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Cold and Flu

Nasty Chest Colds

12/18/2008

Question:

I hope this isn`t too elementary of a question but could you please explain chest colds? I never get head colds but I always get chest colds with very thick tight congestion that last for weeks and weeks. This is very uncomfortable, I cough a lot and feel like I can`t breathe. My lungs are very tight and congested, but this is just my "normal" cold. It is the way I always get them. Why does one person get this type of chest cold while another person just gets a few days of the sniffles and sneezes and that`s their "normal" cold? I know it is impossible to avoid colds altogether but I`d give anything to get head colds instead of these nasty chest colds. I often can`t even sleep laying down for weeks at a time and wind up sleeping (not very well!) sitting up in a chair for 1/2 of the winter. Why? And is there anything I can do?

My doctor just says drink fluids, and that antibiotics don`t help. But I can see that most other people don`t get chest colds that are this bad, at least not all the time anyway. Sometimes they run right into one another -- I`ll get another one before the last one is even gone, and I wind up coughing and wheezing almost all winter. What am I doing wrong? PS: I drink lots of Orange Juice and I do not smoke.

Answer:

Anyone who knows all the answers to your questions deserves a Nobel Prize. Basically, people are different, germs that cause colds are different, and individual responses to a given "cold" will vary. "Chest colds" are usually mostly bronchitis, which is inflammation of the breathing tubes, and result in cough, sputum production, and feelings of "tightness." "Head colds," on the other hand, predominately affect the upper respiratory system, which includes the nasal passages and sinuses and can result in sneezing, headaches, postnasal drip, and the like. Most people get a combination of symptoms, but some get predominantly one or the other.

Your doctor is right, though-- the best way to treat common colds is rest and plenty of fluids. Antibiotics are generally not very helpful, although you may get some symptomatic relief with antihistamines and/or decongestants. People who have other underlying conditions, such as asthma, may need additional treatment during "cold season." Most experts also recommend annual flu vaccinations for these "at risk" individuals.

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Response by:

Stuart Green, MD
Assistant Professor of Medicine and Pathobiology
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati