Congested Lungs: Causes, Symptoms, and Relief

Doctor listening to patient's congested lungs using a stethoscope.

When our bodies are exposed to different bacteria, viruses, dust, pollen, or smoke, their natural response is to produce excess mucus. This helps trap irritants in the nose or airways, stopping them from entering the lungs.¹

Following the production of excess mucus, the body then triggers a coughing reflex to help propel the mucus (and its trapped irritants) up and out of the airways to prevent infection. Additionally, when pathogens try to enter your body, it also tries to deflect this with inflammation, another natural defense mechanism.² 

However, the combination of mucus buildup and inflammation can make breathing more difficult, causing you to experience a range of uncomfortable symptoms, including lung congestion. 

Why Are My Lungs Congested?

A diagram showing a healthy airway, an inflamed airway, and an airway with bronchiectasisCongestion in the lungs can result from several factors, including allergies, asthma, respiratory infection, air pollution, and other irritants. 

For those living with a chronic lung condition like bronchiectasis or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), you may experience a repeated cycle of inflammation and infection due to mucus buildup.

Bronchiectasis, for example, causes an abnormal widening of the airways. As a result, patients cannot independently mobilize the lungs to clear mucus. Instead, in response to the buildup, patients may experience a frequent cough that doesn’t break up or loosen mucus effectively; therefore, their body struggles to remove the bacteria out of the lungs, causing them to develop infections that further damage the lungs and airways. 

A chest cold, on the other hand—also referred to as acute bronchitis—is not the same as a chronic lung condition but is common and can occur due to a virus. Acute bronchitis causes the lungs to become congested and typically lasts 3 weeks. And unlike a chronic lung condition, antibiotics are not used to treat it, as it usually clears up on its own.³

Congested Lungs Symptoms

Symptoms of lung congestion can vary, depending on the underlying cause. Therefore, you may experience any or a combination of the following.

    • Chest pain or tightness
    • A dry and persistent cough (again, this type of cough is ineffective at breaking up mucus buildup)
    • Wheezing
    • Difficulty breathing (i.e., shortness of breath)
    • Discolored phlegm 4,5

Graphic icon to show common sighs of congested lungs.

Graphic icon of inhaler.Other symptoms may include fatigue, body aches, or a sore throat. 

Relief for Congested Lungs

Managing your symptoms will depend on the underlying cause of the congestion. For example, your clinician may recommend certain antibiotics to treat infection or inhalers to help reduce inflammation. 

Graphic icon of a person breathing air in through the nose.For tips on how to clear congested lungs using home remedies, your clinician may recommend the following:

  • Breathing in warm, humid air may help break up mucus and reduce coughing. 
  • Drinking plenty of fluids can also help thin mucus, making it easier to cough up. 
  • Avoiding pollutants and irritants, like smoke or dust, may be beneficial for reducing congestion.6 

The causes of lung congestion are different for everyone and, therefore, require a different approach to finding relief. However, if you’re living with a chronic lung condition, airway clearance may be the best solution. 

Graphic icon of glass of water.Why Airway Clearance? 

Airway clearance techniques aim to prevent mucus buildup from occurring in the first place. High frequency chest wall oscillation (HFCWO) therapy delivers rapidly repeating pulses of air that gently squeeze and release the upper body, caring mucus to thin, loosen, and propel towards major airways so it is easier to cough out.

HFCWO therapy is one of many airway clearance techniques, but it provides consistent performance via an inflatable vest that patients wear during treatment.

SmartVest user sitting on bed while using airway clearance device.

The SmartVest Airway Clearance System delivers 360° chest coverage and was used in a study as part of an algorithm of care program to help patients find relief from bronchiectasis symptoms. 

The results demonstrated that SmartVest helped:

  • Reduce flare-ups requiring hospitalization
  • Decrease antibiotic usage
  • Stabilize lung function7

Read the study!

Fight Mucus Build Up with SmartVest

SmartVest is a convenient and comfortable approach to bronchiectasis and COPD management that helps prevent the cycle of mucus buildup, inflammation, and infection.

Learn more about how SmartVest works and its life-changing benefits by requesting a patient packet today to take to your next doctor’s appointment. 

Want to learn more now? You can also schedule a time with our Patient Care Advocates if you’re ready to talk to an expert about making SmartVest a part of your bronchiectasis management plan.

Want to chat? Connect with us! Talk to our repiratory therapists.


[1] American Lung Association. “Understanding Mucus in Your Lungs.” Retrieved from

[2] Medical News Today. “Everything You Need to Know about Inflammation.” Retrieved from

[3] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis). Retrieved from

 [4] Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Bronchitis.” Retrieved from

[5] Cleveland Clinic. “Bronchiectasis.” Retrieved from

[6] Medical News Today. “What causes mucus in the lungs?” Retrieved from

[7] Powner J, Nesmith A, Kirkpatrick DP, Nichols JK, Bermingham B, Solomon GM. Employment of an algorithm of care including chest physiotherapy results in reduced hospitalizations and stability of lung function in bronchiectasis. BMC Pulm Med. 2019;19(1):82. Published 2019 Apr 25