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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

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.

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.

Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker.

If you think you have a chest infection, call healthdirect (1800 022 222) for advice, see your doctor or visit your emergency department.

Chest infection treatment

Your doctor may take your medical history, examine you, and may order blood tests, a test of your phlegm, or a chest x-ray.

The treatment for chest infection usually includes:

Chest infections in most people don’t need any medical treatment.

In some cases, antibiotics are needed. However, only bacterial infections respond to treatment with antibiotics - antibiotics will not help viral infections.

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.

Last reviewed: March 2017

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