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Chest infections
Chest infections

Chest infections

Chest infections are usually common, especially at certain times of the year, and may occur after a cold. The severity of chest infections varies from mild to serious cases.

A chest infection affects the lungs or the large airways of the lungs. This infection differs from upper respiratory infection, usually affecting the throat or lungs and caused by a virus. A chest infection is more like a common cold and needs time for the immune system to fight it off.

Chest infection is divided into two main infections:

  • Infection of the lung itself (pneumonia) – mostly caused by bacteria
  • Infection of the larger airways of the lungs (bronchitis) – mostly caused by a virus


Symptoms resulting from a chest infection will depend on your age, the severity or causes of the infection and any existing medical conditions or problems.

These chest infection symptoms may develop quickly and become severe or slowly over time. Pneumonia, an infection affecting the smaller air sacs of the lungs, often affects people in the winter or spring. A bronchitis infection can occur at any time of the year but usually affects smokers, the elderly, children and people with environmental allergies.

The general symptoms of chest infection include:

  • Drowsiness  
  • Fatigue
  • No appetite or decrease in appetite
  • Headache
  • Pains and aches in joints and muscles
  • Excessive sweating without exertion

Chest infections are often mild. Sometimes, chest infections develop into a more serious issue and become life-threatening. 

The primary symptoms of a chest infection are:

  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Persistent cough
  • Rapid, shallow breathing or getting out of breath easily
  • Coughing up green, yellow or thick phlegm or blood
  • Wheezing (breath making a whistling or rattling sound)
  • A fever
  • Disorientation or mental confusion
  • Rapid heartbeat or increased heart rate

Causes of chest infections

Pneumonia is a bacterial infection, while bronchitis is a viral infection. Many people get a chest infection after a flu virus or cold. In most cases, the chest infection is mild but serious in other cases. Chest infections, like the common cold, can spread through touching or breathing in droplets from sneezes and coughs of an infected person.

The following people are at a higher risk of developing serious chest infections.

  • Smokers
  • Young children and babies
  • Significantly overweight people
  • Children with developmental problems
  • Pregnant women
  • Older people

Many people with chronic diseases, such as kidney disease, heart disease, cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, and long-term health problems can contract chest infections. People with weakened immune systems (immunocompromised patients) who were recently ill and had serious health conditions or chemotherapy also have a high risk of contracting chest infections.

Types of chest infection

  • Acute bronchitis

    Acute bronchitis is an infection of the lining of the lungs’ air tubes, called the bronchi. The infection is mainly caused by a virus and after the flu or a cold. Smoking increases the risk of acute bronchitis. Most people with this infection do not need medical treatment because the infection clears within 7 – 10 days.

  • Pneumonia

    Pneumonia is an infection of the air sacs of the lungs, causing them to get filled with fluid and inflamed. It is also known as community-acquired pneumonia because people usually contract it during their daily lives, like at school or work.

Bacteria mostly cause pneumonia, but some cases are caused by viruses. People affected by mild pneumonia can get treatment at home, but severe pneumonia may need treatment in a hospital. Young people, older people, and those with serious health conditions are more likely to need hospital treatment.

People with pneumonia can reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others by covering their mouths when sneezing or coughing and washing their hands regularly. Ensure you throw away used tissues immediately.

Treatments for chest infections

The doctor will conduct a physical exam to diagnose a chest infection and assess any present symptoms. Using a telescope, the doctor will listen to your heart and lungs as you breathe.

A chest X-ray can help confirm the location and severity of the infection. A sputum or blood sample can also assess the cause of the infection or determine the right antibiotics for cases caused by bacteria.

Several effective remedies are available for treating a chest infection, including:

  • Over-the-counter decongestants
  • Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Elevating the chest and head while sleeping
  • Stopping smoking
  • Taking warm drinks such as hot water with lemon and honey
  • Using a humidifier
  • Drinking lots of fluids

Bacterial infections require antibiotics, usually administered as tablets, which patients can take at home. Ensure you complete your course of antibiotics, even when the symptoms ease. Antibiotics aren’t effective for viral chest infections, and the treatment is usually for easing the symptoms until they subside.

You can take several steps to help prevent chest infections, including:

  • Eating healthy foods to maintain your immune system and reduce vulnerability to infections
  • Washing your hands regularly, especially before eating
  • Getting vaccines for infections such as pneumonia and influenza
  • Reducing alcohol intake
  • Reducing or stopping smoking

Chest infections can be severe and require proper medical care. If you experience chest infection symptoms, visit Medical Express Clinic to have our experienced doctor examine you and assess your symptoms.

Contact us at 0207 499 1991 for an appointment with our doctor.

Frequently asked questions

What test can a doctor do if I have a chest infection?

You may not need any tests if you have acute bronchitis or a bronchial infection with mild symptoms. However, if your symptoms are more severe, the doctor may carry out a chest X-ray to show the extent of the infection or a sputum (phlegm) or blood test to determine the cause of the infection.

How do I prevent chest infections?

Smoking cigarettes paralyses the villi (a part of the lungs responsible for clearing phlegm) and damages the airways. Quitting smoking will significantly reduce the risk of chest infection and avoid second-hand smoke inhalation.

Can I take cough medicine for a chest infection?

The best option for a chest infection is to visit your doctor. Taking cough medicine to suppress a cough may not be the best. Sometimes, it makes clearing the infection more difficult.