What is a chest infection?
A chest infection is an infection of the lungs.
If the infection is in the smaller air sacs of the lungs — known as the alveoli — it is called pneumonia. If it is in the larger airways — known as the bronchi — it is called bronchitis. The airways become swollen and make more mucus or pus which blocks the airways and makes it hard to breathe.
Chest infections can be spread to others when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
They are more common in:
- babies and young children
- pregnant women
- elderly people
- people with long-term health conditions or weakened immune systems
What are the symptoms of a chest infection?
The most common symptoms of a chest infection are:
- cough, with or without brown, yellow or green mucous (phlegm) or blood
- rapid or difficult breathing (breathlessness)
- fever (sweating, shivering, chills)
- fast heartbeat
- general body aches and pains
- chest pain or tightness
- feeling unwell and more tired than usual
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
When should I see my doctor?
You should see a doctor straight away, or go to a hospital emergency department, if:
- you are short of breath
- it hurts to breathe
- you have a very high fever
- you are coughing up a lot of phlegm
- there is blood in the phlegm
- your symptoms are not improving or they are getting worse
- you have a heart or lung disease, such as heart failure or asthma
What causes chest infections?
Chest infections are usually caused by either bacteria or viruses. Pneumonia is often caused by bacteria, and bronchitis is often caused by viruses. Occasionally, chest infections can be caused by fungi.
How are chest infections diagnosed?
Your doctor will take your medical history, listen to your breathing, and may order blood tests, a test of your phlegm, or a chest x-ray. They might also do a lung function test or take a swab to work out the cause of your infection
How are chest infections treated?
Often chest infections do not need any medical treatment. But in some cases, antibiotics are needed. Only bacterial infections respond to treatment with antibiotics — they will not help viral infections. If you are prescribed antibiotics you must take the full course even if you feel better after 2 to 3 days.
Pneumonia can be life threatening for some people. Babies, young children and older adults may need to be looked after in hospital if they have pneumonia.
If you have a chest infection, you can look after yourself by:
- getting plenty of rest
- drinking plenty of fluids
- taking pain relief medicine if needed, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain and fever
- not smoking and limiting your exposure to cigarette smoke
Inhaling steam and raising your head with a pillow in bed can help to ease the symptoms. You can also talk to your pharmacist about whether a decongestant medicine might help.
Can chest infections be prevented?
You can reduce the risk of getting a chest infection, or of passing one on, by:
- washing your hands with soapy water after coughing, sneezing and using tissues
- covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and dispose of used tissues in the rubbish bin straight away
- not attending work, school or day care while feeling unwell
- quitting smoking if you smoke
- limiting alcohol
- eating healthy food
Your doctor may recommend vaccination against the flu (influenza) or pneumococcal infections, particularly for babies, elderly people, pregnant women or people with long-term health conditions.
If you think you are at high risk of chest infections, talk to your doctor.
Resources and support
If you need to know more about chest infections, or to get advice, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
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Last reviewed: March 2021