Chest infection 

Introduction 

Most chest infections get better on their own but some can be very serious 

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Chest infections are common, especially after a cold or flu during autumn and winter.

Although most are mild and get better on their own, some cases can be serious or even life-threatening.

Signs and symptoms of a chest infection

The main symptoms of a chest infection can include:

  • a persistent cough
  • coughing up yellow or green phlegm (thick mucus), or coughing up blood
  • breathlessness or rapid and shallow breathing
  • wheezing
  • a high temperature (fever)
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • chest pain or tightness
  • feeling confused and disorientated

You may also experience more general symptoms of an infection, such as a headache, fatigue, sweating, loss of appetite, or joint and muscle pain.

What causes chest infections?

A chest infection is an infection of the lungs or airways. The main types of chest infection are bronchitis and pneumonia.

Most bronchitis cases are caused by viruses, whereas most pneumonia cases are due to bacteria.

These infections are usually spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. This launches tiny droplets of fluid containing the virus or bacteria into the air, where they can be breathed in by others.

The infections can also be spread to others if you cough or sneeze onto your hand, an object or a surface, and someone else touches it before touching their mouth or nose.

Certain groups of people have a higher risk of developing serious chest infections, such as:

Read more about the causes of bronchitis and the causes of pneumonia.

Caring for your symptoms at home

Many chest infections aren't serious and get better within a few days or weeks. You won't usually need to see your GP, unless your symptoms suggest you have a more serious infection (see below).

While you recover at home, you can improve your symptoms by:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking lots of fluid to prevent dehydration and to thin the mucus in your lungs, making it easier to cough up
  • treating headaches, fever and aches and pains with painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • drinking a warm drink of honey and lemon to relieve a sore throat caused by persistent coughing
  • raising your head up with extra pillows while you are sleeping to make breathing easier
  • using an air humidifier or inhaling steam from a bowl of hot water to ease your cough (hot water should not be used to treat young children with a cough due to the risk of scalds)
  • stopping smoking (if you smoke)

Avoid cough medicines, as there's little evidence they work, and coughing actually helps you clear the infection more quickly by getting rid of the phlegm from your lungs.

Antibiotics are not recommended for many chest infections, because they are only effective if the infection is caused by bacteria rather than a virus.

Your GP will usually only prescribe antibiotics if they think you have pneumonia, or you are at risk of complications such as fluid building up around the lungs (pleural effusion).

If there is a flu outbreak in your local area and you are at risk of serious infection, your GP may also prescribe antiviral medication.

Read more about treating bronchitis and treating pneumonia.

When to see a doctor

You should see your GP if:

  • you feel very unwell or your symptoms are severe
  • you have a persistent fever
  • your symptoms last longer than three weeks
  • you feel confused, disorientated or drowsy
  • you have chest pain or difficulty breathing 
  • you cough up blood or blood-stained phlegm
  • your skin or lips develop a blue tinge (cyanosis)
  • you are pregnant
  • you are 65 or over
  • you are very overweight and have difficulty breathing
  • you think a child under five has a chest infection
  • you have a weakened immune system
  • you have a long-term health condition

Your GP should be able to diagnose you based on your symptoms and by listening to your chest using a stethoscope (a medical instrument used to listen to the heart and lungs).

In some cases, further tests  such as a chest X-ray, breathing tests and testing phlegm or blood samples  may be necessary.

Preventing chest infections

There are measures you can take to help reduce your risk of developing chest infections, and to stop them spreading to others.

Good hygiene

Although chest infections aren't generally as contagious as other common infections, like flu, you can pass them on to others through coughing and sneezing.

Therefore, it's important to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and to wash your hands regularly. Put tissues in the bin immediately.

Read more about preventing germs from spreading.

Stop smoking

If you smoke, one of the best things you can do to prevent a chest infection is to stop. Smoking damages your lungs and weakens your defences against infection.

Read more about information and advice about stopping smoking.

Alcohol and diet

Excessive and prolonged alcohol misuse can weaken your lung’s natural defences against infections and make you more vulnerable to chest infections.

If you drink alcohol, do not exceed the recommended daily limits (three to four units a day for men and two to three units a day for women).

Eating a healthy balanced diet can help strengthen the immune system, making you less vulnerable to developing chest infections.

Read more about healthy eating and tips on cutting down on alcohol.

Vaccinations

If you are at an increased risk of chest infections, your GP may recommend being vaccinated against flu and pneumococcal infections (a bacterium that can cause pneumonia).

These vaccinations should help reduce your chances of getting chest infections in the future.

Flu and pneumococcal vaccinations are usually recommended for:

  • babies and young children
  • pregnant women (flu jab only)
  • people aged 65 and over
  • people with long-term health conditions or weakened immune systems

Read more about the flu vaccine and the pneumococcal vaccine.

Page last reviewed: 10/04/2014

Next review due: 10/04/2016

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Comments

The 20 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Frankie63 said on 14 November 2014

I am in third week . I was going to see doctor then saw on front of a paper something about people not wasting doctors time by seeing them for a cold or similar. So I didnt go. Like Oshiforb each time I cough I have to hold my head as the pain is unbearable. Feels like I am going to cough my brains out. Means I c annot have a good hard cough to get rid of phlegm as pain is too bad. Am worried I may burst a blood vessel in my head and then bleed internally or something horrible. But like another poster my doctors sugery has about a 3 week wait. for an emergency appointment you have to ring at 8am that morning and "hope" yu get one of the put aside appointments. You can still be on the phone 50 minutes later before it is answered only to be told they all went 10 minutes after opening. OR can turn up and sit around all day waiting - no way with this hacking, phlegm ridden cough can I sit amongst other patients spreading the germs all day long .... sometimes I am on the floor on my knees, in tears, holding my head tight while trying to cough ... how can I sit in the surgery for hours like that .... so depressed with all this. I live on my own and not spoken to anyone or seen anyone in nearly 2 weeks. Surely NHS cannot tell us to not go see a GP when we think we have a cold or similr ..... I am guessing I have a chest infection .....

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Barneythecat said on 22 September 2014

Morning. I have a chest infection, treated initially with Penicillin, which did not work. Then on Friday I was prescribed Clarithromycin. This has knocked me for 6. I have slept for most of the weekend on and off, waking only to use the loo (severe diarrhea, despite not having eaten anything for nearly a week). I ache all over, feel sick, have been bringing up very thick phlegm with yellow in it, and generally felt awful. My partner was so worried that he called 111, who advised me to stop taking the meds, a GP also called again repeating this. So, last dose was yesterday morning and have slept sporradically since then. I have been able to get up today, but still feel like death warmed up. Awaiting a call from duty GP. Want to go back to bed, but hot and cold. When I went back the last time, the prescribing nurse said that these tablets were very strong and if they didn't work, then she thought that I would need to have an x-ray. I am still crackling and eventhough I am sure that I am dehydrated, I do not want to eat or drink anything....the thought makes me feel nausea's. I am relieved to read these other peoples comments, as it reassures me that I am not the only person who is going through this, which although makes me sound selfish (for which I apologise), makes me realise that it is not uncommon! GOOD LUCK TO EVERYBODY AND PLEASE GET WELL!!!!! (It has taken me nearly 30 mins to type this as no energy!)

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Lynn K said on 05 September 2014

I too have a nasty chest infection ..... went to my Doctor last week and he gave me an inhaler Ventollin and told me to take Paracetamol which I did for a couple of days
However ..... I noticed that when I had the inhaler my chest got even worse I struggled to get any air into my lungs and was wheezing even more than before so I stopped the inhaler for a day and even though my breathing was very poor it seemed slightly easier to breath without the inhaler ( Ido not advise this for anyone else .... ask your Doctor first)
I phoned my Doctor yesterday and explained (to the receptionist who is not a dragon) that I was no better in fact I was worse and my Doctor left me a script for new medication this time no inhaler but instead Amoxicillin to be taken 3 times a day and Prednisolone 6 of these to be taken together once a day for 5 days
I took the first Amoxicillin at 3 o'clock yesterday along with 6 of the Prednisolone and another Amoxicillin before I went to bed at 10 o'clock.I slept fairly well for the first time in a week and this morning I am very pleased today that even though Iam still wheezing Ifeel as though I am getting air into my lungs properly at last! Yipeeeee :-)))
I have now taken another Amoxicillin and six more Prednisolone and I am very optimistic that I am now on the mend.
I do wonder though ..... am I allergic to the Ventollin? As it always seemed to me that after a couple of puffs of that my airways seemed to tighten even more and Ifelt as though someone was sat on my chest? Just a though but one that I am going to ask my Doctor about today.

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Bibiz said on 04 September 2014

Hi, ye this chest infection is getting horrible. My husband has been poorly for nearly three weeks. Started by feeling tired and slight pain on left side on his chest. Going to work and complete reck he was any how he's been on to lots of antibiotics amoxicillin 500 and then clarithromycin 200. Felt tiny better and then got worse. He's so weak and being fit and healthy man now in bed and so fed up. He's lost over a stone and currently on referral to hospital been waiting for one week rang doc surgery yesterday but we just having to wait. He's had blood check all clear . He had x tray which shows infection on left side he's struggles for breath and shivers and fever especially at night gets completely soaking wet so hurting to watch him like this and so frustrating to just wait for hospital referral. I've just had my third bay via c section and on thyroxine my self having to cope is a nightmare at moment. Hubby's so fed up oh god give me strength and anyone out there who's not well x

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Cheekydimple said on 12 June 2014

Hi all, I've been suffering from flu which turned in2 a chest infection for 6 days. I was diagnosed with asthma in 2012 at 32 and feel that I haven't been well since. I've had 2 viruses this year including this one and a stomach virus about 2 months ago. Could they be linked? I used to be able to shrug viruses off but now I am completely floored by them. I commute to work via public transport and there has been a lot of building demolition taking place around the office which I don't think has helped. I'm so fed up with contracting every illness doing the rounds!

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richardvp said on 09 June 2014

I'm keen to know from meggiemoosmum what the sputum test showed, could they not tell the type of infection and what could treat it? I feel horror at the thought that some of you are on your 4th type of medication! The chest X-ray will just confirm the presence of infection, I think it's more to make sure it's nothing worse. But what next? Are any of you now cured?

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richardvp said on 08 June 2014

I am in 5th week of chest infection with 2 courses of antibiotics behind me (amoxcyillin 500 and Clarithromycin 250) neither of which had any effect, in fact I would say I've got worse. Chest X ray has confirmed infection in lower lung. Doctor assumes it's bronchitis rather than pneumonia, although I don't know why. If it's in fact a viral infection is there nothing that can be done? All I can do now is go back and ask for a sputum/phlegm test. Oh did I mention my doctor is booked up 3 weeks in advance and the other doctors 1 week? Can I insist on an emergency appointment? I'm completely debilitated and my family (2 young children) and work are seriously affected. I've never been this ill in my life. I'm 55 and a non-smoker, slightly elevated BMI and chlorestoral, a little overweight but that's all. Sometimes I feel at death's door. Still coughing up greenish-yellow phlegm as I write (yuck!).

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Oshiforb said on 06 June 2014

Hi, for the past 4wks I have felt very ill, it started while the wife & I were out for a walk, on our way home I started feeling unwell I started sweating & shivering we walked the two miles back home,it felt like ten. I hanged and went to bed my skin felt sore to touch and for the next three days I could not sleep an crept hallucinating, on the forth day I started with a real chesty cough, every time I coughed it made my head feel like it was going to explode and my stomach muscles felt like they had been torn. This is the forth week now the cough is no better nothing is coming up, the doctor listened to my chest two weeks ago and said I have a chest infection and said he heard a crackling on one of my lungs, I was prescribed antibiotics however with no effect, I have been given some more doxycycline which are different to the last ones, at he moment I can't feel any effect from them another five days before their finished. I am still finding sleep deprivation is making me feel worse as a can't lay down without starting a violent coughing episode this then causes the back of my throat to swell and breathing more difficult I find that drinking a hot drink does help, I will just wait and see how thing work out over the week but I think another visit to the doctors is going to be needed. Where would we be without their help? I personally am so grateful to them, they put their own health on the line daily seeing sick people, I can't wait until the time when no-one will say "I am sick" however until that time we just have to take what comes.

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Sarah Lanaway said on 30 April 2014

I have had a chest infection 5 times now since February and have had numerous antibiotics and have now been sent for a chest xray what will an xray show ?

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Yolandav said on 20 February 2014

I have Asthma, and have been suffering with chest infection for past 3 years. Anti-biotics never really worked. I went on Asthma pump and that also never really helped. Too much Cortisone not good for you and your immune system. I found that what helped me a lot was simple. I made a hotwater bottle and put in on my chest after rubbing my feet, chest, and back with Menthol ointment. Then I put on warm clothes, socks, and a thick robe and I get into be. The only thing that helped my chest opening up so I can breath was this. My body would break a fever and my chest would open up and I could breath much better. Since I have been doing that whenever I feel my chest closing up, I've been taking less medicine which don't seem to have worked any-way. And it better for my immune system, because now my body is trying to heal itself. When you body reaches a temperature and breaks a fever, the white blood cells fights whatever infection is there.

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buz28 said on 01 January 2014

Hello I have had a chest infection for 5 days know I am on antibiotics I have had them for 3 days my chest is still very painfull. When does the chest normaly start felling better after taking antibiotics?

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Ladywriterwriter said on 08 October 2013

What I am doing is having lots vit c for the chest infection which is starting on me. And I also got a warm water bottle and placed it upon my chest to loosen up stuff. Chest ease tablets you get from chemist are very good but they are strong so make sure safe for you to take first, if you have underlying medical conditions check with chemist first. also some herbal stuff is good. Antibiotics dont always work in some cases. chest infections are not only annoying, can be painful and make you very weak but I think from my own experiences the only cure really is time and the bodies defence system.

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Ladywriterwriter said on 08 October 2013

Stress can also bring on illness, I have flu which is now turning to a chest infection, which is my worst night mare. we had a lot of ASBO trouble with a neighbour where police been involved etc, and now I am very ill.

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Marc Schmid said on 17 May 2013

I know how you feel. I gave asthma and two weeks ago was getting through a personal trainer session and playing rugby. I've had a chest infection for nearly a week now and can't even get the kids from school. My peak flow is down but relatively stable but I feel constantly breathless. The docs have put me on 8 steroid tablets a day but although keeping my asthma stable they raise my anxiety levels so my chest feels like the muscles are are stiff. Steam seems to help so I'm going to get a humidifier to see if that helps. Hope everyone who posted on here is well now.

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Gwendapolly said on 18 April 2013

Hi meggiemoosmum, I know how you feel just been in tears yet again....have had a cough and chest infection which came totally out of the blue myself and two young grandsons went down with it together within hours of each other...started with sore itchy eyes dry throat rocketing temp sweating then cough that just would not stop, could barely take a breath ....then sinus pains, pain so bad when coughing wanted to die really did hurt....flu like symptons nose bleeds, bed ridden for three weeks, could not lay down to sleep as cough just got worse and worse....rang doctors could not go down as whatever I tried to do I could not get my breath and felt like had no oxygen and would pass out, and felt so ill...doc prescribed anti biotics over phone took them for ten days o ly thing it helped was slight relief on sinus head ain....no appetite list almost a stone I. That four weeks, lung now rumbling when coughing, felt absolutely clogged with mucus but would not come up...no taste..,sweet things tasted overly sweet....got to doctors after 5weeks...shattered....no sleep. Had to try nod off sitting upright.....more anti biotics ten days......it's now 7 weeks. Still coughing at night and first thing, have inhalers now also....but I still feel so unwell and week I am 59 and look and feel older than my dear 84 year old mother....feel as if fading away....and so depressed as not feeling better.....telling you all this so you know your mot alone both of you, whatever it is s dreadful, grandsons are better after 3 weeks, just about....big bug I hope you feel better soon mam going back to doctors next week if still feel the same xx

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meggiemoosmum said on 05 February 2013

Hi there,

My husband & I are currently being treated for chest infections, this has been going on for almost 7 weeks now. I have also had a chest x-ray & sputum tests which the x-ray came bak clear but the sputum test came back positive (which I have not had explained to me) I am now on my 4th lot of medication of which 1 was steroids. I am slowly improving but symptoms are still lingering. My husband, however, is still suffering terribly. Is this normal or should we request further investigation?

2 extremely fed up people xx

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graeme1983 said on 27 October 2012

hi i have had a chest infection for the past 2weeks. my doctor gave me 1 wks worth which never worked. so a wk ago friday she gave me klaricid 500mgs which i took and they worked. my symtoms were shortness of breathe chest pains and burning sensation across my chest and back. now i finished my last tablet yesterday morning but i seem to be still getting the chest pain and burning sensation still its no major but i can still feel it there. is this normal to still have this. she did give me a xray form if symtoms return but i dont want to go through all the pain again like i have the past 2 wks. thanks graeme

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Sally92 said on 11 September 2012

Hey;
I am experiencing some chest pain and its extreme when Im coughing. Last night I was up at the hospital and found out I have got tonsillitis and a cold. My temperature at the moment is only sitting at 37.4C. was just wondering if anyone knows if this could be the start of a chest infection or just a add on effect from what ive already got? thanks

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Blindhelix said on 15 August 2012

Hi Carolad - it's a really bad idea to re-use antibiotics, for several reasons.

Firstly, you shouldn't have unused antibiotics: by not completing a course of treatment, you only kill off the weakest strains of your bacterial infection, allowing the stronger, more resistant strains to survive. In effect, you're helping to grow drug-resistant bacteria, and there are fewer and fewer effective antibiotics out there.

That applies to using the leftover antibiotics - they may not work on whatever is making you sick. And even if they do work, there probably will not be enough leftover medicine to completely kill all the bacteria in your body. Not only will you not get better, but this increases the chance that the bacteria will become resistant to antibiotics.

If you can, try and get a new prescription. But if your infection is viral, antibiotics won't help it anyway, so please try and see your doctor to check what's causing your infection.

Best of luck!

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carolad said on 02 June 2012

Hello
I can't find the advice I am looking for anywhere online. I have a chest infection and I have unused antibiotics that I have considered using. My query relates to storage temperature as I am sure the anitbiotics have been subjected to a temperature over 25 degrees C. Is this likely to make them dangerous to take or ineffectual? I am trying to avoid coming into contact with anyone else as I know my condition is highly contageous.

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