Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
What is a chest cold?
A chest cold, or acute bronchitis, is a condition affecting the bronchial tubes of the lungs, causing short-term inflammation and irritation of these airways. Common symptoms include a persistent cough, shortness of breath and fatigue.
Most often developing out of respiratory infections such as flu or a common cold, chest colds are caused – in most cases – by the same set of viruses as cause the common cold. In rare cases, a chest cold can also be caused by a bacterial infection. 1
Most people find that a chest cold clears up in two to three weeks, without the need for treatment. In severe cases or when the symptoms do not subside in the normal timeframe, doctors will recommend treatment options.
A chest cold is generally considered to be a non-serious condition. However, there is a risk that a chest cold will develop into pneumonia – a more serious condition. A persistent chest cold may also be diagnosed as chronic bronchitis, a long-term condition that cannot be fully cured. 2 If you think that you may be experiencing a chest cold, a symptom assessment using the free Ada app may be able to help.
Acute bronchitis vs. chronic bronchitis
Chronic bronchitis differs from acute bronchitis by its persistent nature. Acute bronchitis, which shares the same symptoms as chronic bronchitis, is a short-term condition that typically fades in two to three weeks, whereas chronic bronchitis is a permanent or constantly recurring condition, most often caused by smoking or the inhalation of irritants or dust. To be classed as chronic bronchitis, a cough must be present for a minimum of three months in each of two consecutive years and all other possible causes ruled out.
Symptoms of a chest cold
The main symptom of a chest cold is a cough, which will often be persistent and accompanied by the coughing up of mucus. The production of excess mucus is normal during a chest cold – a response designed to protect the respiratory tract from germs and bacteria. Other symptoms may include: 3
- Aches and pains
- Other symptoms associated with a cold or flu
The cough associated with a chest cold will typically take two to three weeks to disappear completely. If you are experiencing any symptoms of a chest cold, try using the free Ada app to carry out a symptom assessment.
Causes of a chest cold
A chest cold can be either a viral or bacterial infection, though it is far more common to contract the condition virally. The viruses that cause the condition are of the same variety as those that cause the common cold or flu, and it usually develops from these conditions. If a cold or flu seems to worsen, therefore, it may be that a chest cold has developed.
The viruses that cause a chest cold are most commonly passed on through tiny droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. The virus can survive on a surface such as a countertop or door-handle, for example, for up to 24 hours. 4 To help avoid infection, individuals should take measures such as washing their hands thoroughly and avoiding sharing drinking glasses and utensils.
Diagnosing a chest cold
Doctors will usually be able to diagnose a chest cold by asking some questions about a person’s symptoms and by performing a physical examination. 5 In some cases, a doctor may order further tests to diagnose the condition or distinguish it from other conditions. These tests include: 6
- Pulmonary function test: Used to check for signs of asthma or emphysema.
- Sputum tests: Used to identify the bacteria within sputum (mucus).
- X-ray: Potentially useful in identifying the source of an individual’s symptoms.
Chest cold treatment
A chest cold does not require treatment in all cases – it will normally begin to fade in two to three weeks,** though the cough may persist for longer.
If the coughing is particularly severe, cough medication is available over the counter, or it may be prescribed by a doctor. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol can be taken to suppress pain. For those with allergies, asthma or chronic obtrusive pulmonary disease, a range of medications can be prescribed as needed. 7
As a chest cold is in most cases caused by a virus, antibiotics are useless and may even be harmful. However, if it is thought that a chest cold is bacterial in origin, antibiotics can be used to effectively treat the condition.
Chest cold home remedies
Although treatment may not be necessary for a chest cold, there are a range of home remedies that can be used to manage its symptoms. Some of the most common home remedies include: 8
- Rest: Rest is vital in order to help the immune system regain its strength.
- Hydration: Drinking plenty of water helps thin out the mucus in the chest, making it easier to cough up.
- Hot drinks and lozenges: Drinks such as tea with honey and over-the-counter lozenges can provide some relief from certain symptoms.
- Steam: Steam from a hot shower or towel can help dislodge mucus and relieve symptoms.
There are many natural products which can effectively help alleviate the symptoms of a chest cold. These include:
- Apple cider vinegar: Raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar helps thin the mucus in the chest, which can reduce congestion and help a person with a chest cold to breathe better. Drinking a solution of warm water mixed with two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar two or three times a day for a week will help reduce the duration of a chest cold and strengthen the immune system, preventing future colds.
- Turmeric: Tumeric, a plant and spice that grows in Southeast-Asian and Middle-Eastern countries, is very effective at reducing the symptoms of a chest cold. It contains the compound curcumin, which has antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Adding around a teaspoon of raw, grated turmeric or powdered tumeric to a hot drink several times a day or using it to flavour food can help alleviate the symptoms of a chest cold.
- Ginger: Ginger has been used as a natural remedy to treat various conditions for over 2000 years and is an effective agent in reducing the inflammation in the chest caused by a chest cold. It can be added to food in its raw state, brewed as a tea or taken as supplements.
- Essential oils: There are many different types of essential oils, each of which are particularly helpful with alleviating the symptoms of a different array of conditions. The most helpful essential oils for treating a chest cold include frankincense, oregano, eucalyptus, tea tree and lemon. Essential oils can be added to a hot compress, bath water, dabbed on the neck and temples or administered using a vaporiser/diffuser. When using essential oils to treat a chest cold, always consult the instructions on the packaging for the most appropriate way to apply them.
Some herbal remedies and supplements are not compatible with underlying conditions or prescription medications. If, in addition to their chest cold, a person has a chronic (ongoing) condition and/or regularly takes any medications, they should consult their doctor before using any new natural products.
Chest cold prevention
The viruses that in most cases cause a chest cold can be hard to avoid, spread as they are by tiny, often undetectable droplets released into the air or onto surfaces. However, certain measures can be taken to try and avoid these viruses. They include: 9
- Washing hands frequently and thoroughly
- Getting plenty of rest
- Avoiding excessive touching of the eyes or mouth
- Avoiding sharing things such as drinking glasses or utensils
- Staying healthy with regular exercise, enough fluids and a balanced diet
- Getting vaccines for pneumonia, flu and whooping cough
Chest cold complications
Complications that can develop from a chest cold include: 10
- Pneumonia: The symptoms of pneumonia are typically similar to those of a chest cold, though may be more severe. The condition is easily treatable with antibiotics, though it is important that it is distinguished from a chest cold first. Elderly people, smokers and those with preexistent liver or kidney conditions are most at risk from contracting pneumonia. Read more about Pneumonia »
- Chronic bronchitis: A permanent condition typically caused by smoking or exposure to airborne irritants. A persistent cough, lasting for at least three months in two consecutive years, is the chief symptom of chronic bronchitis. A doctor should be able to diagnose the condition. Read more about Chronic Bronchitis »
Chest cold FAQs
Q: What is the duration of a chest cold?
A: Typically, a chest cold will develop three or four days after a cold or the flu and lasts for around two to three weeks. However, this is approximate and symptoms may last for longer. If this is the case, medical attention should be sought.
Q: I am pregnant. Should I be worried about a chest cold?
A: Special care should be taken by pregnant women to avoid a chest cold. However, if the condition does develop, women should be sure to consult a doctor who should be able to advise on an appropriate treatment method, if one is needed at all, including identifying medications that are safe to take during pregnancy. 11
Unfortunately, when pregnant, a chest cold is more likely to develop into a more serious respiratory condition like pneumonia. Seek urgent medical attention if the following symptoms develop:
- Chest pain
- Blood in the mucus
- High fever
- Unrelenting shortness of breath
Q: Is a chest cold contagious?
A: Yes, the viruses that typically cause chest colds, are contagious. Avoid contact with infected individuals, wash your hands regularly and avoid sharing utensils and glasses to lessen the chances of picking up the condition.
Q: Are chest colds viral or bacterial?
A: In approximately 85 to 95 percent of cases, acute bronchitis is caused by a virus. 12 The viruses are the same as those that cause the common cold and flu. People with underlying health conditions, such as streptococcus pneumoniae, haemophilus influenzae and moraxella catarrhalis, are more likely than otherwise healthy people to experience bacterial acute bronchitis.
Q: Can a chest cold turn into pneumonia?
A: Pneumonia can result from a chest cold as a secondary complication. Older people are especially susceptible to this. Symptoms of pneumonia include fever, an increased heart rate, chest pain and shortness of breath. 1