Chest congestion is a common term used to describe a tightness or heavy feeling in the chest. Congestion by definition is the lack of movement. In this case, the movement would be air/oxygen into the lungs. Chest congestion is often seen as a symptom of a number of different ailments from the common cold to more serious conditions like heart failure.
Many people will have a difficult time breathing if they have chest congestion. This could be for a number of different reasons, but generally it is due to liquid built up in or around the lungs. That liquid could also be a number of different things.
Symptoms of Chest Congestion
Chest congestion is often painful. Some people may experience a constant dull ache that is made worse when one takes a deep breath. The pain can be severe at times, especially during coughing fits. Typically, the center of the chest is where the pain is focused. Some may experience back pain as well. If one lung is affected, that side may be more painful than the other.
A type of wheezing sound is also commonly heard when a person has chest congestion. Wheezing can be described as a whistling type of noise. This happens when the airway is restricted in some way. The wheezing may only be heard when a person inhales. This is usually a sign of asthma.
Wheezing while exhaling is more common. Doctors can help narrow down illnesses by determining when the wheezing occurs.
However, a true wheezing sound is different than the sounds made by a congested person. A doctor will be able to distinguish between the two. Congestion may also sound like a rattling noise. This may be heard while inhaling or exhaling.
Difficulty breathing is a common symptom with a congested chest. Some feel like a weight is being pressed down on their chest. Others describe it as a belt tightening around their chest when they are attempting to breathe. Although the person is getting enough oxygen, they may feel they are not because of the inability to take a refreshing deep breath. If the body is not getting enough oxygen, lips and fingertips may look bluish. A person struggling to get adequate oxygen may also feel tired.
Coughing is another irritating part of chest congestion. There are two types of coughs associated with chest congestion. A wet or productive cough is when a person coughs, phlegm is brought up. A dry cough or unproductive cough does not produce phlegm.
Depending on the cause of the congestion, a person may experience a fever. Fever indicates infection. The fever may bring on the chills as well.
Causes of Chest Congestion
There are several things that can cause a person to have congestion. In some cases, chest congestion indicates a serious, life-threatening situation and will require emergency medical treatment. Other times, chest congestion is a fleeting condition that causes mild discomfort.
Common colds, a flu virus, or sinus infection are just some of the illnesses that are often accompanied by chest congestion. Usually in these cases, the congestion is more of a discomfort. The congestion may be caused by the body generating an excessive amount of mucous as a defense mechanism against the virus. Sinus infections often cause a nasal drip that left untreated can cause chest congestion. Chest congestion related to these illnesses will usually disappear within a week. If a person has a weakened immune system, the congestion may lead to a secondary infection like bronchitis or pneumonia.
Bronchitis & Pneumonia
Bronchitis and pneumonia are usually noticed when a person experiences a great deal of chest congestion that is very painful. The lungs become infected, which will lead the body to produce mucous. The mucous is often unable to make its way out of the air passageways leading to congestion within the respiratory system.
Heart failure also causes chest congestion. This is due to the heart slowing down, and not moving blood through the body as needed. Fluid begins to pool around the lungs, effectively congesting the airways. One key symptom to look for when chest congestion is noticed, is the swelling of the lower extremities. If a person has a history of heart disease, they should seek medical care immediately if they notice any chest congestion.
Asthma is a condition triggered by an allergen or in some cases, physical activity. Asthma’s main symptom is chest congestion. An asthmatic will struggle to breathe regularly due to a restriction in the airways. This restriction leads to a person feeling as if their chest is being constricted.
Breathing in toxic gases or chemicals may also cause chest congestion. This is due to the body trying to fight off the chemicals entering the airways. Usually, the congestion will pass once a person can breathe fresh air. In some cases, the congestion may last for several hours or days after the chemicals have been inhaled.
Known Risk Factors
Smoking can lead to lung disease or heart disease. Both conditions have symptoms that include chest congestion. Second hand smoke can be just as dangerous and should be avoided if possible. People that have been diagnosed with asthma are at a higher risk of experiencing chest congestion. Those that work around noxious gases or toxic fumes are susceptible to inhaling dangerous fumes that may trigger a bout of chest congestion.
Those that have weakened immune systems are at risk of contracting a virus that can lead to congestion. Elderly or those with congenital heart disease need to pay particular attention to signs of chest congestion. This could be a serious problem.
Preventing Chest Congestion
Chest congestion can be avoided in some cases. When a person comes down with a cold or flu, it is helpful to maintain a healthy diet rich in raw fruits and vegetables. This will keep the immune system in top fighting form and hopefully combat the virus before it can take hold in the respiratory system. A person also needs to intake a lot of fluids to help reduce the amount of mucous buildup.
When a person does develop a minor cough, do not take a cough suppressant. Congestion occurs when there is too much mucous in the airways. When a cough is suppressed, the body is unable to expel the mucous, leading to congestion. An expectorant is a better choice. This encourages a productive cough.
Avoiding allergens that trigger asthma attacks is very important in the prevention of chest congestion. It is also helpful if a person avoids any toxic chemicals that may trigger the body to produce a great deal of mucous.
Exercise can also help reduce or prevent chest congestion. Walking every day can help manage a healthy body weight which may play a role in chest congestion related to heart failure. Exercise also strengthens the breathing muscles and increases the immune system functions. Exercise should only be done with a doctor’s approval.
How Is a Person Diagnosed with Chest Congestion?
Doctors do not typically give a patient a chest congestion diagnosis per se. Chest congestion is usually a symptom of some other illness. A doctor will most likely use a stethoscope to listen to a person’s lungs and heart. This will allow them to determine if there is indeed fluid buildup around the lungs or heart.
A pulse ox reading is also taken to determine how much oxygen a person is actually getting while breathing. A normal level is between 95 and 100. It is not unheard of for a person to be in the low 90s. A small machine is attached to the tip of a finger to measure a person’s oxygen level intake.
In most cases, a doctor will order a set of chest x-rays. This will help determine if there is liquid in or around the chest cavity. The doctor will also be looking for inflammation in those areas.
If an infection is found to be the problem, a doctor may order more tests to determine what caused the infection. If the chest congestion is believed to be caused by an allergy, the doctor may run some tests to try and narrow down what allergen caused the reaction.
Once a diagnosis has been reached, the next step is treating the chest congestion. The treatment will depend on the cause. In many cases, chest congestion can be treated separately from the actual cause. This type of treatment will generally provide immediate relief, while the source of the chest congestion is treated with pharmaceuticals or allowed to run its course.
If the culprit in a case of chest congestion is a simple cold or flu virus, the congestion can usually be treated at home. One very popular remedy is the steam treatment. This treatment method involves the congested person sitting in a bathroom with the doors and windows shut and a hot shower running. The person does not need to be in the shower to get relief. The steam helps break up the mucous in the chest and will induce a wet, productive cough. This same steam method can be done by boiling a pot of water and carefully leaning over to inhale the steam.
Many folk remedies are still used today as well. Although many people may not enjoy the taste of onions, they are an excellent choice for relieving chest congestion. Two tablespoons of onions boiled in a cup of water makes an effective tea.
Adding some garlic to the mixture doubles the effectiveness of the powerful concoction.
Aromatherapy & Natural Remedies
There are a number of aromatherapy treatments that can provide instant relief as well. Aromatherapy uses essential oils either in a burner or as a massage oil. A powerful oil that opens up the airways is Eucalyptus. Lavender and Peppermint essential oils are also very helpful in breaking up chest congestion. The refreshing smells are invigorating and will help a person feel better in no time. Essential oils are very powerful and should never be applied directly to a person’s skin. Most oils are sold in small one or two ounce bottles. The prices range from five to twenty dollars a bottle.
Yet another option, is the use of homeopathic medicines. These can be purchased online or in a health food store. Typically, they start under ten dollars with the most expensive around twenty dollars. Some homeopathic medicines that are great for clearing chest congestion include garlic, comfrey root and cayenne pepper.
Garlic has natural infection fighting properties and can help get rid of any mild infection that may be starting in the lungs. One of the best things about homeopathic medicines is they are all natural and people rarely have any allergic reactions to them. However, every person responds differently to each type of medicine and many times trial and error is the only way to discover a cure for each person.
Over-the-counter medicines like cough syrups and cough drops may also help relieve the congestion. As mentioned before, it is important to use an expectorant and not a suppressant. Many of the cough medicines contain alcohol and may cause drowsiness. Cough drops typically contain menthol. Menthol helps open up airways, making it easier to breathe. Chest rubs also provide some immediate relief. Cough syrups are relatively inexpensive, starting around five dollars per bottle. It is possible to become addicted to these medicines.
A doctor may prescribe an antibiotic if an infection is suspected. Typically, amoxicillin is the drug of choice but may be too weak for some. Many people have built up a tolerance to this particular drug and a stubborn infection will not respond well to it at all. Prescription medicines can be expensive, as much as one hundred dollars a prescription.
A combination of an antibiotic and a cough syrup may be prescribed in an effort to provide quick relief. Some people may experience an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. Allergic reactions may present as a rash, headache or vomiting. The doctor should be notified immediately when one of these side effects appears.
Severe infections, may require hospitalization. If the chest congestion is bad enough to reduce a person’s oxygen level, the person may need to be given oxygen. Those that suffer from chronic chest congestion may need to carry oxygen with them at all times. This is an expensive situation, but necessary for some.
Asthma attacks are often treated with the use of an inhaler. The inhaler provides immediate relief by opening up the airways. Inhalers vary in price range depending on the type of medicine. Standard rescue inhalers start around thirty dollars each. Many asthmatics can use an inhaler at the first sign of congestion and ward off a full blown asthma attack. Few people suffer from an irritated throat after using an inhaler. Improper cleaning of the inhaler between uses can also lead to a bacteria infection in the mouth known as Thrush.