Although chest congestion may be a common symptom with conditions like a common cold or seasonal flu, it can be caused by various other diseases which could be dangerous. Without proper management, some cases of chest congestion can progress to certain complications. At times these complications can be life-threatening.
What is chest congestion?
Chest congestion is a non-medical term to describe respiratory symptoms like excessive mucus in the lower airway, typically in the larynx, trachea, bronchi and sometimes even in the lungs. This is usually associated with inflammation of the airways and lungs with some degree of restricted airflow and related respiratory symptoms like coughing. It may be accompanied by nasal congestion and upper respiratory tract congestion in general, including that of the paranasal sinuses and throat.
Normally the lining of the airways produces mucus which keeps the lining moist as it is prone to drying with the airflow. The mucus also helps to trap dust and microbes before it reaches the lungs. This mucus production is not excessive to the point where it can impair airflow or irritate the lining. However, in certain conditions and particularly inflammatory diseases the mucus production may increase significantly thereby causing chest congestion.
Signs and Symptoms
Chest congestion is marked by excessive mucus usually with a productive cough (“wet cough”) and varying degrees of difficulty breathing (dyspnea). Depending on the severity there may be other symptoms present such as:
- Abnormal breathing sounds like wheezing or rales
- Paleness or even a bluish tinge in severe cases
- Fatigue, sometimes only after mild exertion
- Rapid breathing rate (tachypnea)
- Mouth breathing
- Chest pain or discomfort
Other symptoms such as fever, nausea, vomiting, headaches and so on may be related to the underlying cause of chest congestion. It is important to note that certain cardiovascular conditions like a heart attack may present with similar symptoms. Medical attention should always be sought especially when the symptoms start suddenly and are severe or worsening in intensity.
Causes of a Congested Chest
There are a host of conditions that may give rise to symptoms that are described as chest congestion. Some of the more common and likely conditions are discussed below. It may be accompanied by similar diseases like pleuritis where the lining around of the lung is inflamed. Conditions like lung cancer and pulmonary embolism may at times cause symptoms that appear to be similar to a congested chest.
Infections are among the more common causes of chest congestion. Most of the time these infections are due to viral infections which are acute and tend to resolve spontaneously within days. SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome) is an uncommon viral respiratory infection that is severe and can be life- threatening. Bacterial infections may also occur and are often more severe in nature.
Bacterial infections usually require medical treatment or it lead to complications. Fungal infections of the lower airways and lungs is uncommon and more likely to occur in people with a weakened immune system, like with HIV/AIDS. In terms of the latter, pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) is also more likely to occur.
Read more on respiratory infections.
Another common cause of chest congestion is allergies. The two main conditions in this regard is allergic asthma and hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Allergic asthma is a common condition that arises in a person with atopy – a genetic predisposition to develop allergic diseases. The bronchi becomes constructed and excess mucus is produced.
Read more on asthma.
Hypersenstivity pneumonitis is a lung condition where there is an allergic reaction to inhalants such as dust, molds and other substances. This may sometimes be associated with occupational exposure to certain airborne substances. There is usually no history of atopy. The lower airways may or may not also be affected.
Read more on hypersensitivity pneumonitis.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is mainly seen with long term tobacco smoking but may also arise with occupational exposure to smoke and other airborne gases. The two main chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Although airflow is restricted in both conditions, excess mucus production is more prominent in chronic bronchitis.
Read more on COPD.
Inhalation of airborne pollutants can also trigger inflammation of the airways and lungs even without an allergic reaction. This may be seen with acute smoke inhalation and environmental pollution. The inflammation is usually acute and clears once the exposure to the pollutant is removed. However, long term exposure may lead to COPD or other chronic respiratory conditions.
Pneumoconiosis is a lung condition caused by the inhalation of airborne particles that can damage lung tissue. This is mainly seen with the inhalation of dust from coal (coal worker’s pneumoconiosis), asbestos (asbestosis), silica (silicosis) and beryllium (berylliosis). It is usually due to occupational exposure. Sometimes the exposure to these substances can also increase the risk of lung cancer.
Read more on pneumoconiosis.
Pulmonary edema is a condition where there is fluid in the lungs. It is caused by various diseases including lung problems and cardiovascular conditions. While this condition may not be typically described under chest congestion, the fluid in the lungs can impair breathing, present with abnormal breathing sounds and sometimes coughing may be present.
Read more on fluid in the lungs.
Treatment of Chest Congestion
The treatment of chest congestion depends on the underlying cause. Viral infections are among the more common acute cases and usually does not require specific medical treatment. Instead supportive measures like bed rest, fluid intake and oxygen administration when necessary are all that is required until the disease resolves.
- Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections.
- Cough suppressants to reduce coughing for short periods.
- Expectorants to help with mucus expulsion.
- Inhalers are used for asthma and COPD and may be administered with pumps or a nebulizer.
- Corticosteroids are used for more severe chronic conditions.
The choice of treatment depends on a host of factors and should be prescribed by a medical doctor. Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) arises with fluid accumulation in the air sacs that impairs gas exchange at the lungs. It is a medical emergency and usually needs to be managed in a hospital setting.