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 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
- 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 shakes your hand or touches those surfaces 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 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 loosen 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're sleeping – to make breathing easier
- using an air humidifier or inhaling steam from a bowl of hot water – to ease your cough (hot water shouldn't be used to treat young children with a cough, due to the risk of scalds)
- stopping smoking
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 aren't recommended for many chest infections, because they only work 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're at risk of complications such as fluid building up around the lungs (pleurisy).
If there's a flu outbreak in your local area and you're at risk of serious infection, your GP may also prescribe antiviral medication.
Read more about treating pneumonia.
When to see a doctor
You should see your GP if:
- you feel very unwell or your symptoms are severe
- your symptoms are not improving
- 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're pregnant
- you're 65 or over
- you're 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 stop them spreading to others.
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 information and advice about stopping smoking.
Although chest infections generally aren't 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 you hands regularly. Put tissues in the bin immediately.
Read more about preventing germs from spreading.
Alcohol and diet
Excessive and prolonged alcohol misuse can weaken your lungs' natural defences against infections and make you more vulnerable to chest infections.
To keep your risk of alcohol-related harm low, the NHS recommends:
- not regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week
- if you drink as much as 14 units a week, it's best to spread this evenly over three or more days
- if you're trying to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, it's a good idea to have several alcohol-free days each week
Regular or frequent drinking means drinking alcohol most weeks. The risk to your health is increased by drinking any amount of alcohol on a regular basis.
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.
If you're 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 to 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: 29/03/2016
Next review due: 29/03/2018