Chest congestion is an abnormal accumulation of mucus in the airways. Mucus production in the airways is a normal physiological process. In a healthy individual, mucus production in the airways is not excessive. The cells that line the airways are mainly responsible for the production of this mucus. The mucus in the airways helps in keeping the airways moist, in addition to trapping the microbes and dust particles present in the inhaled air.
Mucus production in the airways increases significantly during the course of certain diseases. The excessive mucus tends to accumulate in the lower respiratory airways (bronchi, trachea, larynx and lungs), causing chest congestion. The blockage of the airways caused by excessive mucus accumulation leads to labored breathing and coughing. The congestion may also extend to the upper airways, including the throat and paranasal sinuses.
Chest congestion is also frequently associated with inflammation of the airways. Seasonal flu or common cold are most frequently associated with chest congestion. However, chest congestion may also occur in other diseases, some of which may even be life threatening. The fatal outcomes of chest congestion are mainly associated with the development of serious complications due to lack of proper treatment.
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Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of chest congestion depend on the nature and severity of the underlying disease. The following are some of the common signs and symptoms that occur in cases of chest congestion:
- “Wet cough” or productive cough is the most common sign of a chest congestion. The characteristic sound of productive cough is caused by the movement of excess mucus that is present in the airways.
- Chest congestion is also frequently characterized by labored breathing or dyspnea. The extent of the difficulty in breathing depends on the severity of the chest congestion.
- Labored breathing may also be accompanied by abnormal breathing sounds such as rales or wheezing.
- Breathing rate may become rapid due to a lack of sufficient oxygen. This condition is medically referred to as tachypnea.
- Chest congestion may also be accompanied by nasal congestion. This makes breathing through the nose difficult, and promotes breathing through the mouth.
- Lack of sufficient oxygen may cause fatigue even after a minor exertion.
- Chest congestion may also be accompanied by pain in the chest region.
- Severe chest congestion may sometimes result in a pale or bluish skin. Medical attention must be sought immediately in such conditions.
- Nausea, vomiting, headache and fever may also occur.
It is important to note that signs and symptoms of heart attack, pulmonary embolism and lung cancer may also be similar to the signs and symptoms produced by chest congestion.
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Causes of Chest Congestion
Chest congestion can be caused by many different conditions, including infections, allergies, and a variety of lung diseases. The following is a description of some of these conditions:
Lung and airway infections
Lung and airway infections are the most common causes of chest congestion. These infections are caused by viruses, bacteria and fungi. Viral infections of the airways are the most common causes of chest congestion. Examples include common cold and flu. Most viral infections of the airways are acute and tend to resolve on their own. However, some viral infections could be life-threatening. Sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a case in point.
Bacterial infections of the airways can be more severe than the viral infections. They also require treatment with antibiotics. In the absence of appropriate treatment, bacterial infections of the lungs and airways could lead to serious complications. Fungal infections of the lungs and airways are rare, and mostly occur in individuals with a weak immune system.
Allergies are also common causes of chest congestion. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis and asthma are two common allergic conditions that lead to chest congestion. Allergic asthma is characterized by excessive mucus production and constriction of the bronchi, leading to labored breathing. Asthma mainly occurs in individuals who are genetically predisposed to develop allergic conditions.
Asthma sufferers tend to have other allergies as well. On the other hand, individuals with hypersensitivity pneumonitis have no previous allergies. The allergic reaction in hypersensitivity pneumonitis develops against airborne molds, dust and other substances. In some cases, the exposure to airborne allergens could be an occupational hazard. Unlike asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis may not affect the lower airways.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (commonly abbreviated as COPD) is characterized by excessive mucus production and restricted airflow through the air passages. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are two major types of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Smoking is frequently associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. However, this condition may also occur due to occupational exposure to airborne irritants and smoke.
Inhalation of polluted air
Non-allergic inflammation of the airways and excessive mucus production can be triggered by exposure to polluted air. Smoke and other airborne irritants are mainly responsible for such non-allergic inflammatory reactions in the airways. When the exposure to polluted air is limited, the inflammation of the airways is acute. However, chronic exposure to polluted air can lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.
Pneumoconiosis is characterized by damaged lung tissue that is caused by occupational exposure to asbestos, coal, beryllium and silica. Chronic occupational exposure to such substances also increases the risk of developing lung cancer.
Pulmonary edema is characterized by an accumulation of fluid within the lungs, which makes breathing difficult. Abnormal breathing sounds and coughing are typically associated with this condition. Pulmonary edema can be caused by both cardiovascular and lung diseases.
Treatment for Chest Congestion
Since chest congestion can be caused by many different conditions, the choice of treatment depends on the exact nature of the underlying disease. Some diseases (such as viral infections) are acute and resolve on their own without treatment. Others may be serious enough to require hospitalization. The following are some examples of medical treatment that may be prescribed for chest congestion:
- Bacterial infections are commonly treated with antibiotics.
- Expulsion of excessive mucus may require the use of expectorants.
- In the short term, coughing may be reduced by the use of cough suppressants.
- Nebulizers and inhalers are typically used in cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.
- Chronic diseases may require the use of corticosteroids.
In all cases, the choice of treatment should be determined by a medical doctor.