You've developed a healthy exercise program and are determined to stick with it — until you get a cold. Most garden-variety head colds aren't bad enough to keep you from moderate exercise, but working out with chest congestion is another story.
Although you should always check with your health care provider before exercising while sick, chest congestion may just be one time you can excuse yourself from exercise without any guilt.
What Is It?
When a head cold moves to your chest, it's called acute bronchitis, due to the inflammation of the bronchial tubes in your lungs. As the tubes swell, they produce mucus which can lead to a cough, chest soreness and shortness of breath, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Bronchitis is also often accompanied by fatigue, headache, mild body aches, watery eyes, a sore throat and a low-grade fever less than 102 F.
Exercising With a Chest Cold
Bronchitis can sometimes develop into more serious lung problems, such as pneumonia, and if you smoke, emphysema, right-sided heart failure or pulmonary hypertension. If you have repeated bouts of bronchitis, it could also signal an underlying asthma condition or other lung disorders.
Exercising with a chest cold isn't a good idea. When you exercise, your lungs are called upon to increase oxygen intake to fuel your body's cells, which can put further stress on your already-inflamed lung tissues and potentially worsen chest cold symptoms.
What the Experts Say
According to study published in the May-June 2012 issue of the journal Exercise and Sports Sciences, regular moderate exercise is associated with a reduced risk of infection. However, high intensity exercise temporarily has the opposite effect, which can make you more susceptible to infections.
Edward R. Laskowski, MD, of the Mayo Clinic, cautions that as a general rule, proceed with your workout if your symptoms are "above the neck," but postpone your workout if your symptoms are "below the neck."
According to University Hospital Southampton, exercise to get rid of mucus can be beneficial for people with bronchiectasis — physical damage and chronic inflammation in your bronchial tubes. Participating in moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking or swimming, can loosen mucus secretions, making your coughs more productive.
Read more: How to Work Out With a Cough
See a Doctor
Although most cases of bronchitis clear up on their own, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that you should see your health care provider if your temperature rises higher than 100.4 F, you have a cough that produces thick or bloody mucus, you have trouble breathing, your symptoms last more than three weeks or you have a chronic heart or lung problem.
Less commonly, serious medical conditions can cause chest congestion. Diseases such as cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are associated with excess production of mucus in the airways. Specific types of exercises are beneficial for these conditions, but should only be performed under the direction of a doctor, respiratory therapist or physical therapist.