Home Remedies for Chest Congestion

Chest congestion happens when your lungs and lower airway passages (bronchial tubes) become inflamed and filled with mucus, also known as phlegm. Mucus is a slippery and sticky fluid that helps trap the viruses and other pathogens so they cannot enter your cells.

This fluid can become excessive or dehydrated, though, which makes it thicker. It is an uncomfortable yet common symptom in viral infections, from the common cold to bronchitis. Fortunately, symptom relief is available. 

Air humidifier in bedroom

 MICROGEN IMAGES / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

Remedies for Chest Congestion

Time and rest are the only two things that can help with a viral infection. That doesn’t mean you have to suffer with symptoms of chest congestion, though.

If your mucus is thick, it can be difficult to release from your lungs. Some home remedies can help reduce discomfort while you recover.

How Long Does Chest Congestion Last?

If you have a cold, the congestion is likely to begin one to three days after the infection and clear within a week. With bronchitis, chest congestion can last up to three weeks.

Drink Clear Fluids

Staying hydrated keeps your cells healthy. Drinking clear fluids may also help with chest congestion because it keeps your mucus viscous (thinner and easier to release from your lungs).

Hot liquids may offer additional benefit with their steam, which can enter your airways and add moisture. A good rule of thumb for hydration is to drink enough fluid to make your urine pale.

Clear fluids you can drink to keep yourself hydrated while you have chest congestion include:

  • Hot tea
  • Cold tea
  • Water
  • No sugar added juices
  • Broth

Use a Humidifier

Humidifiers add moisture to the air and help prevent dryness that can be irritating to those with chest congestion. As you breathe in the water vapor droplets, they add moisture to your nasal passages and airways. This natural lubrication is useful for keeping mucus moving, so you can rid your body of the virus.

If you’re struggling with chronic chest congestion from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), humidifiers can be particularly useful for preventing air dryness that irritates and dries out the tissues in your bronchial tubes.

Studies have shown that reusable humidifiers can spread pathogens, including bacteria and viruses, in indoor spaces. However, researchers found no such contamination with disposable humidifiers. If you have a reusable humidifier, be sure to clean it thoroughly on a regular basis.

Take a Hot Shower

Breathing in the steam from a hot shower has been shown to help relieve chest congestion. In fact, steam inhalation is the preferred method of getting therapeutic agents (like water vapors) into your lungs.

Sleep With Two Pillows

Depending on the height of each pillow, you may want to make some adjustments to your pillows and sleep position. Research suggests the appropriate height (about 5 cm) helps air flow into the lungs and supports stable respiratory functioning. Pillows that are too high can prop your neck in such a way that hinders proper airflow.

Adding a pillow between your legs while sleeping on your side and keeping your back straight, or lying on your back with your head elevated and your knees bent with a pillow under your knees, can also help reduce shortness of breath associated with chest congestion.

Use Essential Oils

Essential oils are potent plant extracts that have various degrees of therapeutic properties. Using them to complement other home remedies like steam inhalation or air humidification can be of benefit when done properly.

Eucalyptus oil is a popular choice for steam inhalation to help relieve inflammation and chest congestion. It is also quite pungent, though, and can cause sinus and skin irritation. All essential oils should be used with caution.

OTC Medication

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can also help ease chest congestion symptoms. If you’re unsure about using an OTC medication with a home remedy such as essential oils, talk to your healthcare provider.

Expectorants

Expectorants increase the water content in your mucus (thinning out your phlegm), which makes it easier to cough it up and relieve chest congestion. They are commonly sold OTC in a syrup (liquid), pill, or tablet form. Guaifenesin is the active ingredient in several common expectorants, including Mucinex and Robitussin. 

Decongestants

Decongestants work by narrowing the blood vessels, decreasing inflammation and swelling in the airways, and allowing for easier passage of mucus. Pseudoephedrine is the common active ingredient, which is also used to make methamphetamines.

Options include:

  • Contac Cold
  • Drixoral Decongestant Non-Drowsy
  • Kid Kare Drops
  • Nasofed
  • Sudafed

Vapor Rub

Vapor rub is an ointment made of petroleum jelly and essential oils, including menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus. It works when you rub it into your chest, neck, and back because these oils vaporize and you can breathe them into your lungs. Oils like eucalyptus oil may help fight inflammation and pain, as well as offer antibacterial effects.

Saline Drops

Saline drops, also known as salt water wash, are an effective way of managing symptoms related to upper respiratory infections. They may be useful in cases of clogged nose and chest congestion because they add moisture and help remove excess mucus, making breathing less challenging.

The drops are put in one nostril and allowed to flow to the other. You can use a dropper or gravity-based pressure through a vessel with a nasal spout, such as a Neti pot.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Chest congestion is not always cause for concern. Home remedies can help manage symptoms so you can rest and recover.

You should seek medical care if:

  • You have difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or are breathing faster than usual. 
  • You have a cough with bloody mucus.
  • You are showing signs of dehydration (chapped lips or dark urine).
  • You have symptoms that have not resolved in two weeks (10 days).
  • You have a fever or cough that improves and then returns or worsens.
  • You have other medical conditions like asthma or diabetes that are worsening due to your sickness.
  • You have a fever of 100.4 degrees F or higher.

A Word From Verywell

You cannot cure your viral infection with anything other than time and rest, but you may find relief from home remedies or OTC options.

If you are ever concerned about a reaction to a home remedy or want more information on what to do to help with symptom management, talk to your healthcare provider.

If your symptoms get worse rather than better or you are having trouble breathing, are severely dehydrated, coughing up blood, or have a very high fever, seek medical attention.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you drink milk with a chest cold?

    It depends. It is generally advised to avoid drinking milk when you have a cold. Unless you have a dairy allergy, it is unclear if milk creates more phlegm. Drinking milk or milk substitutes (like soy or almond milk) will coat the mucus in the mouth and throat, making it more pronounced. 

  • What should you drink when you have a chest cold?

    It is important to stay hydrated when you have a cold. Hydration helps to thin mucus and makes it easier to expel. Stick with clear liquids: water, no-sugar-added juices, iced tea, hot tea, or broth. 

  • What essential oils help with chest congestion?

    You can use essential oils to treat cough and congestion. 

    Eucalyptus, geranium, bergamot, lavender, and frankincense essential oils can help relieve a cough. Rosemary, eucalyptus, sandalwood, hyssop, and thyme essential oils can help to break up congestion. 

    Essential oils can be diffused and inhaled or diluted with a carrier oil and applied to the skin.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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