Chest Congestion


What is Chest Congestion?

Chest congestion is a term that describes the presence of a heavy or tight feeling in the chest as a result of the presence of secretions or other substances in the lungs. Chest congestion, which can be due to respiratory conditions as well as heart ailments, causes a lack or impaired movement of gases in the lungs, such as oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Chest congestion is usually severe; people can hear the patient’s harsh breathing. Chest congestion is not a disease but a symptom of most respiratory ailments.

Symptoms and Signs

Symptoms of chest congestion usually include the following:

  • Chest pains - Chest pains are one of the most common symptoms of chest congestion. This usually results due to an inability to breathe normally, causing an increased burden on the respiratory muscles. Consequently, the muscles become constantly contracted, leading to chest pains.
  • Wheezing - Wheezing is the occurrence of a high-pitched sound during expiration. Wheezing arises due to the airway mucus obstruction as well as bronchoconstriction, causing a narrowed airway where air passes.
  • Crackles and rales - These are abnormal breath sounds that are heard through pulmonary auscultation. Crackles sound like crumpling a paper, whereas rales sound like rubbing hair together. These sounds are heard during inspiration and are apparent due to air passing through thick secretions in the lungs.
  • Coughing - Coughing is a common symptom as a result of the body’s mechanism to remove unwanted things that get into the lungs such as secretions. Patients may experience productive or non-productive cough. In the productive cough, there is expectoration of secretion while there is no discharge in a non-productive cough. Patients with productive coughs have the advantage because it allows decongestion of the lungs. Those with non-productive coughs tend to accumulate more secretions in the lungs.
  • Difficulty in breathing - Difficulty in breathing is the result of having secretions in the lungs. The inhaled air is not able to pass effectively through the airways to reach the alveoli in order to generate diffusion in the blood.
  • Cyanosis - Cyanosis may be a late sign of hypoxia or the lack of oxygen in the cells. When there is impaired diffusion, the blood becomes less oxygenated, thereby transporting limited oxygen to the cells.

Causes of Chest Congestion

There are a lot of causes of chest congestion, including the following:

  • Bronchitis - Bronchitis is the presence of inflammation in the bronchus and bronchioles. As a result, thick secretions are produced, leading to congestion.
  • Postnasal drip - Postnasal drip is the dripping of mucus from the sinus or the nasal cavity into the throat. It may slide down into the airways and cause congestion in the lungs.
  • Pneumonia - Pneumonia is a bacterial infection of the lungs which involves accumulation of secretions in the alveoli.
  • Heart failure - Heart failure is the inability of the heart to pump blood effectively into the circulation, leading to blood accumulation as well as backflow of blood into the pulmonary secretions, thereby increasing congestion in the lungs.
  • Hypersensitivity reactions - Hypersensitivity reactions usually cause airway inflammation that leads to mucus secretion. Severe allergic reactions lead to severe lung congestion.
  • Asthma - The mechanism of asthma that causes chest congestion is similar to hypersensitivity reactions. When allergens or other conditions reach the lungs, they cause inflammation and airway narrowing, leading to accumulation of pulmonary secretions.

Those who smoke and have weak immune system are more prone to experiencing chest congestion.

Diagnosis of Chest Congestion

The diagnosis of chest congestion is done by using the following:

  • Physical examination - Examining the chest involves auscultation of the breath sounds. The presence of abnormal breath sounds may indicate chest congestion.
  • Chest X-rays - Chest X-rays are indicative of chest congestion due to the presence of lung consolidations in the X-ray films.
Chest Congestion Chest Congestion
Chest X-ray showing presence of chest congestion
  • Pulse oxymetry - Pulse oxymetry determines the oxygen saturation of the blood. When the oxygen saturation reveals less than 95 percent, itmay indicate chest congestion caused by low oxygen saturation in the peripheral areas of the body.

Treatments of Chest Congestion

Treatments for chest congestion aim at removing congestion in the lungs as well as preventing hypoxia. These include:


  • Mucolytics and expectorants - These medications are often administered to enhance expectoration of mucus, thereby clearing the airways.
  • Bronchodilators - Bronchodilators are also given to dilate the airways. These are administered in the form of inhalers or nebulizers. Dilating the airways allows for easier breathing as well as enhances respiratory mucus secretion.
  • Antibiotic therapy - Antibiotic therapy, which is initially given via the intravenous route, is prescribed to patients with bacterial infections such as pneumonia.
  • Suctioning - Suctioning is also employed for patients who are not able to expectorate the secretions. Suctioning is done for a maximum of 15 seconds to prevent hypoxia because it also causes the suctioning of oxygen.
  • Oxygen therapy – Oxygen therapy is also essential when a patient is not able to inhale adequate oxygen due to airway obstruction. Oxygen therapy is more effective when suctioning is done to allow more effectively the entry of gas.

Home Remedies

Home treatments for chest congestion is also helpful to provide adjunct therapy for medical managements. These include:

  • Adequate rest - Rest is essential to decrease oxygen demand by the body.
  • Increased fluid intake - Fluid intake should be increased to liquify and loosen the secretions for more effective expectoration.
  • Use of steam - Inhaling steam or vapor moisturizes the airways and allows for easier expectoration. Steam created by turning on a hot shower for a few minutes can be inhaled to help loosen the congestion.
  • Aromatherapy - Aromatherapy using eucalyptus causes relaxation and dilation of the airways.
  • Garlic concoction - Garlic is one of the most effective homeopathic treatments for chest congestion. Drinking a concoction made from garlic that has been simmered in boiling water for 5 minutes relieves congestion.

Chest Congestion in Babies

Chest congestion is most commonly seen in babies due to their inability to expectorate secretions. Babies who have chest congestion may manifest loss of appetite and poor sucking reflex. Babies who refuse to eat breathe through their mouth. Chest congestion in babies is life-threatening and may cause respiratory distress.

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