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Chest infections are usually caused by either bacteria or viruses.

Chest infections are usually caused by either bacteria or viruses.
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Chest infection

3-minute read

Chest infections are common, especially in winter, and may occur with a cold or the flu. People of all ages can get chest infections.

Most chest infections will get better with rest, but sometimes antibiotics are needed. If you or someone you care for is getting worse, has difficulty breathing or has chest pain, see your doctor straight away.

What is a chest infection?

A chest infection is an infection in the lungs or lower airways.

If the infection is in the air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs, it is called pneumonia. If it is in the larger airways (bronchi), it is called bronchitis.

Chest infections can be spread to other people when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Chest infections are more common in:

  • babies and young children
  • pregnant women
  • elderly people
  • smokers
  • people with long-term health conditions or weakened immune systems

Causes of chest infection

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

Chest infection symptoms

The most common symptoms of a chest infection are:

  • cough, with or without yellow or green mucous (phlegm) or blood
  • wheeze
  • rapid breathing or breathlessness
  • fever
  • fast heartbeat
  • chest pain or tightness
  • tiredness

You should see a doctor straight away, or go to a local 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 are getting worse
  • you have heart or lung disease, such as heart failure or asthma

Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 for advice.

Chest infection diagnosis

Your doctor may take your medical history, examine you, and may order blood tests, a test of your phlegm, or a chest x-ray. They might do a lung function test or take a swab to work out the cause of your infection.

Chest infection treatment

Often chest infections don’t need any medical treatment. But in some cases, antibiotics are needed. Only bacterial infections respond to treatment with antibiotics — antibiotics will not help viral infections.

Pneumonia can be life threatening for some people. Babies, young children and older adults may need to be looked after in hospital.

If you have a chest infection, you can look after yourself by:

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 can help.

Chest infection prevention

You can reduce the risk of getting a chest infection, or of passing one on, by:

  • having good hygiene: wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and dispose of used tissues in the rubbish bin
  • 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.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2019

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