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Chest infections vary in severity - some clear up on their own while others can be life threatening.
An early diagnosis helps reduce the risk of needing urgent medical attention.
Find out what type of chest infection you have and get the right treatment today.
A chest infection can affect your windpipe, bronchi (the tubes taking air into the lungs), or the deeper parts of your lungs. The infection causes the affected part of the lung to become inflamed, which in turn can cause a buildup of fluid or mucus, sometimes making it difficult to breathe. Chest infections can be caused by viruses or bacteria.
Viral chest infections are contagious and are normally passed on through coughing or sneezing. You can catch a chest infection by breathing in the respiratory droplets of an infected person coughing or sneezing near you, or sometimes by touching your nose or mouth after touching an infected surface.
You are likely to get the common cold 2-3 times per year. You may have a cough, runny nose, sore throat and a temperature. With rest, sleep and plenty of water, you should start feeling better within 10 days without needing antibiotics.
However, symptoms of the common cold, flu and more severe chest infections can overlap making it difficult to self-assess your condition. This guide can help you identify whether you have a chest infection and the differences between a mild and severe infection. We can help with:
What are the signs of a chest infection? And do you have severe chest infection symptoms?
The main symptoms that could indicate a chest infection are:
Chest infections can feel similar to the common cold and the flu but symptoms are often worse and can lead to considerable discomfort. Signs of a chest infection can include coughing up yellow or green mucus, shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing, a high fever, or rapid heartbeat.
Acute bronchitis (often viral) and pneumonia (often bacterial) are the two main types of chest infection. Viral and bacterial chest infections have overlapping symptoms but pneumonia causes more severe symptoms while acute bronchitis symptoms are milder and usually get better within a week. Symptoms that suggest pneumonia include:
Acute bronchitis can sometimes develop into pneumonia.
Pneumonia can lead to serious health complications that require hospital treatment including:
You should see a doctor if:
You should also see a doctor if you have a chest infection and any of the following applies:
If you think a child under 5 has a chest infection you should take them to see a GP. Learn more about chest infections in children.
Chest infection is an ambiguous term. It’s not a one size fits all health issue - different chest infections can be mild or severe and treatment can range from self-care to hospital admission.
The two most common chest infections are acute bronchitis and pneumonia. Acute bronchitis is often caused by viruses and can normally be treated at home. Pneumonia is often caused by bacteria and is a much more serious chest infection. We can help with:
Is your chest infection viral or bacterial? And what does this mean for you?
A viral chest infection can affect healthy people with otherwise strong immune systems. Viruses account for 85 to 95% of cases of acute bronchitis and about 20% of pneumonia cases. Common viruses that cause chest infections are often the same as those that cause the common cold and the flu.
Viruses that cause most cases of acute bronchitis include:
A bacterial chest infection often affects people with underlying health conditions, including those with weaker immune systems and those with a recent viral respiratory infection. Bacterial infections are often the main cause of pneumonia, but can also cause acute bronchitis. Bacterial chest infections are usually prescribed treatment with antibiotics.
Acute bronchitis is an infection of the bronchi - the main airways between the trachea and lungs. The infection is usually viral but can also be bacterial. It causes the bronchi to become inflamed and produce excess mucus. Common symptoms include coughing (to clear the mucus which is produced as phlegm), wheezing, shortness of breath or fever.
Early signs of acute bronchitis may appear to be the common cold or the flu, particularly in winter. Symptoms are usually mild and can often be managed at home. Although rare, acute bronchitis can turn into pneumonia - a more serious health condition. Acute bronchitis is not a direct cause of its namesake, chronic bronchitis.
Severe or chronic bronchitis, known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is not caused by an infection. Instead, the lungs and airways become inflamed and damaged over time due to breathing in harmful substances. Smoking is the main cause of COPD, but other factors include occupational exposure to certain dusts and fumes.
Pneumonia causes inflammation of the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in one or both lungs. The alveoli fill up with fluid or pus making it difficult to breathe. Common symptoms include coughing up phlegm (mucus), shortness of breath, fever and chest pain. Pneumonia is usually caused by a bacterial infection but can also be caused by a virus, or rarely by a fungus.
Early symptoms of pneumonia may be similar to the flu or bronchitis. However, pneumonia is more severe and can be life-threatening. If you suspect that you have pneumonia you should see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
Acute bronchitis and pneumonia are the two most common chest infections. They share similar symptoms (mainly a productive cough) making it difficult to tell what condition you may have. If your symptoms are more severe it is likely you have developed pneumonia. You should see a doctor if you suspect you have pneumonia.
More than 400,000 people are diagnosed with pneumonia in the UK every year. Symptoms can develop slowly over several days but can also come on suddenly over 24 to 48 hours. Your health can deteriorate rapidly with pneumonia so treatment should be proactively managed by a doctor.
Acute bronchitis is the fifth most common reason why adults see their GP. However, many of these visits are unnecessary because acute bronchitis will usually clear up on its own and in most cases can be effectively managed at home. We can help with:
What is the best chest infection treatment? And are medicines or antibiotics right for you?
Five steps to help clear a chest infection:
There are other home remedies you can follow to help get rid of a chest infection.
Two things you should avoid if you have a chest infection:
Acute bronchitis usually goes away on its own without treatment if you have a viral infection. Most symptoms often clear up within 7 to 10 days but the cough and mucus may continue for up to 3 weeks. Antibiotic treatment for viral bronchitis is not effective. However, if you have bacterial bronchitis, antibiotics may be prescribed.
Coughing up green thick phlegm rather than colourless thin phlegm could indicate there is a bacterial infection.
Antibiotics do not work on viral infections (like acute bronchitis) but may be prescribed for bacterial infections (like pneumonia). Mild cases of pneumonia can be treated with oral antibiotic tablets taken at home. More serious cases require admission to hospital for antibiotics (sometimes given intravenously), oxygen, and infusion of fluids.
The typical antibiotic prescribed for a chest infection is amoxicillin (a type of penicillin). If you are allergic to amoxicillin, alternatives can be used like clarithromycin or doxycycline. It is important to always take the full course of antibiotics even if you start to feel better; a five day course should be sufficient for pneumonia and bacterial bronchitis.
Antibiotics may result in side effects including:
To diagnose pneumonia your GP may ask:
Your GP may also run other tests like:
If you have more severe pneumonia, you may need:
Treatment for pneumonia depends on your age, overall health, and severity of symptoms. Although there is a plethora of information available online with self-help information on diagnosis and treatment, you should see a doctor if you suspect you have pneumonia. Some mild cases of pneumonia can be treated at home with antibiotic medicine but this should be at the direction of your doctor.
Acute bronchitis usually requires no medical treatment, as antibiotics do not work on viral infections and even if there is a bacteria cause the body can clear the infection itself most of the time. To relieve symptoms and improve your wellbeing, there are a number of helpful chest infection remedies you can try at home.
There are many natural remedies for chest infections floating around on the web - some tried and tested, others wacky and weird. This guide collates those that have been supported by leading institutions like the NHS and Mayo Clinic. We can help with:
Do natural chest infection remedies work? And what home remedies should you try?
7 ways to soothe a sore throat:
Simple hot lemon and honey recipe:
You can use an air humidifier as a home remedy to loosen the mucus in your airways. This will make it easier to cough up phlegm. You can also sit in a steamy bathroom for several minutes as a de-facto humidifier.
3 natural remedies for chest infections include:
You may lose your appetite if you feel unwell or produce a lot of mucus. It is important to maintain a healthy diet with all the nutrients you need to keep your body strong. Certain foods can help reduce the severity of your symptoms and give you the vitamins you need to fight the infection.
Some foods help with chest infections:
Pneumonia recovery tips:
Recovery time is dependent on the type of chest chest infection you have, the severity of your symptoms, your age and your overall health. There is no set rule for how long your chest infection will last but there are guiding principles based on historical data and national averages.
Pneumonia is a more serious chest infection than acute bronchitis. Many severe health conditions take longer to recover from than minor conditions - the same applies here. We can help with:
How long does a chest infection last? And how long will it take you to recover?
Acute bronchitis usually clears up on its own within a few weeks. You may find that your cough lasts several weeks after other symptoms have passed. You should see a doctor if you cough lasts longer than 3 weeks or if your fever lasts longer than a week. The duration of acute bronchitis can vary depending on your age, the severity of symptoms and overall health condition.
Percentage of people by [acute bronchitis cough duration]:
Common stages of pneumonia recovery:
| Recovery time | Prognosis| |--------------- |----------------------------------------------------------------------- | | 2 days | your temperature should start to settle after 48 hours of antibiotics | | 1 week | your fever should be gone | | 4 weeks | your chest pain and mucus production should be substantially reduced | | 6 weeks | your cough and breathlessness should be substantially reduced | | 3 months | most symptoms should be gone but you may still feel very tired | | 6 months | you should feel back to normal |
Your doctor will probably schedule a follow up appointment to check on your recovery. You should see your doctor again if your symptoms do not begin to improve within 3 days of starting antibiotics, if they get worse or are slow to disappear. Some people may need an X-ray 6 weeks after they started their course of antibiotics to check that the infection has completely gone.
Recovery time for pneumonia varies from person to person. You can take steps to improve recovery time like deep breathing exercises and slowly increasing activity levels. Pneumonia is a serious lung disease and can take time to get fully better. Most people fully recover from pneumonia, but it can lead to complications and death. Elderly people or those with pre-existing health conditions are most at risk of severe complications of pneumonia.
In most cases, a 5 day course of antibiotics is sufficient and will be more successful if the course is completed. You should always complete the full course of antibiotics even if you start to feel better. Bacterial pneumonia can become resistant and may come back if you stop taking the antibiotics before the course ends.
Hospital treatment may involve two different antibiotics at the same time. In some cases, your doctor may increase the course length of your first antibiotic or prescribe a different antibiotic to kill the infection.
Recurrent pneumonia is defined as two (or usually more) episodes of pneumonia in a lifetime. Each episode will have been at least 1 month apart with an X-ray having visibly confirmed the infection had gone after the previous episode. It can be difficult distinguishing between ‘persistent’ and ‘recurrent’ pneumonia if there is a lack of serial X-rays.
Pneumonia accounts for more than 5% of all deaths in the UK every year. You can make small lifestyle changes to strengthen your immune system and help prevent this deadly disease. From good hygiene to a balanced diet, your decisions can help stave off infection.
Smoking massively increases the chances of getting a chest infection, and once you have a chest infection smoking also aggravates the infection and worsens your condition. It’s important to learn what causes a chest infection so you can make the right choices to reduce the risk of developing one. We can help with:
How are chest infections caused? And what can you do to reduce the risk of getting one?
Chest infections are mainly caused by a virus or bacteria that affects the airways or lungs making it difficult to breathe. You can catch a chest infection from an infected person coughing or sneezing or from touching the same surface as an infected person. Chest infections are more common during autumn and winter.
Some groups of people are more susceptible to developing a chest infection:
Smoking makes acute bronchitis or pneumonia much more likely. Smoking damages your lungs so can aggravate symptoms of acute bronchitis, increase the chance of a chest infection and increase the risk of developing COPD. Vaping is also likely to have a similar effect but not enough is known about it as yet. Research on vaping and its impact on respiratory infections is limited but the Lung Institute does not recommend vaping for anyone.
It is important to stop smoking if you have a chest infection or lung disease. When you stop smoking it can be a great opportunity to quit smoking completely. The NHS has two useful resources to help stop smoking altogether:
Pneumonia can be caused by:
Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia. There are more than 90 different strains of this bacteria - some more severe than others. Streptococcus pneumoniae causes a pneumococcal infection which can be non-invasive (like bronchitis), partially invasive (like pneumonia), or highly invasive (like septicaemia, septic arthritis, or meningitis).
Pneumococcal vaccines are available to help protect against certain Streptococcus pneumoniae strains. These are given to:
The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPV) is used in adults and protects against 23 strains; it is given once only (although some doctors suggest booster doses every 5 years in the elderly).
Other bacteria that can cause pneumonia include:
To prevent a chest infection, you should:
If you already have acute bronchitis or pneumonia, make sure to:
Children coughing is usually a result of mucus trickling down their throats – not a chest infection. Providing your child is eating and drinking normally, and they aren’t wheezing, coughing is usually no cause for concern.
If you suspect your child might have a chest infection, there are signs to look out for and some effective ways to make your child feel better again quickly. We can help with:
What are the signs of your child having a chest infection? And how are chest infections in children treated?
If you are worried that your child might have a chest infection, here are a few tell-tale signs to look out for:
Children under 2 years old are susceptible to bronchiolitis. Learn more about bronchiolitis
If your child has been experiencing these symptoms for more than 3 weeks, you should take them to see a GP.
Many parents worry if their child’s chest infection might be infectious before sending them to school. Chest infections (especially those caused by viruses) can be passed on between children. However, it is generally advised for a child to go to school if they only have a minor cough and mild chest infection.
If your child’s chest infection is accompanied by a more severe cough or fever, you should keep them home until their symptoms start to improve.
Make sure your child knows to cover their mouth when they cough and throw away any used tissues straight away to prevent further spreading of their chest infection.
Treating chest infections in children depends on whether their infection is bacterial or viral. Your GP will be able to make an assessment on their type of chest infection. However, it can sometimes be difficult to pin down the cause of infection in young children as their condition can change rapidly.
Treatment may include:
It’s also worth noting that if your child has a chest infection with a fever, you should avoid wrapping them up in extra layers of clothing or blankets. Instead giving your child paracetamol or ibuprofen will help to regulate their body temperature.
While you might be tempted to sponge your child with water to help cool them down, this can sometimes cause distress or make them shiver, which in turn raises their body temperature. However, if your child responds well, sponging with lukewarm water can help to bring their temperature down a little.
Treatment for chest infections in children might not be appropriate for babies. You can learn more on how to treat chest infections in babies.
The infection itself can last between 7 to 10 days in children. However, your child might still have a cough from the chest infection for up to 3 weeks. It can sometimes be difficult for your child to cope with a chest infection for this long. Read our tips on how to treat chest infection in children to help relieve some of your child’s symptoms.
You should take your child to see a GP if your child:
When you take your child to see a GP, they will be able to examine your child by listening to their lungs using a stethoscope and monitoring their oxygen levels. The doctor will then be able to make an assessment on what type of chest infection your child has and provide them with the right treatment.
Chest infections in children can sometimes be difficult to prevent. However, there are some things you can do to reduce the chances of your child getting a chest infection. This includes:
To stay updated with your child’s vaccinations, the NHS provides a useful resource where you can find out more about when your child will be receiving their vaccinations throughout their childhood.
It can be very worrying for parents when their babies catch a chest infection. However, with lots of love and care, your baby should quickly start feeling better again.
There are some things that parents can do to help their babies overcome a chest infection but treatment for babies often requires close attention. We can help with:
How to tell if your baby has chest infection? And how to help your baby’s cough?
There are some things that you can do to help your baby’s cough. This includes:
Signs that your baby may have a chest infection:
Sometimes, babies with a chest infection will also have a fever but this isn’t always the case.
The infection itself tends to clear up between 5 and 7 days but the accompanying cough might persist for a little while longer. Understandably, this can seem like a long time. Read our advice on how to treat chest infection in babies to help relieve some of your baby’s symptoms.
If your baby has a viral chest infection, this will usually clear up on its own without intervention. If your baby has a bacterial chest infection, your GP might prescribe antibiotics to help fight the infection. Some infections will respond better to antibiotics than others, your doctor will be able to make an assessment on the best treatment for your baby.
If your baby is over the age of 1, you could try giving them a warm drink of lemon and honey to help with their coughing. Watch this video to find out how this is made.
Chest infections can sometimes be difficult to prevent, but there are some things you can do to reduce the chances of your baby catching a chest infection. One way is to make sure your baby is up to date with all of their routine immunisations. This should help to prevent your baby from catching infections such as whooping cough. Another is to avoid smoking in the home or around your child as this is a major risk factor for chest infections in children.
To stay updated with your baby’s routine immunisations, the NHS provides a handy timeline of vaccinations required for your baby and throughout their childhood.
Bronchioles are the small tubes in the lungs that control the flow of air. Bronchiolitis is inflammation of the bronchioles caused by the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). The inflammation restricts air flow making it difficult to breathe. Early bronchiolitis symptoms are usually similar to symptoms of the common cold, including a cough, fever, and blocked or runny nose.
Symptoms often get worse over a few days before showing signs of improvement. Further symptoms of bronchiolitis can include:
Bronchiolitis is a common infection that affects babies and young children under 2 years old. Approximately 1 in 3 children will have developed bronchiolitis in the UK by the age of 1. There is no medication to treat bronchiolitis - the infection usually clears up on its own within 2 weeks. Most children can be cared for at home as you would the common cold.
Approximately 2-3% of babies with bronchiolitis require hospitalisation. Dangerous symptoms in babies and children include:
If your baby has any of these dangerous symptoms, call 999 immediately.
If your baby is turning blue or is breathing irregularly, take them to see a GP urgently. As a general rule, you should take your baby to see a GP as an urgent matter if they are under 3 months old and their temperature rises above 38°C or if they are 3 to 6 months old and have a temperature of over 39°C.
Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid a chest infection when pregnant. In fact, women are somewhat more prone to catching a chest infection while pregnant.
The good news is that a chest infection generally will not cause any harm to your baby. We can help with:
How to clear a chest infection while pregnant? And how can you prevent a chest infection when pregnant?
It may take a little longer for your chest infection to clear as changes to your immune system occur during pregnancy. This largely depends on the type of chest infection that you have. If you have a bacterial chest infection, your GP might prescribe you with suitable antibiotics for pregnancy to help fight your infection. Some antibiotics have to be avoided in pregnancy (for example tetracyclines such as doxycycline); but amoxicillin is safe.
For advice and things you can try at home, learn how to get rid of a chest infection at home.
Painkillers like paracetamol are considered safe during pregnancy and can help relieve the symptoms of a chest infection. It is also safe to apply some Vicks chest rub to help speed up your recovery.
Speak with your GP who will be able to examine your chest and provide you with relevant treatment.
Having a cough while pregnant, whether it be from a chest infection or cold and flu, generally will not cause harm to your baby. Your baby is safely protected by your amniotic fluid which helps to absorb the shock of a hard cough.
Despite being a common myth that coughing hard can cause a miscarriage, this isn’t something you should worry about.
If you are pregnant and suspect that you might have a chest infection, you should visit your GP. They will be able to examine you by listening to your lungs and monitoring your oxygen levels. If there is evidence to suggest your chest infection is bacterial, your GP might prescribe you with some suitable antibiotics for pregnancy to help fight your infection.
It is difficult to prevent chest infections during pregnancy as pregnant women are at a slightly higher risk due to the changes to the immune system that undergo during pregnancy. However, there are some things that you can do to reduce your chances of getting a chest infection when pregnant. This includes:
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