Chest congestion is a common symptom of respiratory tract infections like the common cold. It’s what happens when the mucus membranes (mucosa) that line your airways jump into overdrive.
Chest Congestion Symptoms
- Excess mucus: Perhaps one of the most recognizable signs of a developing chest cough is excess mucus. While unpleasant, mucus actually plays an important role in protecting your respiratory tract. It works as a trap for harmful particles like germs and helps remove them from your system. So it's no surprise that a chest cold comes along with plenty of excess mucus, designed to get those nasty germs out of your airways. The texture and color of your mucus might change as your chest cold develops—it may start as thickened clear or white mucus that turns yellow or green as your cough continues. Don't read too much into the color of your mucus though- green mucus may look scary, but does not necessarily mean you need more aggressive treatment (or antibiotics).
- Coughing: You are also likely to develop a productive cough early in your chest cold journey, thanks to all that excess mucus. The presence of extra mucus trips up nerve endings, called mechanoreceptors, and activates your "cough reflex" that ends up as—you guessed it—a pesky cough. While disruptive and uncomfortable, coughing up mucus actually helps remove germs from your airways, so you can stay on track for recovery. Don't be surprised if your coughing starts early and continues even after your other symptoms have subsided. Depending on the severity of your chest cold, coughing might last for up to eight weeks.
Causes of Chest Congestion
When you breathe, you inhale particles that are floating around in the air like dust, allergens, bacteria or viruses. Usually, these particles are trapped in the mucus that covers the mucus membranes of your nose and airways. Then tiny hairs called cilia transport the mucus (with the trapped particles) toward the throat. From there it can be coughed out, also known as expectorating.
But sometimes, particles like dust can irritate your mucus membranes or a virus or bacteria can cause an infection. This causes inflammation and results in extra mucus in your airways. This extra mucus is one of the ways your body tries to remove an irritant.
With excessive, thicker, mucus, your body may not be able to get rid of it in the usual ways. This is why you may start coughing more. Coughing is a way for your body to get rid of irritants in your airways or an accumulation of extra mucus that is stuck inside your lungs.
Ways to Get Chest Congestion Symptom Relief
There are simple things you can do to thin and loosen the extra mucus that has gotten thicker and taken up residence in your lungs:
- Stay hydrated. Drinking lots of water can help thin the mucus that has thickened and gotten stuck in your lungs. Stay away from beverages that will dehydrate you, like alcohol or caffeinated drinks.
- Steam things up. Steam can help moisturize your airways and loosen the dried mucus, much like drinking water will. Use a humidifier or a cool mist vaporizer, or just stick your head over a pot of warm water. Taking a hot shower will also work.
Over-the-Counter Chest Congestion Treatment Options
When you have chest congestion, you want to thin and loosen the mucus that’s caught in your lungs so it’s easier to cough out. An OTC medication may offer some relief. Medications containing guaifenesin can help thin and break up mucus, so you can cough it up more easily. Try Mucinex® Extended Release Bi-Layer Tablets or Maximum Strength Mucinex® for chest congestion relief. Whichever you choose, use as directed.
When to See Your Doctor for Chest Congestion
See a physician if you develop a fever higher than 100 degrees F, you're having trouble breathing (or you're wheezing), you're coughing up blood or your chest cold is keeping you up at night, recommends the Mayo Clinic. Other indications that it’s time to see a doctor for your chest congestion are yellow or green mucus, if you’re experiencing wheezing or shortness of breath, or your cold doesn't start getting better in seven to 10 days.