Chest congestion is common in people of almost all age groups. It could be caused by something as trivial as a cold or by severe respiratory infections. In this write-up, we are going to look at what causes chest congestion and when to see a doctor about it.
1. What is Chest Congestion?
Chest Congestion refers to accumulation of mucus in the bronchi and lungs, which creates a feeling of heaviness and tightness in the chest. It could be caused by something as common as a cold or be a symptom of acute respiratory conditions like bronchitis. Chest condition causes the feeling of an uncomfortable fullness in your chest.
2. Why do Lungs Produce Mucus?
2.1. Air Protection
Though lungs are continuously exposed to pathogens, particles, and toxic chemicals in inhaled air, they are remarkably resistant to environmental injuries. This is due to highly effective defense provided by airway mucus, which is an extracellular gel mainly composed of water and toxins. A deficient mucus barrier makes the lungs vulnerable to injury while excessive mucus production contributes to the pathogenesis of all the common airway diseases.
2.2. Moistening & Lubrication
Mucus plays an important role in moistening and lubricating your airways, which helps in smoother passage of air during inhalation and exhalation. This moisture is necessary to maintain the health and proper function of the respiratory epithelial cells.
2.3. Defense Against Infections
Lung mucus contains substances like lysozyme, lactoferrin or peroxide, which participate in the nonspecific first-line of defence to invasion by microorganisms. These components help in neutralising and eliminating pathogens, and thus minimise infections in your lungs.
2.4. Ciliary Action
Cilia are minute, slender, hair-like organelles present in all mammary cells. Our bronchi are lined with cilia that move microbes and debris up and out of the airways. Goblet cells scattered throughout the cilia secrete mucus which helps protect the lining of the bronchus and trap microorganisms that you inhale. The coordinated movement of cilia, along with the presence of mucus, forms what we call the mucociliary clearance system.
Mucus produced in the lungs plays an important role in maintaining optimal humidity levels in the airways, preventing them from becoming too dry. This is important for proper functioning of the respiratory system. In average, a healthy adult person evaporates 200 to 300 ml of water per day.
3. What Causes Chest Congestion?
Chest congestion can occur due to acute and/or chronic conditions. Here is a list of acute as well as chronic conditions that can cause excessive mucus build up in your lungs:
3.1. Acute Conditions
Here are some acute conditions that can lead to chest congestion.
3.1.1. Chest Cold or Acute Bronchitis
Chest cold, a common term used to refer to acute bronchitis can cause excess mucus production in your lungs. This condition causes your lungs’ airways to swell, resulting in excess production of mucus. The mucus may be thick due to the presence of bacteria and cells trying to fight the infection. Acute bronchitis typically lasts about 2 to 3 weeks and symptoms of this condition include coughing (with or without mucus), soreness in the chest, fatigue, sore throat, and mild headaches and body aches.
3.1.2. The Flu or Influenza
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is an infection caused by influenza viruses. It is a contagious disease that causes symptoms like congestion, fever, and body aches, and leads to excess mucus production in your lungs as well as airways. Most symptoms of the flu go away in about 4 to 7 days though the cough and fatigue may last longer. Some patients also lose appetite. Influenza can intensify other medical conditions such as asthma, breathing problems, and other long-term or chronic illnesses.
3.2. Chronic Conditions
Here are some chronic conditions that can lead to chest congestion.
3.2.1. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes restricted airflow as well as breathing problems. When a person has this condition, the muscles that surround their airways may tighten up and the damaged airways start producing mucus in excess in order to clear the irritants away. The most common symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease include breathing difficulties, chronic cough (with or without phlegm), and fatigue.
People with asthma often have their bronchi inflamed or more sensitive than normal. So when they come in contact with lung irritants, their airways become narrow, the muscles around them tighten, and there is an increase in the production of sticky mucus or phlegm. In short, airway inflammation causes excess mucus production in asthmatic patients. Excess mucus also contributes to airway obstruction in asthma.
3.2.3. Cystic Fibrosis
Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease that affects the cells that produce mucus, sweat and digestive juices. This condition causes sticky, thick mucus to build up in organs, including the lungs and pancreas. This life-threatening disorder is one of the most common chronic lung diseases in children and young adults. Among white children the United States, 1 in 2,500 to 3,500 new-borns have cystic fibrosis. Symptoms of this condition include delayed growth, breathing difficulty, lose or oily stools, and recurrent wheezing, to mention just a few.
This is a chronic lung condition where your airways widen or develop pouches. Bronchiectasis causes coughing with a lot of mucus and frequent infections. Other common symptoms include dyspnea, hemoptysis, and swollen fingertips with curved nails. This chronic condition affects around 350,000 to 500,000 adults in the United States.
3.2.5. Nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM) Lung Disease
Nontuberculous mycobacterial (NTM) lung disease is a lung infection that is caused by bacteria naturally found in soil and water. These infections are becoming more common, especially in people who are 65 or older. The rate of such infections is increasing by about 8 per cent each year.
4. What are the Symptoms of Chest Congestion?
As we have already discussed, chest congestion can be caused due to underlying acute or chronic health conditions. In most cases, it exists with other symptoms. Acute infections that cause chest congestion may cause symptoms such as fever, chills, sore throat, cough, headache, chest discomfort, stuffy nose and body aches.
5. When to see a doctor about chest congestion?
Chest congestion may go away on its own but you need to see the doctor or seek emergency care if your symptoms get more severe. You should see a doctor in case you have a fever that is over 100.4°, a cough that has lasted for more than 3 weeks, or if you cough up blood. You need to seek emergency care if you face symptoms like breathing difficulty, extreme chest pain, or flu-like symptoms that temporarily go away and keep coming back after a few days.
6. Some Home Remedies to treat Chest Congestion
We can get rid of mucus in certain natural ways. Here is a list of home remedies that can help treat chest congestion.
6.1. Drinking Liquids
Drinking lots of fluids will help thin out mucus and relieve congestion. Drinking warm liquids will help clear mucus in your chest as well as nose. We often hear this advice because it is a quite effective one.
6.2. Gargling with salt water
Studies have shown that gargling with warm salt water helps relieve symptoms of a cold, which includes excess mucus. Take a cup of warm filtered or bottled water and add three-quarters teaspoon (tsp) of salt to it. After you have mixed it well, take a sip, tilt your head slightly backwards and gargle for 30-60 seconds. This will relieve chest congestion and cure cold. Alternatively, you could use saline solution in spray or neti pot form.
6.3. Keeping your head elevated
Keeping your head elevated most of the time, especially at night, can help get rid of excess mucus. This is because keeping your head elevated will drain out mucus faster. You can prop up a few pillows under your head to keep it elevated at night.
6.4. Using a humidifier
Inhaling steam is one of the most effective ways to loosen up mucus and clear up chest congestion. You can get a humidifier from your local drugstore and may find it beneficial to place it near your bed to ease congestion while you are asleep. If you want to create your own steam room or humidifier at home, you could breathe in steam in the shower or you could lean on a bowl filled with hot water, place a hand towel over your head to help trap the steam around your face and inhale it. This will help relieve chest congestion quickly and effectively.
6.5. Taking Honey
Consuming honey can also help loosen up cough and relieve chest congestion. Honey has anti-inflammatory properties as well as demulcent effects, which means that it has a soothing effect on mucus membranes by creating a film. It will also provide temporary relief from the irritating sensation that triggers your cough reflex. If you add honey to a hot drink, you would be using two strategies at once to get rid of chest congestion. Drinking tea or warm lemon water mixed with honey will also help soothe a sore throat.
6.6. Using Essential Oils
Essential oils cold loosen mucus in your chest as well as help alleviate some symptoms of respiratory illnesses, though research has shown mixed results. For example, peppermint oil and eucalyptus oil are used as natural decongestants. Essential oils can be used mainly in three ways;
6.6.1. Diffusing it
You can get a diffuser from the local drug store and then add a few drops of the oil to the hot bath in order to release the scent into the air.
6.6.2. Breathing it in
You can fill a bowl with water and add a few drops of essential oil. Then you have lean over the bowl and cover your head with a hand towel to help trap the steam. Inhale the steam for about 5 to 10 minutes.
6.6.3. Applying it topically
All you have to do is mix 12 drops of the carrier oil for every 1 or 2 drops of essential oil. Make sure you do a skin patch test first. If you do not feel any irritation for about 24 hours, feel free to apply it on your chest to relieve chest congestion.
6.7. Taking a Decongestant
You can get decongestants at your local drugstore. They are available in various forms, including liquid, tablet, and nasal spray form. Two common OTC options are oxymetazoline (Vicks Sinex) and pseudoephedrine (Sudafed). Please keep in mind that decongestants may increase your heart rate and make it harder for you to fall asleep; so it is best to take them during daytime.
6.8. Slathering on a Vapour Rub
Vapour rubs also contain decongestive ingredients; the only difference is that vapour rubs are applied topically and should not be ingested. Vapour rubs are generally used in this way; you should keep rubbing it on your chest until all symptoms disappear. Make sure you follow the instructions stated on the package for effective use and better results.
6.9. Avoiding Cigarette Smoking
As mentioned earlier, smoking can cause excess mucus production. This is because nicotine, which is the addictive substance present in cigarettes, paralyzes the cilia or fiber-like cells that help move mucus out of your lungs. Thus, in order to relieve chest congestion, it is important that you quit smoking and also avoid second hand smoke or passive smoking.
7. How to Prevent Chest Congestion?
It is not possible to entirely prevent chest congestion, but there are things you can do and habits you can inculcate which will minimise your chances of developing chest congestion. Here is a list of such habits:
7.1. Practise Good Hygiene
It is important to wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Do it after you use the restroom, come home from public places, or touch surfaces that you think may harbour germs.
7.2. Avoid Touching Your Face
Touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth, may introduce bacteria and viruses into the respiratory system. So, it is best to avoid touching your face to prevent infection that may lead to chest congestion.
7.3. Maintain Respiratory Hygiene
You should cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze. Also make sure that you dispose of tissues properly and wash your hands immediately after that.
7.4. Get Vaccinations
Make sure you get your necessary vaccinations on time, including the flu (influenza) vaccine and other such vaccines recommended by your doctor or healthcare provider. This will prevent certain diseases that cause chest congestion.
7.5. Avoid Contact with other sick people
Try your best to stay away from people who have or may have respiratory infections. This will reduce your risks of exposure to such infections.
7.6. Clean and Disinfect frequently-touched surfaces
Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touch surfaces will prevent germs from being introduced into your body, thus minimising chances of a respiratory infection.
7.7. Practise respiratory etiquette
It is important to practise respiratory etiquette to prevent transmission. Try your best to stay at home if you are sick. In case you definitely have to go out, wear a mask and maintain distance from others. This will minimise the chances of infection.
7.8. Stay Hydrated
Drinking adequate amount of water is necessary to keep your respiratory system healthy and properly functioning. Water helps in thinning the excess mucus produced and makes it easier to cough it up.
7.9. Quit Smoking and Avoid second hand smoke
Smoking causes excess mucus production. As smoking introduces chemicals into your throat and lungs, it triggers a cough, which is your body’s natural way of clearing these airways. When this type of cough lasts for a long time, it is called a smoker’s cough. A smoker’s cough sounds different from a regular cough. It carries a lot of mucus and phlegm with it and involves wheezing and crackling noises associated with phlegm in the throat.
7.10. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
Maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle will help prevent diseases and chest congestion. Eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, drink enough water and get good sleep in order to support your overall health and keep your immune system strong.
7.11. Use a Humidifier
You can use a humidifier at home, especially during winters, to maintain optimal humidity levels. Doing so will prevent any respiratory irritation and help you sleep well during winter season. You can pick up a humidifier from your local pharmacy or create your own humidifier at home.
7.12. Manage Your Allergies
As mentioned earlier, severe allergic reactions can cause chest congestion. So, in case you have allergies, make sure you manage them well to prevent allergic reactions and chest congestion.
Though chest congestion is really common, if your symptoms get worse you should seek medical advice from your healthcare provider. Regular physical exercise and breathing exercises, along with good diet and lifestyle will minimise your chances of developing chest congestion and help you get rid of excess mucus in your airways.