Chest Congestion 101

Chest congestion is a common symptom of respiratory tract infections (like the common cold).

Chest congestion is what happens when the mucus membranes (mucosa) that line your airways jump into overdrive. Mucosa cells are attacked and become irritated and inflamed because of some irritant you’ve breathed in (like dust, bacteria or a virus). Extra mucus (that’s thicker, too) is produced to flush out the intruder.

CHEST CONGESTION - GOING DEEPER

When you breathe, you inhale particles that are floating around in the air, like dust, allergens, bacteria or viruses. Usually these particles are trapped in the mucus that covers the mucus membranes of your nose and airways. Then tiny hairs (called "cilia") transport the mucus (with the trapped particles) toward the throat. From there it can either be coughed out (also called “expectorating”) or swallowed.

But sometimes, particles like dust can irritate your mucus membranes just like a virus or bacteria can cause an infection. This causes inflammation and results in extra mucus in your airways. This extra mucus is one of the ways your body tries to remove an irritant.

When there’s more (and thicker) mucus in your airways, your body may not be able to get rid of it in the usual ways (i.e. coughing it up or swallowing it). This is why you may start coughing more. Coughing is a way for your body to get rid of irritants in your airways or an accumulation of extra mucus that’s stuck inside your lungs.

CHEST CONGESTION RELIEF

There are simple things you can do to thin and loosen the extra mucus that has gotten thicker and taken up residence in your lungs.

  • Stay hydrated. Drinking lots of water can help thin the mucus that has thickened and gotten stuck in your lungs. Stay away from beverages that will dehydrate you, like alcohol or caffeinated drinks.
  • Steam things up. Steam can help moisturize your airways and loosen the dried mucus, much like drinking water will. Use a humidifier or a cool mist vaporizer, or just stick your head over a pot of warm water. Taking a hot shower will also work.