Chest Colds Following A Common Cold Or Flu

Medically known as acute bronchitis, chest colds are inflammations of the airways and usually follow a cold or the flu.  Airways are the bronchial tubes of the respiratory tract that allow the air to pass through. When they get infected, they get inflamed and excess mucus is formed inside them. As a result, the airways narrow, leading to difficulty breathing. Chest colds are caused by the same viruses responsible for common colds or flu, although in some cases a bacterial infection or an environmental pollutant may cause this condition. 

This article covers the symptoms and treatment of chest colds as well as a couple of frequently asked questions. 

What are the symptoms of chest colds?

The early symptoms of a chest cold are similar to a common cold (or “head” cold): coughing,  runny and stuffy nose, watery eyes, and sneezing. With a common cold, the symptoms gradually improve. However, if the cold is complicated with a chest cold, the symptoms become more serious, and new symptoms develop. The cough becomes a persistent hacking cough, either dry or productive. Other common symptoms of a chest cold include chest congestion and discomfort, fatigue, headache, muscle aches and pains, and sore throat. 

Most cases of chest cold are self-limited and resolve on their own within 7 to 10 days. The cough may persist for several weeks. If the symptoms are further worsening, a bacterial infection or other complications are suspected. 

Individuals with other conditions affecting the airways like asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, emphysema, or lung cancer may experience more severe forms of chest colds and also flare-ups of their preexisting condition. Symptoms like wheezing, difficulty breathing and increased chest congestion develop in these cases. 

What is the treatment for chest colds?

Most cases of chest colds are caused by the cold and flu viruses, and thus antibiotics are not recommended. While many people with this condition ask the doctor for an antibiotic prescription, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns everyone to avoid antibiotics in case of chest colds caused by viruses. Not only antibiotics can’t help,  in fact, can cause more harm and side effects. The side effects range from mild rashes to serious problems like C.diff  infections that are resistant to antibiotics. These antibiotic-resistant infections can cause colon damage and even death.   

  • Simple home remedies like getting enough rest, staying hydrated and drinking hot teas can help eliminate the mucus. 
  • Hot showers and home humidifiers help relieve congestion and other symptoms. 
  • Saline sprays help relieve stuffy noses, and rubber suction bulbs can be used for young children to clear excess mucus.  Over the counter, medicated lozenges can be used for children aged 4 and up and honey helps relieve cough for adults and  children aged 1 and up. 
  • Over the counter cough and cold medicine like guaifenesin can help manage the cough and eliminate excess mucus. This medicine should not be given in children younger than 6 years of age, unless recommended by a doctor. 
  • Avoiding exposure to smoke, excess dust, and allergens is also important to recover faster from an episode of acute bronchitis. 

If a secondary bacterial infection is suspected, additional tests like chest X-rays, sputum tests, and lung function tests are recommended.  Acute bronchitis caused by bacterial infections is treated with antibiotics. In this case, the symptoms get worse. The fever gets higher (103°F or higher), there is severe difficulty breathing and coughing up blood. Whooping cough also may require antibiotic treatment. Individuals who have gastric reflux may have an increased risk of acute bronchitis because repeated bouts of acid reflux irritate the throat and make the lining more vulnerable to inflammation and infections. 

Two frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Question #1. Is it normal for the chest to hurt when you have a cold or a chest cold? Chest congestion and coughing associated with cold or acute bronchitis put additional strain on the muscles between the ribs, which can lead to some chest discomfort. However, if the discomfort persists or if severe chest pain is experienced, a medical evaluation should seek to rule out pneumonia or a heart condition. 

Question #2. What is the difference between acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis? Both conditions share similar symptoms like cough, excess mucus, shortness of breath, fatigue,  fever, chills, and chest congestion. However, the diagnosis of chronic bronchitis involves cough and other symptoms experienced for at least 3 months,  with recurring bouts occurring for two consecutive years or more.  Acute bronchitis is caused by cold and flu viruses, and less frequently by bacteria or environmental allergens.  On the other hand, chronic bronchitis is most often associated with chronic smoking or chronic exposure to pollutants, dust, and toxic gases from the environment or workplace.  Chronic bronchitis requires different treatments- including bronchodilator medication, steroids, oxygen therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation. Quitting smoking and limiting exposure to environmental irritants is essential to managing chronic bronchitis. 

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