Chest Congestion: What’s Causing It and When To Get Help

Kristin Hall, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 8/13/2020

Knowing when to seek out professional health care and when to just ride out your illness is difficult. 

When you’re sick, you want someone to dote on you and care that you get better. Sometimes, the right person for that job is actually a healthcare professional. 

Chest congestion is a relatively common symptom that can be indicative of something fleeting (like a cold) or something more serious (like pneumonia).

Understanding these causes can help you determine if it makes sense to settle onto the couch with hot tea and a blanket or contact your healthcare provider immediately. 

What Is Chest Congestion? 

Did you know that coughs are one of the most common symptoms that send people to a healthcare professional? They’re also one of the most annoying symptoms. You ever wake yourself up in the middle of the night because you were thrust into a coughing fit? Fun times. 

Chest congestion is comparable to nasal congestion, but the mucus setttles in your airways rather than your nose. People often refer to this as a “chest cold.” 

When you have a chest cold, your airways swell and mucus develops in the lungs, usually leaving you with a cough, often one that produces phlegm.

Chest congestion generally causes a cough, which can lead to a sore throat or soreness in the chest. It is a symptom, which can help your healthcare provider  determine an underlying illness and ultimately, the right course of action to get you feeling better. 

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Chest Congestion Causes 

There are several things that could contribute to chest congestion. 

A healthcare professional can analyze your symptoms and medical history to provide the right diagnosis. 

Here are some of the more common causes of chest congestion: 

Acute bronchitis 

Acute bronchitis is the medical name for an upper respiratory infection or chest cold. 

It happens when the airways are inflamed, most often by a viral infection

Along with a cough (which may or may not produce mucus), acute bronchitis also typically comes with tell-tale signs of a cold: low-grade fever, fatigue, chest discomfort, wheezing and possibly trouble breathing. 

Chronic bronchitis 

If the symptoms of bronchitis last for several months of the year and for at least two years in a row, it is considered chronic

Chronic bronchitis is most common in adults over 40 and smokers.


COVID-19, also referred to as the coronavirus, is a highly contagious and novel virus. 

It can cause a cough, though this cough is usually described as dry. Additional symptoms of COVID-19 include fever and trouble breathing.

Because COVID-19 is considered so contagious and life-threatening if not treated, if you’re exhibiting any of these symptoms and/or you’ve been in contact with someone with the virus, it’s extremely important to self-isolate and contact your healthcare provider immediately.


Pneumonia is a serious and sometimes fatal illness caused by bacterial infection in the lungs. 

Hospitalization, undernutrition, chronic illness and smoking can all make you more susceptible to pneumonia. 

Additional symptoms of pneumonia may include: wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain, high fever, chills or shaking, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 

COPD is a chronic disease that makes breathing difficult. 

It includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and may happen when your airways become less elastic or thick and inflamed, when the airways make more mucus and become clogged or when the walls between air sacs in your lungs are destroyed. 

Smoking, age, long-term exposure to irritants and, in very rare cases, even genetics all play a role in your risk of COPD.

Treatment for Chest Congestion 

The right treatment for your chest congestion depends on the exact cause. 

Viral infections like acute bronchitis or the common cold will not benefit from antibiotics, and in some people will resolve in a matter of days, even without treatment. 

That said, even viruses can worsen and come with complications. 

If you suspect you may have more than the common chest cold, talking with a healthcare provider  can rule out something serious. 

In general, when you’re not feeling well due to an upper respiratory infection or chest congestion, getting plenty of rest and staying hydrated can go a long way. 

If coughing is keeping you up at night, consider a humidifier to loosen the mucus in your airways and use extra pillows to prop yourself up in bed.

If your condition worsens, you cough up blood, you struggle to breathe or you develop a fever, contact a healthcare professional.

They may recommend an expectorant such as guaifenesin to make your coughs more productive, an antibiotic if your chest congestion is caused by a bacterial infection or other medications such as over-the-counter decongestants based on your final diagnosis.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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