How To Relieve Chest Congestion

Try these home remedies for symptomatic relief.

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Chest congestion—when you have a lot of mucus in your chest that won't come up, no matter how hard you cough—can be caused by any number of ailments, chief among them the common cold and the flu.

Chest congestion is sometimes a minor nuisance that doesn't require any treatment at all. "Unless it's bothering you, don't treat it," said Norman Edelman, MD, professor of Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine, Stony Brook University and senior scientific advisor for the American Lung Association. "[Even] if you cough a few times an hour and raise sputum easily, that's a symptom you can live with."

Home remedies like hot steam, herbal tea, and certain medications, can relieve chest congestion, even though they won't cure the infection that may be causing it. Here some options for symptomatic relief.

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Getting moisture into the air with a humidifier can be a useful home remedy for chest congestion. It doesn't work for everyone, but it's worth a try as long as you use it safely, said Alan Mensch, MD, a pulmonologist and senior vice president of medical affairs at Northwell Health's Plainview Hospital in Plainview 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," Dr. Mensch said.

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Hot Shower

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," said Alice Hoyt, MD, of the Hoyt Institute of Food Allergy.

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," Dr. Hoyt said. A relaxing shower or a few calm minutes breathing deeply can help–as long as you don't let the water get too hot.

A word of caution: If you have asthma inhaling steam may constrict your airways, said Dr. Edelman.

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Hot Beverages or Soup

Staying hydrated with enough water can help loosen mucus. A warm drink like decaf tea might be even more soothing (though you should avoid caffeine since it can dehydrate you). There's even some scientific evidence behind the classic recommendation to sip chicken soup to ease chest congestion.

In 2000, researchers actually tested the chicken soup cure in the lab and reported the results in the journal Chest. They found the soup recipe they tested had a mild anti-inflammatory effect, which might explain the benefit on chest congestion, though they couldn't pinpoint an exact ingredient. (The recipe included sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, onions, carrots, celery, and parsley).

It's worth noting, though, that in 2020, as COVID-19 research was underway, the study's lead author, pulmonary disease researcher Stephen Rennard, MD, wrote another article in Chest to address a multitude of queries about using soup to treat COVID-19. Dr. Rennard acknowledged that the 2000 study probably received more popular attention than was scientifically justified, but wrote that treatments like homemade soup might have benefits beyond their medicinal value. "Chicken soup, often made by a lengthy and loving process, can provide real psychosocial support," Dr. Rennard wrote. One more potential benefit to keep in mind.

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For an extra kick of relief, try adding some honey to warm tea to help clear up chest congestion even further. Though few studies have proven the benefits of honey, there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence pointing to honey's helpfulness. One 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that honey helped relieve nighttime symptoms in children suffering from upper respiratory infections.

Keep in mind, however: Honey shouldn't be given to children under 1 year old, due to a risk of botulism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Over-the-Counter Expectorants

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, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Medications 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," Dr. Mensch said. But if you decide to try them and they help your symptoms, they're generally fine to use, said Dr. Mensch.

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When To See a Healthcare Provider

If bothersome chest congestion or coughing is accompanied by a fever or lasts for more than than three weeks, or if the mucus has blood in it, you should see a healthcare provider, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You may need further examination or treatment.

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