A “chest cold” is the everyday name for acute bronchitis. The condition causes the lung’s airways to swell and produce mucus, which leads to a cough. It is not the same as the common cold, which affects the lungs differently.
Unlike chronic bronchitis, acute bronchitis is not a long-term illness.
In this article, we look at the symptoms and causes of a chest cold and investigate when a person should see a doctor.
A cough is a common symptom of acute bronchitis. It is typically dry to begin with. Later on, however, the cough produces a lot of mucus.
Beyond a cough, symptoms of a chest cold can include:
Other causes include:
Bacterial infections sometimes cause acute bronchitis.
It is crucial to note, however, that even when a chest cold is bacterial, antibiotics will not help a person recover, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report.
Breathing in irritants, such as cigarette smoke or other pollutants, can trigger a chest cold.
Exposure to dust, pollen, and other particles may cause airway irritation that can lead to a chest cold.
Acute bronchitis typically goes away on its own without treatment, but there are a few ways to help the body heal:
- getting quality, restful sleep
- staying well-hydrated
- using decongestants
- using a humidifier
- sucking on cough drops or lozenges to soothe the throat
- drinking tea with honey to quiet the cough
If an infant has a chest cold, use caution when administering over-the-counter medication. Follow instructions on packaging carefully and contact a pharmacist or another healthcare provider with any questions.
Fever reducers — such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) — can help relieve symptoms of a chest cold. However, infants should not take aspirin because of an increased risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, which can damage the brain and liver.
According to a 2014 study, doctors have prescribed antibiotics to treat acute bronchitis in the past. However, doctors should not prescribe antibiotics for a chest cold, even when people expect to receive a prescription. This type of medication will not cure the illness.
Taking antibiotics unnecessarily can lead to short- and long-term side effects, including rashes and antibiotic resistant infections.
A 2013 study suggests that antibiotic overuse may stem from our mistaken expectations about how long a cough should last.
According to the study, people typically expect the cough from a chest cold to go away on its own within 5–7 days. However, this cough can last for 8 weeks, as it is the symptom that lingers the longest.
Doctors typically perform a physical exam to diagnose a chest cold.
If the person has a fever, the doctor may order an X-ray to check for pneumonia, an infection of the lungs that requires a different course of treatment.
Pneumonia mostly arises as a complication of a chest cold in older adults, people with weakened immune systems, and people with preexisting lung conditions.
Doctors may use other tools to confirm the diagnosis of a chest cold, including:
- pulse oximetry, which measures the level of oxygen in the blood
- pulmonary function tests, which can assess the lungs’ ability to move air
- sputum cultures, to help identify the microorganism that is causing the illness
- arterial blood gas analysis, which measures the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
To prevent chest colds, people should wash their hands thoroughly. The CDC also recommend getting the flu vaccine.
The pneumococcal vaccine can help prevent pneumonia, a potential complication of a chest cold. However, doctors only recommend this to certain groups, such as people 65 or older and people with certain ongoing health issues.
Anyone who is concerned about developing a chest cold should avoid smoking and secondhand smoke.
The CDC recommend that people with acute bronchitis, or a chest cold, see a doctor if they experience any of the following:
- symptoms that continue for more than 3 weeks
- symptoms that return repeatedly
- blood in mucus
- a fever of 100.4°F or higher
- difficulty breathing
These can be symptoms of a different illness or a secondary bacterial infection that requires antibiotic treatment.
Anyone with existing heart problems or lung disease who thinks that they have a chest cold should see a doctor, regardless of the severity of their symptoms.
A chest cold, or acute bronchitis, is different from chronic bronchitis because it comes on quickly and typically goes away within a few weeks.
To relieve the symptoms of a chest cold, a person can take over-the-counter fever reducers, get plenty of rest, and drink plenty of fluids. Thorough hand washing is a good way to prevent this issue from returning.
It is important for people who have heart disease or lung disease to seek medical attention if they believe that they have a chest cold.