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Chest infection

A chest infection is an infection of the lungs or large airways. Some chest infections are mild and they clear up on their own. Others can be severe and life-threatening.

Symptoms

Chest infections often follow colds or flu.

The main symptoms are:

  • chesty cough – coughing up green or yellow mucus
  • wheezing and shortness of breath
  • high temperature (fever) of 38 degrees Celsius or above
  • headache
  • aching muscles
  • tiredness

These symptoms can be unpleasant, but they usually get better on their own in about 7 to 10 days. The cough and mucus can last up to 3 weeks.

Treatment

If you have a chest infection:

Do:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of water to loosen the mucus and make it easier to cough up
  • use painkillers to bring down a fever and ease headaches and muscle pain
  • raise your head up while sleeping - use extra pillows to make breathing easier and clear your chest of mucus
  • drink a hot lemon and honey drink to relieve a sore throat

Don't:

  • Do not let children breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water because of the risk of scalding
  • Do not give aspirin to children under 16
  • Do not smoke – it can make your symptoms worse

Pharmacists can help

Your pharmacist may suggest decongestant treatment. This will help loosen the mucus in your lungs so it's easier to cough up.

Coughing up the mucus helps clear the infection from your lungs.

Talk to your GP

Talk to your GP if you have a chest infection and you:

  • feel very unwell or your symptoms get worse
  • cough up blood or blood-stained mucus
  • have a cough for more than 3 weeks
  • are pregnant
  • are over 65
  • have a weak immune system – for example, if you have diabetes or you're having chemotherapy
  • have a long-term health condition, such as a heart or lung condition

If your symptoms are severe you may have pneumonia.

Treatment from your GP

Treatment will depend on what caused your chest infection -a virus or bacteria.

Viral chest infections

Many chest infections are caused by a virus. This usually clears up by itself after a few weeks and antibiotics won't help.

Bacterial chest infections

Some chest infections are caused by bacteria. Your GP may prescribe antibiotics. Make sure you complete the whole course as advised by your GP, even if you start to feel better.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are only used to treat bacterial chest infections. They're not used for treating viral chest infections, such as flu or viral bronchitis. This is because they don't work for this type of infection.

How to avoid passing on chest infections

To avoid passing on chest infections to others, you should:

  • wash your hands often with warm water and soap
  • cough into your elbow to stop germs getting on to your hands and spreading to other people
  • use tissues to trap germs when you cough or sneeze
  • bin used tissues as quickly as possible

How to avoid getting a chest infection

Stop smoking if you smoke. People who smoke have a higher risk of developing serious chest infections. Smoking damages your lungs and weakens your defences against infection.

Cut down on how much alcohol you drink. Excessive and prolonged alcohol misuse can weaken your lungs' natural defences against infections. This can make you more vulnerable to chest infections.

Washing your hands especially before eating protects you from many infections including chest infections. Avoid touching your face with your hands.

If you are over 65 or have a serious long-term health condition you should:

  • ask your GP about the annual flu vaccination
  • ask if you should have the pneumococcal vaccine – this helps prevent pneumonia

Related topics

Flu vaccine

Pneumococcal vaccine

Giving up smoking

Cutting down on alcohol

page last reviewed: 03/01/2020
next review due: 03/01/2023