Chest Congestion in Infants

Chest congestion in babies can cause a lot of discomfort and distress for a child. It is important to keep in mind that it is only a symptom of an underlying condition, not the disease itself. Because of their young immunity systems, nose and chest congestion is very common in small children. Exposure to other children, especially school age kids, increases an infant’s risk of contracting a respiratory illness. If your child is younger than 3 months old, contact your doctor right away if you see symptoms of congestion or a cold, as it can worsen quickly into pneumonia or croup if not treated correctly.

Baby with Cough

Causes of Chest Congestion in Infants

Congestion in chest is usually not a disease but a sign of something else like cold or other respiratory conditions. 

1.  Common Cold

The common cold is the most common cause of baby chest congestion. When a child suffers from a cold, mucus builds up in the sinuses and drains down the throat into the chest. Young children have a hard time coughing up the phlegm that develops since they don’t quite know what it is, thus it accumulates in their chest.

Besides colds, other diseases that affect the respiratory tract can cause the same symptoms as a cold, including chest congestion.

2.  Low Immunity

Young infants and toddlers have very low immunity levels as they are still in the developing stage. Because of this, they have a hard time fighting off illnesses. A child's body responds to germs by trying to rid itself of it through secretions. If the germs lead to an infection, they can cause chest congestion due to excess mucus.

Signs of Chest Congestion in Infants

There are several symptoms of baby chest congestion. Often an infant will discontinue nursing or feeding because it is difficult to breathe while eating. A low fever, sleeping problems, coughing, irritability and crying are common signs of chest congestion.

Another symptom in small children is wheezing. If your young child experiences this symptom, trying sitting in the bathroom filled with steam from a running hot shower. Make sure to hold your infant so he/she is sitting upright. Gently pat his/her back to help break up the mucus. If this does not help, seek emergency medical help right away.

When to Worry

There are signs and symptoms to look out for that indicate your infant’s chest congestion is progressing to something worse than a simple respiratory infection. If you observe any of the following, you should contact your doctor right away or visit an emergency room:

  • Fever 102F degrees or higher
  • Skin pale or bluish
  • Coughing causing vomiting
  • Decrease in amount and frequency of urine in diapers
  • Blood in mucus
  • Labored breathing or wheezing with caving of chest
  • Refusal to drink fluids
  • Bluish color around lips and mouth

What You Can Do to Help

Shower steam1.  Use Steam

Steam from a hot shower in a closed bathroom can help loosen chest congestion in infants. To get the maximum effect, turn on your shower water as hot as possible. Let it run for a few minutes to fill the bathroom with steam. Sit in the room for about 15 minutes with your baby in an upright position, staying clear of the hot water. Breathing in the warm air will help breakup the mucus buildup.

At night, consider having a humidifier that runs a cool mist in your child's bedroom. This can assist with easier breathing while he is asleep.

2.  Encourage Coughing

Burping baby lying downYou can encourage your baby or toddler to cough by rubbing or gently patting his back. This breaks up the mucus buildup, allowing your child to cough it up. Another way to promote your congested baby to cough is to lay him across your knees with his face down. Cup one of your hands to rub or softly tap his back, while using the other to support your infant's neck.

3.  Increase Fluid Intake

Increasing your infant's fluid intake when he/she is suffering chest congestion can help thin out the mucus obstructing his/her respiratory tract and chest. Adding extra hydration can be difficult as a sick infant can be disinterested in feeding. If your baby does not want to nurse or drink formula, try diluted fruit juice. You can also use a saline nose spray to loosen mucus in his/her nose and then suck it carefully out with a bulb syringe.

4.  Try Other Home Remedies

HumidifierThere are other things you can try at home that might help chest congestion in infants.

  • Try placing a pillow or wedge underneath one side of your child's mattress, so his/her head will be elevated.
  • Consider rubbing a baby-safe vapor rub on your baby’s chest to help open his/her airways.
  • There are humidifiers designed so that you can add oils like eucalyptus that are also known to assist with breathing. Remember, these scent therapies should be used with caution as some infants are sensitive to these things.
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