Chest Cold

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a chest cold?

The term “chest cold” is commonly used to refer to a contagious disease called acute bronchitis. Acute bronchitis is a disease of the lower respiratory tract in the lungs. A chest cold or acute bronchitis is most often caused by a viral infection, such as influenza or an upper respiratory infection that spreads to the lungs. This results in inflammation of the bronchi and bronchioles, small hollow passageways in the lungs through which air moves during breathing.

Infection and inflammation of the bronchi and the bronchioles leads to symptoms of a chest cold that typically include a wet cough that produces white or yellow phlegm, shortness of breath, and fever.

Chest colds are common and can occur at any time of the year, although most cases happen during the winter months. Chest colds are most common in infants, young children, and older adults. People at risk for developing a chest cold include smokers and people who are exposed to air pollution or lung irritants or have diseases of the lungs.

A chest cold is generally treatable with a multifaceted treatment plan. Treatment plans vary depending on your medical history.

In some cases, a chest cold can lead to pneumonia, which can be serious, even life threatening. Seek prompt medical care if you have symptoms of a chest cold, such as fever and a wet cough that produces white or yellow phlegm. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have moderate to severe shortness of breath, bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails, or a change in level of consciousness or alertness.

What are the symptoms of a chest cold?

The symptoms of a chest cold are caused by inflammation of the airways of the lungs (bronchi and bronchioles) due to infection or irritation.

How severe your chest cold symptoms are depends on your age, general health, and medical history. In generally healthy adults, symptoms of a chest cold may be relatively mild. Symptoms are often more severe in people who have chronic illnesses, such as COPD or congestive heart failure, or in the very young or very old. Symptoms are often confused with those of allergies.

Symptoms of a chest cold include:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, a chest cold can lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia, which can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, are experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Gurgling sound in the throat
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Lethargy
  • Moderate to severe shortness of breath
  • Rapid, labored breathing
  • Rapid pulse
  • Wheezing, a whistling sound made with breathing

What causes a chest cold?

Chest colds are most often caused by a viral infection, such as influenza or an upper respiratory infection that spreads to the lungs. Chest colds can also be caused by pollutants in the air and, rarely, a bacterial infection.

A chest cold caused by an infection generally spreads from person to person when someone with the disease coughs, talks or sneezes. This shoots contaminated droplets into the air where they can be breathed in by others.

What are the risk factors for catching a chest cold?

A chest cold can occur in any age group or population. A number of factors increase your risk of catching a chest cold, although not all people with risk factors will develop one. Risk factors for catching a chest cold include:

  • Being an infant, young child, or older adult
  • Having a chronic heart or lung disease, such as congestive heart failure, COPD, asthma, and lung cancer
  • Exposure to air pollution or lung irritants, such as heavy smoke

Reducing your risk of a chest cold

You can lower your risk of catching or spreading a chest cold by :

  • Avoiding contact with a person who has a chest cold, a cold, or the flu
  • Avoiding exposure to air pollutants and lung irritants, such as heavy smoke
  • Covering the mouth and nose with the elbow (not the hand) or a tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Not smoking
  • Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 15 seconds

How is a chest cold treated?

The goals of the treatment of a chest cold include minimizing the risk of developing pneumonia and controlling symptoms to allow for sufficient rest to recover. Mild cases of a chest cold that occur in generally healthy older children and adults may be treated at home. Moderate to severe cases of a chest cold or cases in infants, older adults, or in people with chronic diseases may require hospitalization.

Treatment of a chest cold caused by a bacterial infection includes antibiotic medications. Antibiotics are not effective for treating a chest cold caused by a virus.    

Treatment of a chest cold generally includes:

  • Antibiotic medications for bacterial chest cold. Intravenous administration of antibiotics may be needed in moderate to severe cases or for infants and people with chronic diseases.
  • Bronchodilators may be prescribed to help ease breathing and relieve shortness of breath. Bronchodilators relax and open up the lower airways in the lungs and are inhaled using a device called an inhaler.
  • Cool-mist vaporizer
  • Drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Intravenous administration of fluids may be needed to prevent or treat dehydration.
  • Intubation of the airway with a breathing tube and mechanical ventilation in severe cases in which pneumonia, hypoxia, respiratory failure, and shock occur or are likely to occur
  • Medications to relieve fever
  • Oxygen therapy is given through nasal prongs or a mask to relieve the shortness of breath and ensure that the vital organs, such as the heart and the brain, get enough oxygen. Concentrations of oxygen and the types of devices used vary depending on the severity of an individual’s condition.
  • Rest
  • Thick phlegm may need to be medically suctioned.

What are the possible complications of a chest cold?

Pneumonia is a serious complication of a chest cold most likely to occur in infants, young children, older adults, and people with chronic heart and lung diseases. In some cases, pneumonia can result in possible life-threatening complications, such as:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Acute Bronchitis. American Lung Association. http://www.lung.org/lung-disease/bronchitis/.
  2. Acute Bronchitis. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/acute-bronchitis.html.
  3. Diagnosis and Treatment of Acute Bronchitis. American Family Physician. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2010/1201/p1345.html.