath, chest congestion with no cough and fatigue. Common causes of CHF include coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. This illness is most common in people over 65, African Americans, people who are overweight and people who have had a heart attack. Men are more prone to CHF than women. Treatment focuses on the underlying cause, medication, fluid restriction and heart transplant, if standard treatment options fail.[4]

Relief for Chest Congestion

If you are wondering how to get rid of chest congestion, or how to treat the discomfort associated with lung congestion, there are a few things you can do to alleviate your symptoms. Whether you have all the signs of the cold your coworker just had or are feeling chest congestion but are not sick at all, do not ignore this symptom. If it has just started, try the following to see if you are able to thin the mucus build-up in your lungs.

  • Essential oils: Some studies have indicated that essential oils can be beneficial for certain bacterial infections, including some that cause lung congestion and chest congestion. Also consider a rub applied to the chest that includes camphor, menthol and eucalyptus to help alleviate chest congestion.
  • Honey: If you are experiencing a cough with your chest congestion, studies show that a spoonful honey is quite effective for helping to reduce coughing at night and helping improve sleep quality.
  • Medication: Expectorants that can be purchased over-the-counter (like Mucinex and Robitussin) can help break up the mucus causing your chest congestion, allowing you to cough up the mucus to clear your chest. Talk to your doctor about whether or not an expectorant is the right choice for your chest congestion causes.
  • Steam: Use a humidifier or spend some time in a steamy shower to loosen the mucus in your chest, allowing you to cough it up. The shower has the added benefit of warmth, which can help open your airways a little, too (unless you have asthma). 
  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water and other decaffeinated liquids to help keep mucus from getting too thick and sticky. There is some evidence that chicken soup may actually benefit your health when you are congested as well, so a good old-fashioned bowl of chicken soup might be a good idea, too. 

When you are ready to figure out how to get rid of chest congestion, it is a good idea to ensure that rest and hydration are incorporated into your treatment plan. If you have any kind of lung disease or breathing condition, it is likely you are already taking medication to treat your symptoms. If that is the case and you want to try medication for your lung congestion, check in with your health care provider before taking over-the-counter medicine, as it could cause unfortunate interactions or side effects for you.

chest congestion, x-ray, chest, chest pain

When Should You Call the Doctor About Chest Congestion?

If your chest congestion is caused by the common cold, the good news is that, over time, your symptoms tend to improve. However, not all chest congestion causes begin or end with the common cold. One sign that you should see a doctor is when your symptoms get worse, not better. If you feel like you have a buildup of mucus in your chest that won’t come up and won’t go away, that is your cue to see your doctor. Other symptoms that warrant a call or a visit to the doctor include:[5]

  • Chest pain or pressure that does not go away with rest
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Prolonged high fever (over 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Cough that lasts longer than 10 days
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Fainting or feeling like you are going to faint
  • Cold symptoms that lasts longer than 10-14 days

If you are not sure whether you should call a doctor about your symptoms, err on the side of caution and call. Staff at your doctor’s office will be able to help determine whether or not you should see a doctor. If you already have a health condition that may be complicated by chest congestion, call sooner rather than later. 

COVID-19 and Chest Congestion

As the medical community continues to learn about COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, many people feel confused about what is and is not a symptom of COVID-19. The list of possible symptoms continues to grow, so as of now, it is important that you consider having possibly been exposed to COVID-19 if you begin to feel ill.[6] While chest congestion is not a common symptom of COVID-19, it has been known to develop as the symptoms of the virus progress.[7] COVID-19 symptoms also tend change over time and are frequently long-lasting, often lasting at least three or four weeks and sometimes lasting months. As such, it is important to take potential symptoms seriously so that you can get the rest and treatment you need to recover as quickly as possible. 

If you develop chest congestion, along with other possible symptoms of COVID-19, talk to your health care provider right away and find out if you can be tested for COVID-19. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, fatigue, dry cough, loss of appetite, body aches, shortness of breath or an increase in mucus or phlegm.[6] In addition, other symptoms may include chills, diarrhea, headache, loss of smell and/or taste, nausea, nasal congestion, rash, sore throat and vomiting.[6] If you present with any of the severe symptoms of COVID-19, including blue-tinged lips or face, constant chest pain or pressure, stroke symptoms, sudden confusion or trouble breathing, call your doctor or the hospital right away. With COVID-19 symptoms, it is critical that you let your health care team know that you are coming and may have been exposed so that they are able to treat you correctly and take the proper precautions.

Frequently Asked Questions: Chest Congestion

How do you get rid of mucus in your chest?

The first thing you need to do to relieve chest congestion is make sure you are well hydrated. This will help ensure that the mucus is thin enough to cough up. Water is ideal, but many people find that warm tea is helpful, as is warm water with lemon and honey. Inhaling steam, from a humidifier or a shower, can also help loosen the mucus in your chest. Breathe the steam for as long as it feels comfortable and effective. Finally, you can use an expectorant to help break up the mucus, allowing you to cough it up. If you experience chest congestion lasting more than three days, or chest congestion that suddenly gets worse, contact your doctor. If your chest congestion causes you to cough up bloody mucus, or comes with a fever, wheezing, chest pain or breathing difficulties, seek medical attention right away. 

What can you do about mucus in your chest that won’t come up?

If you are experiencing a buildup of mucus in your chest, but hydration, steam and expectorants are not giving you sufficient relief, there are a few controlled coughing techniques that may help. It can be useful to try these techniques to help you avoid coughing incorrectly and hurting your throat or abdominal muscles. These two coughing techniques are simple yet effective ways to clear mucus buildup in your chest and lungs. 

  • The Huff-Cough Technique: Sit with your chin tilted slightly up and breathe into your diaphragm with an open mouth. Breathe normally, then hold a final breathe for 2 or 3 seconds. Tighten your abdominal and chest muscles and forcefully exhale through an open mouth, making a “huff” sound. Repeat twice, following with a strong single cough to clear the mucus from your airways.
  • Deep Controlled Coughing: Sit upright in a chair with your feet on the ground and relax your body. Place the fist of your dominant hand just below your ribcage, wrapping your other hand around your fist. Inhale deeply through your nose and push your belly outward while holding your breath for 3 seconds. Lean forward and slowly exhale through a partially open mouth, then cough sharp and short 2 or 3 times while pushing your fist inward on your abdomen. Point your elbows straight out, feeling for your diaphragm moving upward when you cough. Inhale while sniffing through your nose to prevent mucus from draining back into your chest and lungs. Spit out any mucus you cough up.

As always, it is a good idea to check in with your doctor if your mucus buildup lasts more than three days, or if it suddenly gets worse.

Can you use home remedies to get rid of chest congestion?

Home remedies like chicken soup, steamy showers, hot water with lemon and honey and breathing essential oils like camphor, peppermint and eucalyptus can actually help alleviate your symptoms. These methods help thin and loosen your lung congestion, helping you cough it up. 

What is chest congestion caused by?

Chest congestion can be caused by any number of issues, including acid reflux, allergies, asthma, bronchitis, COPD, cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, respiratory infections, tuberculosis and other pulmonary conditions. While some amount of chest congestion is normal for common conditions like a cold or allergies, it is a good idea to see a doctor if your chest congestion causes other symptoms or lasts longer than three days. 

What does it mean if I have chest congestion, but I’m not sick?

Chest congestion is generally a sign that something is off in your lungs. Even if you do not have other symptoms of illness, it is important to see your doctor if you have any chest congestion lasting more than 3 days. If you do not feel sick, other than your chest congestion, you could be experiencing symptoms of allergies, asthma, pneumonia, COPD or even lung cancer or heart failure. As such, chest congestion should be taken seriously, even if you do not feel sick. Take note of how you feel overall, noticing if you may also be experiencing symptoms you may have ignored, like fatigue or weakness, hoarseness, weight loss or gain, swollen lower extremities, chest, back or arm pain or shortness of breath.[1] These symptoms may indicate more serious concerns with your heart or lung health. If you feel chest congestion, but not sick at all, it is still important that you get checked out by a doctor, just to make sure that nothing else is wrong.


Sources

[1] Felson, Sabrina. “Why Are My Lungs Congested? Heart Failure, Pneumonia, COPD, Asthma, and More.” WebMD, WebMD, 4 Feb. 2020, www.webmd.com/heart-disease/heart-failure/why-is-it-hard-for-me-to-breathe#1.

[2] “Bronchitis (Acute and Chronic): Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment.” WebMD, WebMD, 2 Apr. 2020, www.webmd.com/lung/understanding-bronchitis-basics.

[3] “Tuberculosis (TB).” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 24 Mar. 2020, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/tuberculosis.

[4] “Congestive Heart Failure | Heart Failure | CHF.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 30 Apr. 2020, medlineplus.gov/heartfailure.html.

[5] “What Are the Signs That You Should See a Doctor about a Cold?” HealthCentral, HealthCentral, 28 Mar. 2012, www.healthcentral.com/slideshow/8-signs-you-should-see-a-doctor-about-a-cold.

[6] Nazario, Brunilda. “Symptoms of Coronavirus: Early Signs, Serious Symptoms and More.” WebMD, WebMD, 29 June 2020, www.webmd.com/lung/covid-19-symptoms#1.

[7] D’Ambrosio, Amanda. “COVID-19 Sequelae Can Linger for Weeks.” Medical News and Free CME Online, MedpageToday, 13 May 2020, www.medpagetoday.com/infectiousdisease/covid19/86482.

 

Additional Sources 

Paul, Ian M. “Effect of Honey, Dextromethorphan, and No Treatment on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality for Coughing Children and Their Parents.” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, American Medical Association, 1 Dec. 2007, jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/571638.

Beckerman, James. “Congestive Heart Failure: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Types, Stages.” WebMD, WebMD, 5 Sept. 2018, www.webmd.com/heart-disease/guide-heart-failure#1.

“Chest Congestion: Causes, Symptoms and Remedies.” Mucinex USA, Mucinex, www.mucinex.com/blogs/cold-flu-symptoms/chest-congestion-causes-symptoms-and-remedies.

Choi, Seo Yeon, and Kyungsook Park. “Effect of Inhalation of Aromatherapy Oil on Patients with Perennial Allergic Rhinitis: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : ECAM, Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 13 Mar. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4808543/.

Drayer, Lisa. “Does Chicken Soup Really Help Fight a Cold?” CNN, Cable News Network, 9 Mar. 2018, www.cnn.com/2017/12/01/health/chicken-soup-food-drayer/index.html.

Felson, Sabrina. “Why Are My Lungs Congested? Heart Failure, Pneumonia, COPD, Asthma, and More.” WebMD, WebMD, 4 Feb. 2020, www.webmd.com/heart-disease/heart-failure/why-is-it-hard-for-me-to-breathe#1.

 
 

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