For too many people, winter equals chest congestion season, when you have a load of mucus in your chest that just won’t come up, no matter how hard you cough.
Chest congestion can be caused by any number of ailments, chief among them the common cold and the flu.
Fortunately, chest congestion relief also comes in many forms, from home remedies like hot steam to different kinds of medications. Hopefully one of these ways to break up chest congestion works for you.
Getting moisture into the air with a humidifier is a great home remedy for chest congestion. The principle is simple: Moisture helps loosen the mucus weighing down your chest so you can cough it up and out more easily.
Using a humidifier to combat chest congestion doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s worth a try. If it works for you, just make sure to use it safely, says Alan Mensch, MD, a pulmonologist and senior vice president of medical affairs at Northwell Health’s Plainview and Syosset Hospitals in New York. Humidifiers can breed mold and fungi, which can cause infections of their own. Clean your humidifier according to the manufacturer’s instructions. “They’re probably safe as long as they’re kept clean,” says Dr. Mensch.
Lingering in a hot shower is a more targeted way to get the moisture where it needs to go than using a humidifier. Another option: Run the hot water in your sink and cover your head and the faucet with a towel, breathing in the steam.
“That warm steam helps the airways open up a little bit and helps you start getting stuff up,” says Alice Hoyt, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Another plus: It gets you to take a break from your frenzied daytime activities. “So many people are very, very busy and stressed and aren’t able to take time to rest,” says Dr. Hoyt. A relaxing shower or a few calm minutes breathing deeply can help–as long as you don’t let the water get too hot.
Be wary if you have asthma, as inhaling steam may constrict your airways, cautions Norman Edelman, MD, chief scientific officer for the American Lung Association.
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Staying hydrated with enough water can help loosen mucus. A warm drink like decaf tea might be even more soothing. There’s even some scientific evidence behind the classic recommendation to sip chicken soup to ease chest congestion.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska tested Grandma’s special chicken soup recipe and found that it eased inflammation, which might explain the benefit on chest congestion. They couldn’t pinpoint an exact ingredient (the recipe in question called for sweet potatoes, along with turnips, parsnips, onions, carrots, celery, and parsley) and concluded that it was probably the medley’s powers combined that helped ease symptoms.
Stay away from alcohol, coffee, and caffeinated sodas when your chest is congested, as they may dehydrate you.
Another natural remedy for chest congestion is honey added to warm water with lemon. One study found that honey was actually better than dextromethorphan, an ingredient found in cough suppressants, for quelling nighttime cough and improving sleep in kids with upper respiratory tract infections.
“Honey probably has as much evidence [behind it] as any medications you can buy over-the-counter,” says Dr. Mensch.
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Sniff an essential oil
Essential oils from plant sources are another natural remedy for chest congestion. One study looked at 14 different essential oils and found they had potent properties against various bacteria. Although bacterial infections are less common than viral infections, they can cause nasty chest congestion.
Essential oils have long been used for colds, bronchitis, and sinus infections. Previous research has found that they reduce inflammation and open up the airways, making it easier to breathe.
Colds and the flu are most often caused by viral infections. Although over-the-counter treatments won’t cure you of those viruses, they can bring symptom relief. Meds called expectorants contain an ingredient called guaifenesin, which may help break up that mucus in your chest. Common brands include Mucinex and Robitussin.
Chest congestion medications containing guaifenesin aren't always a hit with everyone. “There’s no consistent evidence that they really work,” says Dr. Mensch. But if you decide to try them and they help your symptoms, they’re generally fine to use, he says.
Research has shown that vapor rubs–which usually contain camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil–can relieve chest congestion and improve sleep in children.
One study looked at 138 children ages 2 to 11 with colds that had lasted at least a week. Children were divided into three groups, some receiving vapor rub on their chest and neck half an hour before bedtime, some getting petroleum jelly, and the rest getting no treatment at all.
Children who got vapor rub showed the most improvement in congestion and coughing. Unsurprisingly, their parents also slept better.
Sometimes chest congestion is a minor nuisance that doesn’t require any treatment at all. “Unless it’s bothering you, don’t treat it,” says Dr. Edelman. “[Even] if you cough a few times an hour and raise sputum easily, that’s a symptom you can live with.”
But if bothersome chest congestion or coughing won’t go away, or if the mucus you bring up is yellow or green or it has blood in it, see a doctor. You may need a prescription treatment or further examination.