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Chest infection, adult - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Chest infections are very common, especially during autumn and winter, or after a cold or flu.

Although most are mild and get better on their own, some cases can be very serious, even life-threatening.

The main symptoms of a chest infection are:

  • a chesty cough
  • breathing difficulties
  • chest pain

It's also common to get headaches and have a high temperature.

Find out more in symptoms of chest infection.

Types of chest infection

There are two main types of chest infection

'Acute' means that the infection is a short-lived, one-off illness.

The symptoms of acute bronchitis and pneumonia are similar, but pneumonia symptoms can often be more severe and need medical attention.

When to see a doctor

Bronchitis usually gets better by itself, so there is no need to see a GP. You should see a GP if you suspect you have pneumonia.

It can be difficult to know if you have bronchitis or pneumonia as the symptoms are so similar. But it is more likely that you have pneumonia if your symptoms are severe.

There are a number of symptoms that mean you should see a GP. They include:

  • a high temperature (this is usually a sign of a more serious type of infection)
  • confusion or disorientation
  • a sharp pain in your chest
  • coughing up blood-stained phlegm (thick mucus)
  • your symptoms last longer than three weeks

Learn more in symptoms of chest infection.

Treating chest infections

A bout of bronchitis usually gets better on its own within seven to 10 days without any medicines.

If you suspect that you have pneuomnia, you should see a GP.

If you have a chest infection, you should:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluid to prevent dehydration and to thin the mucus in your lungs, making it easier to cough up
  • treat headaches, fever and aches and pains with paracetamolor ibuprofen
  • stop smoking straight away

Don't waste your money on cough medicines. There's little evidence they work, and in any case, coughing helps you clear the infection more quickly by getting rid of the phlegm from your lungs. 

If your throat is sore from coughing, you can relieve the discomfort with a warm drink of honey and lemon.

As bronchitis is usually caused by a virus, your recovery will rarely be helped by taking antibiotics. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily for bronchitis can do more harm than good by causing antibiotic resistance.

Pneumonia, unlike bronchitis, is often caused by a bacteria and may need treatment with antibiotics. If you have mild pneumonia, you can take antibiotics as tablets at home. If the pneumonia is more serious, antibiotics are given in hospital intravenously, that is through a drip into a vein.

Learn more in treatment of chest infection.

Preventing chest infections

There are measures you can take to help prevent chest infection, and to stop the spread of it to others.

Good hygiene

Although chest infections aren't as contagious as other common infections such as flu, you can pass them on to others through coughing and sneezing. So if you have a chest infection, it's important to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and to wash your hands regularly. Throw away used tissues immediately.

Stop smoking

If you smoke, the best thing you can do to prevent a chest infection is to stop. Smoking damages your lungs and weakens your defences against infection.

Read more about how the NHS can help you to stop smoking.

Vaccinations

If you are in a high risk group for chest infection, for example you are over 65, your GP may recommend certain vaccinations. Learn more in prevention of chest infection.

Medical Review: May 12, 2012
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