Chest infections are common and can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Dr Roger Henderson
Achest infection is an infection that affects your lungs, either in the larger airways or in the smaller air sacs lower down in the lungs. It can cause a build-up of infected mucus and fluid, with the result that the airways of the lungs become swollen and inflamed. This can cause coughing and problems with breathing.
We look at chest infection symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and self-help tips:
Chest infection causes
Chest infections can affect people of all ages. The main causes are viral infections, bacteria and occasionally fungal infections.
Certain groups of people are at a higher risk of developing serious chest infections. These include:
- Babies and very young children
- Children with developmental problems
- The elderly
- People with long-term health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cystic fibrosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- People with a weakened immune system – this could be due to a recent illness, chemotherapyor a health condition, such as an undiagnosed HIV infection
Chest infections and pneumonia
Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lung tissue affecting one or both sides of the chest that often occurs as a result of an infection.
It is more common in winter and spring, but can strike suddenly or come on slowly over a few days and the symptoms depend on your age, the cause and severity of the infection, and any other medical problems you may have.
Chest infection symptoms
There are many potential symptoms that can occur, but the main ones are a high temperature, difficulty breathing and coughing up brown or green-coloured phlegm.
Chest infection diagnosis
Most chest infections are diagnosed by a GP from the history and a clinical examination using a stethoscope to listen to the chest, but possible other tests include a chest x-ray, a sample of phlegm for analysis or occasionally blood tests.
Chest infection treatment
Most people with bacterial chest infections can be treated at home with a course of antibiotics and make a full recovery.
Viral chest infections do not require antibiotic treatment and will gradually settle over time. If you have a bacterial chest infection, you should start to feel better 24 to 48 hours after starting on antibiotics, but a cough may still be present for days or even weeks.
Most people with bacterial chest infections can be treated at home with a course of antibiotics.
If the infection is severe and has developed into pneumonia then hospital admission may be necessary, particularly with young children and the elderly who are at greater risk of serious complications.
Chest infection self-help tips
Be guided by your GP, but general advice includes:
✔️ Always take any medication as directed – even if you feel better, finish any course of antibiotics.
✔️ Drink plenty of fluids.
✔️ Rest or take things easy for a few days.
✔️ Prop yourself up on a couple of pillows at night – it will make it easier to sleep.
✔️ Stop smoking, at least until you feel better, if you can’t give up at this stage.
Chest infection vaccination
Vaccines are available to reduce the risk of some types of chest infection – the elderly and people with chronic conditions should have a flu vaccination every year before winter starts, and a pneumococcal vaccine.
The elderly and people with chronic conditions should have a flu vaccination every year before winter starts.
People over 65 only need a single pneumococcal vaccination which will protect them for life (it is not given annually like the flu jab) but people with a long term health condition may need just a single one-off pneumococcal vaccination or five-yearly vaccination depending on what their underlying health problem is. Your GP or practice nurse can advise you about this.