Most people know how to recognize symptoms of a common cold, which usually includes a runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, and nasal congestion. A chest cold, also called acute bronchitis, is different.

A chest cold involves inflammation and irritation in the airways, so symptoms can be worse than a common cold. It affects the bronchial tubes of the lungs, and often develops as a secondary infection following a head cold.

Here’s what you need to know about chest colds, including symptoms and how to distinguish it from other respiratory conditions.

The difference between a chest cold and a head cold doesn’t only involve the location of symptoms, but also the type of symptoms.

Common symptoms of a chest cold include:

Other symptoms that can accompany a chest cold include fatigue, sore throat, headache, and body aches, possibly triggered by coughing.

You’ll feel uncomfortable for a few days or a week, but chest colds typically get better on their own. Many people treat their symptoms with over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medications.

Get relief

It also helps to get plenty of rest. This can strengthen your immune system. Drinking clear fluids and using a humidifier can also thin mucus in your chest and relieve coughing. Avoiding irritants such as fragrances and secondhand smoke may improve a cough, too.

Having a respiratory disease, such as asthma, lung cancer, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, or other lung problems, can worsen symptoms of a chest cold.

Since some of these conditions already cause breathing difficulties, a chest cold could trigger a flare-up or exacerbate symptoms. If so, you may have increased shortness of breath, mucus production, and cough. Wheezing or shortness of breath may occur with minimal activity.

Cold prevention tips

Increased breathing difficulty can damage lung tissue. So if you have a respiratory disease, take measures to avoid getting sick. Get an annual flu shot and pneumonia vaccination, avoid people who are sick, wash your hands, and don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Sometimes, a chest cold (or acute bronchitis) can advance to chronic bronchitis. The following may indicate chronic bronchitis:

  • Symptoms aren’t responding to OTC medication. Whereas a chest cold improves on its own with OTC medication, chronic bronchitis doesn’t always respond to medication and usually requires a doctor.
  • It’s been longer than a week. The severity and duration of symptoms can help you distinguish between a chest cold and chronic bronchitis. Chest colds improve in about 7 to 10 days. Chronic bronchitis is a persistent hacking cough lasting at least 3 months. Other symptoms include chest soreness or tightness.
  • Fever. Sometimes, bronchitis causes a low-grade fever.
  • Symptoms are worse. You’ll also have worsening of chest cold symptoms with bronchitis. Coughing might keep you up at night, and you might have difficulty taking deep breaths. Mucus production can also worsen. Depending on the severity of bronchitis, you may have blood in your mucus.

Get relief

Using a humidifier, taking a hot shower, and drinking plenty of fluids can help relieve a cough and loosen mucus in your lungs.

Sleeping with your head elevated can also ease coughing. This, along with taking a cough suppressant, can make it easier to get rest.

See a doctor for bronchitis that doesn’t improve. Your doctor can prescribe a prescription cough suppressant or an antibiotic if they suspect a bacterial infection.

Some chest colds advance to pneumonia, which is an infection of one or both lungs.

Pneumonia develops when an infection in your airway travels to your lungs. Distinguishing pneumonia from bronchitis can be difficult. It can also cause a cough, difficulty breathing, and chest tightness.

However, pneumonia symptoms tend to be worse than bronchitis. For example, you may have shallow breathing or trouble breathing when at rest. Pneumonia can also cause a high fever, rapid heart rate, and brown or bloody mucus.

Other symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • chest pain
  • confusion
  • sweating
  • chills
  • vomiting
  • decrease in body temperature

Pneumonia can be mild or severe, and if left untreated, it can progress to sepsis. This is an extreme response to an infection in the body. Symptoms of sepsis include mental confusion, low blood pressure, fever, and fast heart rate.

Get relief

Getting plenty of rest can strengthen your immune system, and OTC medications can help relieve symptoms.

You’ll need an antibiotic for bacterial pneumonia. Antibiotics are ineffective for pneumonia caused by a viral infection.

If you’re able to manage symptoms of a chest cold with OTC medication, you probably don’t need to see a doctor. Your symptoms should improve within the next 7 to 10 days, although a cough may linger for about 3 weeks.

As a general rule of thumb, you should see a doctor for any cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks.

You should also see a doctor under the following conditions:

  • you develop a fever over 103°F (39°F)
  • you’re coughing up blood
  • you’re having difficulty breathing
  • your chest cold symptoms worsen or don’t improve

Also, see your pulmonary specialist if you have a respiratory disease and develop symptoms of a chest cold, bronchitis, or pneumonia.

Chest colds tend to follow a common cold or flu. But symptoms are often short-lived and improve in about a week, although a nagging cough can be irritating and keep you up at night.

If you have a weak immune system, a cough that doesn’t improve, or if you develop symptoms of bronchitis or pneumonia, see your doctor. Difficulty breathing, especially at rest, or coughing up brown, bloody mucus can indicate a serious problem that requires medication.