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How to treat a chest cold in children and adults

GEHA | December 14, 2021

Antibiotics are not an effective treatment option.

The common cold, or upper respiratory infection, is one of the leading reasons for physician visits. Generally caused by viruses, doctors treat the symptoms instead of prescribing antibiotics.

When a common cold settles in the chest and becomes a chest cold, it is known as acute bronchitis. “Acute” means sudden onset. If you recently had a cold that turned into a nagging cough, you might have acute bronchitis. Symptoms usually last less than three weeks.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis include:

  • Coughing with or without mucus
  • Soreness in the chest
  • Feeling tired (fatigue)
  • Mild headache
  • Mild body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Temperature of 100.4 °F or higher

Acute bronchitis usually gets better on its own. Antibiotics are not effective in children or adults. When antibiotics aren’t needed, they won’t help you and their side effects could cause harm.

Ask your doctor or pharmacist about over-the-counter medicines that can help you feel better. Always use these medicines as directed. Be careful about giving over-the-counter medicines to children. Not all of these medicines are recommended for children of certain ages.

Here is some information about over-the-counter medicines and children:

  • Pain relievers:
    • Children younger than six months: only give acetaminophen
    • Children six months or older: OK to give acetaminophen or ibuprofen
    • Never give aspirin to children because it can cause Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious illness that harms the liver and brain
  • Cough and cold medicines:
    • Children younger than four years old: do not use unless a doctor specifically tells you to because of the danger of serious and potentially life-threatening side effects
    • Children four years or older: discuss with your child’s doctor if over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are safe for temporary symptom relief

Here are some ways to feel better while recovering:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Use a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer
  • Use saline nasal spray or drops to relieve a stuffy nose; for young children use a suction bulb to clear mucus
  • Breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or shower
  • Suck on lozenges; do not give to children younger than four years old
  • Use honey to relieve cough for adults and children at least one year of age or older

“Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis).”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 July, 2021.
“Bronchitis Diagnosis and Treatment: What to Know.” / WebMD LLC, 7 December, 2020 (medically reviewed on April 23, 2023).
“Treatment of the Common Cold in Children and Adults.”, Am Fam Physician, American Academy of Family Physicians, 15 July, 2012.