Chest infection 

Introduction 

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

Should you have the 'pneumo' jab?

There is a vaccination that can protect against pneumonia.

The pneumococcal vaccine  is recommended and available free from your GP if you.

  • are 65 or over and/or
  • have a serious health condition such as heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease

Read more about pneumococcal vaccination and who needs it.

Winter health

Tips and advice on how to stay healthy and well through the cold, dark days of winter

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

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

The main symptoms of a chest infection are:

  • a chesty cough
  • breathing difficulties
  • chest pain

It's also common to get headaches and have a high temperature.

Find out more in symptoms of chest infection.

Types of chest infection

There are two main types of chest infection

  • acute bronchitis
  • pneumonia

'Acute' means that the infection is a short-lived, one-off illness.

The symptoms of acute bronchitis and pneumonia are similar, but pneumonia symptoms can often be more severe and need medical attention.

When to see a doctor

Bronchitis usually gets better by itself, so there is no need to see a GP. You should see a GP if you suspect you have pneumonia.

It can be difficult to know if you have bronchitis or pneumonia as the symptoms are so similar. But it is more likely that you have pneumonia if your symptoms are severe.

There are a number of symptoms that mean you should see a GP. They include:

  • a high temperature (this is usually a sign of a more serious type of infection)
  • confusion or disorientation
  • a sharp pain in your chest
  • coughing up blood-stained phlegm (thick mucus)
  • your symptoms last longer than three weeks

Learn more in symptoms of chest infection.

Treating chest infections

A bout of bronchitis usually gets better on its own within seven to 10 days without any medicines.

If you suspect that you have pneuomnia, you should see a GP.

If you have a chest infection, you should:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluid to prevent dehydration and to thin the mucus in your lungs, making it easier to cough up
  • treat headaches, fever and aches and pains with paracetamolor ibuprofen
  • stop smoking straight away

Don't waste your money on cough medicines. There's little evidence they work, and in any case, coughing helps you clear the infection more quickly by getting rid of the phlegm from your lungs. 

If your throat is sore from coughing, you can relieve the discomfort with a warm drink of honey and lemon.

As bronchitis is usually caused by a virus, your recovery will rarely be helped by taking antibiotics. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily for bronchitis can do more harm than good by causing antibiotic resistance.

Pneumonia, unlike bronchitis, is often caused by a bacteria and may need treatment with antibiotics. If you have mild pneumonia, you can take antibiotics as tablets at home. If the pneumonia is more serious, antibiotics are given in hospital intravenously, that is through a drip into a vein.

Learn more in treatment of chest infection.

Preventing chest infections

There are measures you can take to help prevent chest infection, and to stop the spread of it to others.

Good hygiene

Although chest infections aren't as contagious as other common infections such as flu, you can pass them on to others through coughing and sneezing. So if you have a chest infection, it's important to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and to wash your hands regularly. Throw away used tissues immediately.

Stop smoking

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

Read more about how the NHS can help you to stop smoking.

Vaccinations

If you are in a high risk group for chest infection, for example you are over 65, your GP may recommend certain vaccinations. Learn more in prevention of chest infection.

 

Page last reviewed: 14/05/2012

Next review due: 14/05/2014

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Comments

The 11 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

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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