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:
- babies and very young children
- children with developmental problems
- people who are very overweight
- elderly people
- pregnant women
- people who smoke
- 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, a transplant, high-dose steroids, chemotherapy or a health condition, such as an undiagnosed HIV infection
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.
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).
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
- you have a cough that has lasted more than 3 weeks
- 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).