How to Treat a Chest Cold at Home

svetikd / Getty Images
svetikd / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Josephine Hessert, DO

A chest cold, also known as acute bronchitis, develops when the bronchi (the tubes that carry air to the lungs) suddenly swell, causing a persistent cough.

A chest cold usually develops from the common cold or another viral upper respiratory infection (URI). In most cases, people can manage their chest cold at home by drinking fluids, taking honey (but only if over 12 months old), and running a cool mist humidifier, among other remedies.

This article reviews home therapies for chest colds. It also discusses how long you can expect to be sick with a chest cold and when to see a healthcare provider.

svetikd / Getty Images
svetikd / Getty Images

How to Stop a Chest Cold at Home

The hallmark symptom of a chest cold is a nagging cough. The cough is usually "wet" as the body tries to clear its inflamed airways of mucus.

Other possible symptoms of a chest cold include:

  • Fever

  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)

  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Mild headache or muscle aches

Congestion in the chest may also occur due to the swollen and mucus-filled air passages. Chest muscle soreness can also develop from continual coughing.

Most chest colds go away on their own and, therefore, can be managed at home. Antibiotics are not usually warranted, as viruses cause the vast majority of such colds and antibiotics only treat bacterial infections.


At-home remedies to manage acute bronchitis include:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.

  • Take a teaspoon of honey, although parents cannot give it to babies under 12 months old due to a risk of infant botulism, a rare but serious illness in which a toxin attacks the body's nerves.

  • Run a cool mist humidifier.

  • Suck on cough lozenges, although parents should avoid giving them to kids younger than age 4 due to choking hazards.

Related:How Honey May Help Your Cough

Over-the-Counter Medications

You might also talk with a healthcare provider about taking an over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence for or against the effect of OTC cough medicine remains scant.

Two OTC cough medicines are:

  • Robitussin: The cough suppressant dextromethorphan is the main ingredient. It works by decreasing your body's natural cough reflex.

  • Mucinex: The cough expectorant guaifenesin is the main ingredient. It works by thinning the mucus in your airways.

Parents should not give OTC cough and cold medicines to kids under age 6, as they can cause serious side effects. Also, there is evidence they do not help relieve the illness.

In addition, to ease fever or any headaches or muscle aches associated with acute bronchitis, consider an OTC pain reliever, such as:

Keep in mind that while OTC pain medicines are generally safe and well-tolerated, they may interact with other drugs or, in some cases, cause harm. Speak with a healthcare provider before taking one. Also, do not give aspirin or aspirin-containing medications to anyone under age 19.

How Long a Chest Cold Could Last

The start of a chest cold often resembles that of the common cold or other viral URIs. A mild fever may be present early on but typically resolves within a few days.

Cough is the symptom that persists and is most bothersome. The cough can be dry but is often wet, producing clear or yellow-green mucus.

Due to the cough, chest colds are often slow to resolve. Research suggests that episodes of acute bronchitis typically last two to three weeks, with a mean cough duration of nearly 18 days.

The germs (viruses or, uncommonly, bacteria) that cause a chest cold are contagious. You can prevent chest colds with frequent handwashing, avoiding touching your face, and ensuring up-to-date vaccinations.

Related:How Germs Are Transmitted

Signs of a Chest Cold Getting Worse

While unpleasant, most chest colds are not serious. Symptoms should slowly improve. That said, sometimes, a chest cold does not get better and progresses into pneumonia (a lung infection).

Signs that your chest cold is worsening and perhaps turning into pneumonia include:

  • You have new symptoms of fever and chills.

  • You develop trouble breathing or chest pain with breathing.

  • You begin coughing up newly discolored mucus (usually green or yellow, but sometimes rust-colored).

  • You have a rapid heartbeat or are breathing fast.

Also, what you may think is a chest cold could be a different condition altogether.

The following symptoms or conditions may resemble a chest cold:

  • Postnasal drip occurs when mucus from the nose and sinuses drains down the back of the throat. It has many causes, including allergies, colds, and sinus infections.

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when stomach contents back up into the esophagus (food pipe). A dry cough can develop if the stomach acid is inhaled into the lungs.

  • Asthma is a common lung disease associated with intermittent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and breathing difficulties.

  • Chronic bronchitis is associated with a cough that occurs nearly daily for at least three months. It's caused by deep-rooted airway inflammation in the bronchi and is most commonly caused by cigarette smoking.

  • Whooping cough, known as pertussis, is a bacterial respiratory illness that causes fits of uncontrollable coughing, followed by a high-pitched "whoop" as the person gasps for air.

  • COVID-19 is a viral respiratory infection that first appeared in late 2019. Symptoms vary from person to person, but two commonly reported ones include fever and dry cough.

You can get a chest cold with nearly any virus, including COVID-19. Consider testing for COVID-19 if you have chest cold symptoms.

Should You See a Healthcare Provider for a Chest Cold?

Most chest colds can be safely and effectively managed at home. That said, in addition to worsening symptoms, specific scenarios necessitate medical attention.

Be sure to see a healthcare provider in the following situations:

  • Your cough is associated with wheezing, chest pain, a new fever, trouble breathing, bloody mucus, or unintended weight loss.

  • Your baby or young child is coughing, or you are an adult over 75.

  • You have an underlying heart or lung disease or a weakened immune system (e.g., diabetes).

  • You have a cough that lasts longer than three weeks or are experiencing repeated episodes of acute bronchitis.

  • You have not received the flu vaccine, whooping cough vaccine, or pneumonia vaccine (if applicable).

Related:Do You Need the Pneumonia Vaccine?

What Makes Chest Colds Last Longer

As you heal from a chest cold, try to take it easy and practice healthy lifestyle behaviors like getting enough sleep and eating nutritiously.

Also, avoid smoking, as exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke or pollutants may contribute to prolonged or recurrent chest colds.

If you are thinking about or trying to quit smoking, consider these resources:

  • Download the quitSTART app, a free smartphone app that provides tips and inspiration for stopping smoking.

  • Call 800-QUIT-NOW, a confidential coaching resource on quitting smoking.

  • Talk with a healthcare provider about medicines to help you quit, such as nicotine-replacement therapy.

  • Seek out support and encouragement from loved ones.


A chest cold, also known as acute bronchitis, is associated with a cough that may persist for up to three weeks. Since viruses cause most chest colds, they can be managed at home with various remedies like taking honey (only if over 12 months old) or running a cool mist humidifier. Some people may consider trying an OTC cough medication under the guidance of a healthcare provider.

While most chest colds are nagging but not worrisome, sometimes they can progress into pneumonia or be mistaken for an underlying condition like asthma or chronic bronchitis. See a healthcare professional if your chest cold worsens or persists beyond three weeks.