A chest infection is an infection of the lungs or large airways. Some chest infections are mild and clear up on their own, but others can be severe and life-threatening.
Check if you have a chest infection
Chest infections often follow colds or flu.
The main symptoms are:
- a chesty cough – you may cough up green or yellow mucus
- wheezing and shortness of breath
- chest pain or discomfort
- a high temperature (fever) of 38C or above
- a headache
- aching muscles
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.
Things you can do yourself
If you have a chest infection:
- get plenty of rest
- drink lots of water to loosen the mucus and make it easier to cough up
- raise your head up while sleeping using extra pillows to make breathing easier and clear your chest of mucus
- use painkillers to bring down a fever and ease headaches and muscle pain
- 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 take cough medicines – there’s little evidence to show they help
- do not smoke – it can make your symptoms worse
A pharmacist can help with a chest infection
Your pharmacist can suggest decongestant treatments to 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.
Non-urgent advice – see a healthcare practitioner if you have a chest infection and:
- you feel very unwell or your symptoms get worse
- you cough up blood or blood-stained mucus
- you have had a cough for more than 3 weeks
- you’re pregnant
- you’re over 65
- your immune system is weak – for example, you have a condition like diabetes or you’re having chemotherapy
- you have a long-term health condition, such as a heart, lung or kidney condition. You may have pneumonia if your symptoms are severe.
Treatment from a healthcare practitioner
Treatment will depend on what caused your chest infection:
- a virus (like viral bronchitis) – this usually clears up by itself after a few weeks and antibiotics will not help
- bacteria (like pneumonia) – a healthcare practitioner may prescribe antibiotics (make sure you complete the whole course as advised, even if you start to feel better)
Antibiotics are only used to treat bacterial chest infections. They’re not used for treating viral chest infections, such as flu or viral bronchitis, because they do not work for this type of infection.
A sample of your mucus may need to be tested to see what’s causing your chest infection.
How to avoid passing chest infections on to others:
- cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- wash your hands regularly
- throw away used tissues immediately
How to avoid getting a chest infection
If you keep getting chest infections or you’re at a high risk of getting one (for example, because you’re over the age of 65 or have a serious long-term health condition), you should:
- ask a GP about the annual flu vaccination – find out if you’re eligible for the free flu vaccine
- ask if you should have the pneumococcal vaccine – this helps prevent pneumonia
- stop smoking if you smoke
- take showers instead of baths
- cut down on how much alcohol you drink