Inflammation and a buildup of mucus in the chest can cause unpleasant symptoms like wheezing, sleep difficulties, and a sore throat. Congestion is also often accompanied by a cough that brings up phlegm.
Some mucus in the chest is normal, and having excess mucus from occasionally is usually not a cause for concern. However, if a person regularly has an uncomfortable amount of chest congestion, or if it is accompanied by other symptoms, they should see a doctor.
The following issues can cause mucus in the chest to build up:
- acid reflux
- bacterial and viral infections
- chronic bronchitis
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- cystic fibrosis
- other lung conditions
In this article, we describe ways to relieve chest congestion at home.
A person can soothe symptoms and get rid of bothersome mucus using the following methods:
1. Warm fluids
Staying hydrated thins mucus, making it easier to expel by coughing.
A person can benefit from drinking:
- decaffeinated black or green tea
- herbal teas
- warm water
Keeping the air moist can loosen mucus and reduce congestion and coughing. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommend using a cool-mist humidifier or steam vaporizer.
People with difficulty sleeping may wish to use a humidifier at night. To maximize the effects, keep windows and doors closed.
Humidifiers must be cleaned regularly to remove bacteria and other pathogens that can make symptoms worse and lead to infection.
Other ways to increase moisture in the air include:
- Inhaling steam: Fill a large bowl with hot water. Lean over the bowl and drape a towel over the head to contain the stream. Gently inhale the steam to loosen mucus.
- Having a hot shower or bath: The hot water will fill the room with steam and help to alleviate symptoms.
Breathe in the steam for as long as is comfortable, then drink a glass of water to prevent dehydration.
Gargling with a mixture of salt and warm water can remove phlegm and mucus from the back of the throat and ease symptoms.
Add half a teaspoon of salt to a cup of warm water. Stir until the salt dissolves.
Gargle with the mixture and allow it to sit in the back of the throat momentarily. Repeat several times a day as needed.
Honey is a popular home remedy, and research suggests that it has antiviral and antibacterial properties.
A 2007 study tested the effects of buckwheat honey on upper respiratory tract infections in children. Parents consistently reported that honey provided the best relief from symptoms, compared with standard medication or no treatment.
However, a 2016 review of three studies concluded that honey treats acute coughs in children less effectively than medication.
A person can consume 1 tablespoon of honey every 3 to 4 hours, until the symptoms ease. Honey is not suitable for infants under 12 months of age. A range of honey products is available for purchase online.
5. Foods and herbs
Foods most commonly used to alleviate coughs, colds, and a buildup of mucus include:
- spices, such as ground cayenne and other types of chili pepper
Some research suggests that the following can help to treat respiratory viruses that may be responsible for excess mucus:
People taking prescription medications should speak with a doctor before trying new supplements.
6. Essential oils
Some essential oils can ease breathing and loosen mucus in the chest. Some may even stop the growth of bacteria infecting the respiratory tract.
Beneficial essential oils available for purchase online include:
Essential oils can be inhaled directly from the bottle, used in a diffuser, or added to the hot water in a steam inhalation.
Oils can also be applied topically in a homemade vapor rub. Mix a quarter cup of coconut oil with 12 drops of one or more of the essential oils listed above. Apply the mixture to the chest, but never on broken or irritated skin.
If a person is using an essential oil for the first time, they should test for skin irritation. Apply a small amount of oil to a 1-inch patch of skin on the inner arm. If no reaction occurs after 24 hours, the oil can be used more liberally.
Essential oils should not be taken internally.
7. Elevate the head
If an excess of mucus in the chest is disrupting sleep, it may help to elevate the head using extra pillows. Elevation promotes mucus drainage and reduces coughing and discomfort.
8. N-acetylcysteine (NAC)
NAC is a supplement that can be used to thin the mucus in the airways and reduce the frequency and severity of a cough.
After analyzing 13 studies, researchers found that people with chronic bronchitis can benefit from taking 600 milligrams (mg) of NAC daily if no airway obstruction is present. Those with an airway obstruction may need to take up to 1,200 mg daily.
N-acetylcysteine products are available for purchase online.
Home remedies often relieve mucus in the chest, but they may not work for everyone. Over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription treatments are sometimes required.
Decongestants can reduce mucus in the chest. Decongestants are available as a liquid, tablet, or nasal spray. They can be purchased over the counter or online. They may interfere with sleep if taken later in the day.
Stronger decongestants are available by prescription.
When there is also congestion in the nose, a nasal decongestant spray may be recommended. These should not be used for more than 3 days at a time, as they cause rebound symptoms.
The following tips can prevent mucus from building up:
- Avoid allergens and irritants such as chemicals, pet dander, and dust. If contact is unavoidable, wear a mask and increase ventilation in the area.
- Quit smoking and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Wash the hands often to protect against viruses. Avoid physical contact with people who have been infected.
- Improve immunity by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, and managing stress.
- Address underlying health conditions, especially chronic bronchitis and lung conditions that cause mucus to build up.
- Take supplements that can ease colds and reduce congestion. Supplements available for purchase online include vitamin C, probiotics, and zinc.
See a doctor if:
- there is excess mucus in the chest for more than 3 days
- congestion suddenly gets worse
- mucus appears green or yellow.
See a doctor immediately if congestion in the chest is accompanied by:
- breathing difficulties
- chest pain
- coughing up blood
- a fever
Having excess mucus in the chest is usually a sign of an infection or another underlying condition. Symptoms tend to resolve within a week, and home remedies should ease symptoms for most people.
If symptoms are severe or get worse, see a doctor.