In this second article, I’ll try to answer some questions about chest colds including: What is a cough? When is it okay to suppress a cough? What helps get rid of a chest cold?

A cough often comes after “the sniffles” and the post-nasal drip that settles onto the chest. Don’t sniffle; by doing so, tiny droplets of phlegm are pulled deep into your lungs. Avoid using your lungs to pull that sinus phlegm back to your throat. Instead, regularly blow your nose so you’ll not invite a chest cold.

What is a cough?

The 3 basic reasons to cough are:

  1. to clear out thick mucus,
  2. to open airways (like with asthma or COPD)
  3. to scratch an itch in the throat (That’s an article unto itself).

Each of these coughs requires a different approach. As this article is about chest colds, I’ll focus on #1, when we cough to clear thick mucus from our lungs. If you have asthma or COPD, your inhalers are important for this as they open up the airways so your cough can clear the phlegm.

What about cough suppressants? Most cough syrups and cough/cold medicines claim to stop or relieve the cough. If you’ve got thick phlegm that’s clinging in your airways you probably should not suppress the cough; you need to move the mucous out. Only when it’s necessary to get restful sleep is a cough suppressant recommended. Some patients with chest colds might say, “But I have to be at work when I’m not asleep, and I can’t be coughing all the time at work.” Then you need to take some time off from work and give yourself time to clear the congestion. Your coworkers will be glad you’re not sharing your chest cold.

over the counter medicine for chest colds

Talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist and get a medicine to liquefy mucus; to help the mucous glands make thin and watery mucus, as they do when they’re healthy. Long-acting guaifenesin (an expectorant) that does just that. I suggest you avoid the combination cough/cold products as they contain other medicines that aren’t necessarily best.

Use all of your lung space by invigorating your lungs four times/day. Most of us only use half of our lung capacity in our normal resting breathing. To see for yourself, try this: take several normal breaths in and out through your nose, on your normal cycle of 2–3 seconds in, then 2–3 seconds out. Now take a vigorous and fully deep breath in through your nose: you’ll see you can breathe in for at least 6 seconds or more: You’re now taking air into that deeper potential air-space of our lungs: this potential space is where congestion can settle during a chest cold, and can, over time, become a bronchitis or pneumonia.

John Todd, APRN, FNP
John Todd, APRN, FNP

Try four times/day to help clear a chest cold.

  1. Take a deep full breath in; through mouth or nose.
  2. Tighten your lips so they’re barely separated in front (like preparing to blow a trumpet.
  3. Forcibly, using your diaphragm, push just a third of your air out through those tightened but partially open lips.
  4. Relax letting a little more air out, then start again. Push three breaths of air deep into the corners of your lungs, four times daily.

If you’re a smoker, it’s more difficult for you to clear mucus, even when you’re feeling healthy. If you’ve smoked a pack a day for more than five years (or half a pack for more than 10 years), the mucociliary transport system is irritated and compromised. The mucus in your airways is no longer dancing around on millions of short tiny little hairs that help move the mucus along, now it’s clinging directly to the airways; the thicker the mucus, the more it clings. If you have a chest cold, you’re probably smoking less than usual, so your lungs will try to take advantage of the lack of irritants and try to move out the thick old smoke-covered mucus; the result is you’re going to be coughing even more as your lungs try to recover.

What can we do to chase away chest colds?

The two-billion dollar cough/cold/flu industry still doesn’t have the answer to this one.

  1. Time: If you can take time off work to rest, that’s still the best medicine.
  2. Hydrate: Your body can’t fight infection if it’s dehydrated. Most of us operate day-to-day at a mild level of dehydration even when healthy. Mucous glands will make thick mucus if you’re dehydrated, so catch up and stay ahead. If you need flavored beverages, water them down to 1/3 drink, 2/3 water, and save yourself a lot of money.
  3. Lastly, here’s a personal, anecdotal suggestion. At the first signs that you’re getting a head or chest cold, take a dose of whatever anti-inflammatory you like best; be it a naturopathic combination of turmeric, boswellia, bromelain or what-have-you, or a couple of over-the-counter ibuprofen or a naproxen taken with food (if okay with your general health condition). See if you can get ahead of that congestion curve with an early dose of your preferred anti-inflammatory.

Wishing you plenty of wintertime activity that doesn’t involve coughs, colds, or flu.

Author John Todd, APRN, FPN, is a clinician at Putney Family Healthcare, a practice of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.