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Treat your chest cold with rest and fluids — not antibiotics

GEHA | February 1, 2021

A nagging cough or sore chest often lasts a short time, with the proper care.

This time of year, it is not unusual to have a cold turn into a nagging cough. Or a sore chest with general fatigue. These are symptoms of a chest cold, also called acute bronchitis. Although the condition arises quickly, it often lasts a short time as well.

To feel better:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Use a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer
  • Use lozenges
  • Use over-the-counter medicines such as antihistamines, decongestants or cough medicine

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus and often occurs after an upper respiratory infection. Bacteria can sometimes cause acute bronchitis. In both kinds, the use of antibiotics is not recommended and will not help you get better.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis include:

  • Chest soreness
  • Coughing
  • Feeling tired
  • Mild body aches
  • Mild headache
  • Sore throat
  • Watery eyes

Your cough may last for a few weeks. It should become milder and drier as the days go by. You may also feel tired for a while longer. The best way to treat bronchitis is with:

  • Plenty of fluids
  • Lots of rest
  • A humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer
  • Throat lozenges
  • Over the counter medicine like cough syrup, antihistamines or decongestants
  • Chicken soup and your favorite shows to binge watch

One thing you do not want to do with acute bronchitis is take an antibiotic. As the name implies, antibiotics work by fighting bacteria. Bronchitis is caused by a virus, not a bacteria. Therefore, an antibiotic has no effect on bronchitis.

Even worse, taking an antibiotic unnecessarily may lower how effective that antibiotic might be when you actually do need to take it. It also may produce a rash or diarrhea.

The best way to treat acute bronchitis is to steer clear of it in the first place. Stay healthy by:

  • Washing your hands thoroughly and often
  • Getting recommended vaccines, including an annual flu shot
  • Quitting smoking or vaping and avoiding secondhand smoke
  • Covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing

If your cough doesn't improve and you continue to feel sick, see your doctor again to make sure it isn't a bacterial infection. If you don't have a primary care physician, use the GEHA Find Care tool to locate an in-network physician near you.

“Bronchitis Diagnosis and Treatment: What to Know.”, Web MD LLC, reviewed 23 April 2023.
“Preventing and Treating Bronchitis.”, Centers for Disease Control.
“Antibiotics.”, National Institutes of Health, updated 17 April 2023.
“Bronchitis.”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reviewed 1 July 2021.