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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

9-minute read

If you or someone else is having severe difficulty breathing, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • When people say they have a chest infection, they mean an infection of their airways or lungs.
  • A chest infection can cause a cough and trouble breathing.
  • Chest infections are usually caused by a virus or bacteria.
  • Some vaccines can help prevent chest infections.

What is a chest infection?

A chest infection is not a formal medical diagnosis. When people say they have a chest infection, they usually mean an infection in part of their respiratory system. Your respiratory system is made up of your airways and lungs.

What are the symptoms of a chest infection?

The most common symptoms of a chest infection are:

Babies with bronchiolitis (a common type of chest infection in young children) can:

  • have a cough
  • have a blocked or runny nose
  • have fast or difficult breathing
  • have noisy breathing
  • be irritable
  • have a fever
  • eat and drink less or have difficulty feeding

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes chest infections?

Chest infections are usually caused by viruses or bacteria.

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

The risk of having a chest infection is higher in:

  • babies and young children
  • pregnant women
  • older people
  • people who smoke
  • people with certain health conditions or weakened immune systems


Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs.

Some people, including babies, young children and older adults may need to be looked after in hospital if they have pneumonia.

Bronchitis and bronchiolitis

Bronchitis and bronchiolitis are infections affecting the airways (bronchiolitis usually affects babies younger than 12 months).

Babies with bronchiolitis may need hospital treatment.

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 your phlegm
  • your symptoms are not improving or they are getting worse
  • you have a heart or lung disease, such as heart failure or asthma

Take your baby to see your doctor or go to a hospital emergency department if:

  • their breathing is fast, noisy or difficult
  • they are not feeding normally
  • they seem unwell
  • you are worried

How are chest infections diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine you. They will usually listen to your chest as part of the physical examination.

Your doctor may recommend tests such as:

  • blood tests
  • a test of your phlegm to work out the cause of the infection
  • a chest x-ray
  • a swab of your throat or nose to find out the cause of the infection

How are chest infections treated?

Antibiotics are sometimes (but not always) needed to treat a chest infection. It will depend on your diagnosis and the cause of your chest infection.

Only bacterial infections respond to treatment with antibiotics. Antibiotics will not help infections caused by a virus. If you are prescribed antibiotics, you must take the full course, even if you feel better after 2 to 3 days.

Self-care for a chest infection

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 smoke from cigarettes and vapes

Can chest infections be prevented?

Chest infections can be contagious. To reduce your risk of getting a chest infection, or of passing one on, take these steps:

  • Wash your hands with soapy water after coughing, sneezing and using tissues.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and put used tissues in the rubbish bin straight away.
  • Don’t go to work, school or day care while feeling unwell.
  • Quit smoking if you smoke.
  • Consider wearing a face mask if you are around someone who has a chest infection, or if you have one yourself.

Getting vaccinated can reduce your risk of chest infections. Vaccines that may be recommended include:

Resources and support

You can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: July 2023

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