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8 Main Causes of Chest Congestion

chest congestion, common cold, chest, chest painChest congestion – that annoying tightness you feel in your chest, under and around your breast bone. It’s a common symptom of many respiratory ailments, but when could it be a sign of something more serious? Let’s take a look…

Defining Chest Congestion

If we asked 10 different people to define chest congestion, we’d 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 may even have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.[1] But what illness or disease causes these symptoms?

To follow are the 8 main causes of chest congestion:

Common Cold

Colds are the most common cause of chest congestion. They may be accompanied by a sore throat, runny, 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.


Pollen – dust – pet dander – triggers like these cause allergies, another common cause of chest congestion. Other symptoms may include itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and wheezing. Allergies occur when the immune system reacts to a foreign substance that’s 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 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, chest congestion, coughing up green, yellow or bloody mucus, fever and chills. Most 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.1
chest congestion, bronchitis, bronchi, chest, chest pain


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, 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’s 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 can’t 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 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’ve 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]

When Should You Call the Doctor About Chest Congestion?

chest congestion, x-ray, chest, chest painThe good news about the common cold is that over time, your symptoms tend to improve. One sign that you should see a doctor is when your symptoms get worse over time, not better. Other symptoms that warrant a call to the doctor include:[5]

  • Chest pain or pressure that doesn’t 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’re going to faint
  • Cold symptoms that lasts longer than 10-14 days

If you’re 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.


[1] WebMD. Why is My Chest Congested? Last reviewed February 3, 2016.

[2] WebMD. Bronchitis Directory. Accessed November 27, 2017.

[3] World Health Organization. Tuberculosis Fact Sheet. Updated October, 2017

[4] U.S. National Library of Medicine. Heart Failure. Accessed November 26, 2017.

[5] Health Central. 8 Signs You Should See a Doctor About a Cold. March 28, 2012.

10 thoughts on “8 Main Causes of Chest Congestion”

  1. Joanne Walker says:

    I have a tightness in my neck near where my thyroid gland is. Have difficulty breathing fully, have nausea sometimes, b ut no vomiting. Feel light headed. This comes and goes sometimes in remissions for months only to reappear.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Joanne, We're sorry to hear about the symptoms you are experiencing. Nausea and light-headedness can be caused for a variety of health reasons. Please consult your primary care doctor about your symptoms as she or he is familiar with your medical history and will be able to diagnosis you.

  2. sharon fendrick says:

    Very good information on COPD. May help a lot of us who have it.

  3. cynthia rydzenski says:

    Glad to get any info on COPD. I enclosed my e-mail for
    future info.

  4. Luci says:

    Pneumonia should never be treated at home. The longer you go with out medical treatment the worse it gets.

  5. Owen Lee says:

    I have a shortness of breath when I speak, especially when I speak a lot or feel exciting about something. I went to the hospital and did several inspection of heart disease and lung, but It did't find out any serious issue. A month has go by, but the symptoms still exist on me. GOD BLESS ME, WHAT'S WRONG WITH MY BODY!

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Owen, We're sorry to hear about your symptoms and we hope you find a diagnosis soon! We understand how frustrating it can be to have unexplained symptoms. Unfortunately we are not familiar with diseases that cause the symptoms you mentioned and because we are not your primary care doctor we are not able to offer you a diagnosis.

  6. Iqa says:

    Hi..im experiencing episodic chest tightness. Dr. told me tht i hv inflammed nose lining. Im also experiencing headache and difficulty breathing at times. I dont hv runny nose, sneezing or coughing symptom. This has been going on for almost 2 months. But when i go to the doctor, they will only give me meds to treat allergic and gave me a saline nose drip but i still feel chest tightness and difficulty breathing. Should I be concern about my condition and refer to an ent specialist?

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Dear Iqa,
      We're sorry to hear you are in such discomfort. It is always a good idea to discuss this with your doctor if you are concerned and ask for a referral. The worst they can say is NO.
      We hope you feel better soon.

  7. Inara Mitchell says:

    I have been suffering with nasal congestion for over a year. When breathing I feel bubbles popping in my nose and lungs. I do a neti pot with no long term help. My doctor has me on Azthromycin and prednesone for 5 days I feel my nose swelling during the day. I also have advair disc and spiriva in the am and pm. HELP! I am 73.

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