Chest congestion can be a symptom of an acute illness or a chronic underlying health condition. Causes of chest congestion can include flu, asthma, and COPD.

Often, people experience chest congestion as a symptom of an acute illness. Acute infections may also cause other symptoms, such as fever or headache.

In some cases, chest congestion may be a sign of a chronic condition. A chronic condition may cause additional symptoms such as fatigue or shortness of breath.

This article covers what chest congestion is, its possible causes, treatments, and more.

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Chest congestion occurs when mucus accumulates in the bronchi and lungs. It can cause a productive cough, which is when a person brings up thick mucus when coughing.

A person may experience a wheezing sound or crackle when breathing due to chest congestion.

Chest congestion can be a symptom of an underlying infection, such as acute bronchitis. It may also be a symptom of chronic conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Some acute infections that may cause congestion include:

  • a chest cold
  • acute bronchitis, which often starts as a dry cough that transitions to a productive cough where the mucus changes color from clear or white to yellowish-green
  • the flu

Chronic conditions are also common causes of chest congestion and excessive mucus in the lungs. Some chronic conditions that may cause chest congestion include:

Treatment for chest congestion varies depending on the underlying condition.

Some acute infections, such as chest colds, may not require any special treatment. A person may be able to treat it with over-the-counter (OTC) medications and home remedies.

If symptoms persist for 3 weeks or more or include a bloody cough or fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, a person should see a doctor.

In some cases, the flu can become serious and even life threatening. A person should see a doctor immediately for the flu if they:

  • have trouble breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • have flu-like symptoms that improve, then come back with fever and worse cough
  • pain or pressure in the chest

A person with an underlying, chronic condition should talk with a doctor about treatment options. Doctors may recommend a combination of lifestyle changes and medications to help with underlying health conditions such as COPD or asthma.

Home remedies

Several home remedies may help with acute and chronic lung conditions that can cause chest congestion.

Home remedies may include:

  • use of a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer
  • rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • using a bit of honey to thin out phlegm
  • breathing in steam from a hot bowl of water or shower
  • using lozenges

Lifestyle changes that may help with chest congestion include:

  • quitting smoking
  • avoiding dairy
  • staying hydrated
  • taking steps to prevent infections

Chest congestion can be a symptom of an underlying health condition that may be acute or chronic. It typically occurs with other symptoms.

Acute infections that cause chest congestion may also cause the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • chills
  • body aches
  • stuffy nose
  • sore throat
  • cough
  • headache
  • chest discomfort

To receive a diagnosis, a person must visit a healthcare facility. The diagnostic process may depend on what a doctor believes is causing symptoms such as chest congestion.

A doctor or other medical professional will likely review medical and symptom history with the person.

Following a review of symptoms, a doctor may be able to determine the cause of chest congestion. The evaluation will also involve listening to the person’s lungs.

Depending on what the doctor suspects is the underlying cause, they may order additional testing, such as an X-ray or blood test.

A person should consider talking with a doctor if they:

  • have a fever over 100.4°
  • have a cold lasting longer than 3 weeks
  • cough up blood

A person should consider seeking emergency care if they:

  • have trouble breathing
  • experience extreme chest pain
  • have flu-like symptoms that go away then return after a few days

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about chest congestion.

How long does chest congestion last?

Chest congestion can last for the duration of an illness. For example, it can last about 3 weeks with acute bronchitis. People living with a chronic illness may experience ongoing congestion that does not fully clear.

When should I be worried about chest congestion?

A person should seek emergency care if they:

  • cough up blood
  • have trouble breathing
  • have extreme pain or tightness in the chest
  • have a return and worsening of symptoms.

Do you get chest congestion with COVID-19?

COVID-19 may cause a cough and chest congestion, among other symptoms, such as fever and body aches. A person should seek emergency care if they have trouble breathing.

Chest congestion is a symptom of an underlying health condition. The condition may be an acute illness or a chronic underlying condition, such as COPD.

Chest congestion often occurs with other symptoms such as fever, aches, and tightness in the chest. Not everyone will need to seek medical help for chest congestion. However, those who experience trouble breathing, pain in the chest, or cough up blood should seek emergency care.

A person may also want to see a doctor if their symptoms persist for longer than 3 weeks.

Lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, may help prevent or reduce the impact of chronic conditions. Home remedies, such as breathing in steam, may help alleviate acute infection symptoms.