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What is a chest infection?

A chest infection is a type of respiratory infection that impacts the lower part of your respiratory tract.

Your lower respiratory tract includes your windpipe, bronchi, and lungs.

The two most common types of chest infections are bronchitis and pneumonia. Chest infections can range anywhere from mild to severe.

The symptoms of a chest infection can include:

  • chesty cough (wet or phlegmy)
  • wheezing
  • coughing up yellow or green mucus
  • feeling short of breath
  • discomfort in your chest
  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle aches and pains
  • feeling tired or fatigued

A chest infection can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection. The exact cause will depend on the type of infection.

For example, bronchitis is often caused by a virus, whereas most cases of pneumonia are bacterial in origin.

You can catch a chest infection by inhaling the respiratory droplets that are generated when someone with an infection coughs or sneezes. That’s because the respiratory droplets carry the infection.

Additionally, coming into contact with a surface that’s contaminated with the virus or bacteria, and then touching your mouth or face can also spread the infection.

You may be at an increased risk for a chest infection if you:

  • are elderly
  • are pregnant
  • are a baby or young child
  • smoke
  • have a chronic health condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), asthma, or diabetes
  • have a weakened immune system, either from a condition such HIV, or from being the recipient of an organ transplant

In some cases, a chest infection, such as acute bronchitis, will go away on its own and you won’t have to see a doctor.

A pharmacist may be able to help you by recommending over-the-counter (OTC) decongestant medications to help loosen any mucus in your chest, which will make it easier to cough up.

You should always go to see a doctor for a chest infection if you:

  • are over 65 years old
  • have a child under 5 with symptoms of a chest infection
  • are pregnant
  • have a chronic health condition or a weakened immune system
  • cough up blood or bloody mucus
  • have symptoms such as a fever or headache that gets worse
  • have a cough that lasts longer than three weeks
  • have quick breathing, pain in your chest, or shortness of breath
  • feel dizzy, confused, or disoriented

In order to diagnose your condition, the doctor will evaluate your symptoms and perform a physical examination, during which they’ll use a stethoscope to listen to your heart and lungs as you breathe.

The doctor may take a chest X-ray to determine the location and severity of your infection.

They may also take a sputum or blood sample to find out what’s causing your infection. If bacteria are causing your chest infection, these tests can also help them decide which antibiotic to use.

If your chest infection is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t be effective. Instead, your treatment will focus on easing your symptoms until you begin to get better.

If you have a bacterial infection, you’ll be treated with antibiotics. In a mild case, you can take these at home in tablet form.

If you have a severe bacterial chest infection, you may need to be treated with IV antibiotics in a hospital.

Always take the full course of antibiotics, even if you begin to feel better.

These home remedies may help ease the symptoms of your chest infection. Try these tips:

  • Take OTC medications such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to lower your fever and help relieve any aches and pains.
  • Use OTC decongestants or expectorants to help loosen mucus and make it easier to cough up.
  • Be sure to get plenty of rest.
  • Drink lots of fluids. This keeps you hydrated and can loosen mucus, making it easier to cough up.
  • Avoid lying flat when sleeping. This can cause mucus to settle in your chest. Use extra pillows to elevate your head and chest at night.
  • Use a humidifier or inhale steam vapor to help relieve coughing.
  • Have a warm drink of honey and lemon if your throat is sore from too much coughing.
  • Avoid smoking, or being around secondhand smoke or other irritants.
  • Stay away from cough suppression medicines. Coughing actually helps you to get over your infection through clearing mucus from your lungs.

Most chest infection symptoms typically go away within 7 to 10 days, although a cough can last up to three weeks.

See your doctor if your symptoms haven’t improved or have gotten worse in this time.

Sometimes, a case of bronchitis can lead to pneumonia in some individuals.

The possible complications from a chest infection like pneumonia can include:

  • bacteria in your bloodstream (sepsis)
  • accumulation of fluid within your lungs
  • development of lung abscesses

You can help prevent chest infections by following the tips below:

  • Make sure your hands are clean, particularly before eating or touching your face or mouth.
  • Eat a healthy well-balanced diet. This can help boost your immune system and make you less susceptible to infection.
  • Get vaccinated. Chest infections can develop following an infection such as influenza, for which there’s a seasonal vaccine. You may also want to consider receiving the pneumococcal vaccine, which offers protection from pneumonia.
  • Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Reduce the amount of alcohol that you consume.
  • If you’re already ill, wash your hands frequently and be sure to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Dispose of any used tissues properly.

Chest infections can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection in your lower respiratory tract. They can range from mild to severe.

Many mild chest infections will resolve on their own in about a week’s time. A chest infection that’s caused by bacteria will need to be treated with a course of antibiotics.

Severe or complicated chest infections may require treatment in a hospital.