Chest infections

Chest infections affect your lungs and are more common in winter, especially if you have had a cold or the flu.

They often cause a build-up of fluid (mucus) and the airways become swollen, making it difficult for you to breathe. 

Types of chest infections include bronchiolitis, bronchitis, pneumonia and whooping cough. Read more about these types of chest infections.

Some other illnesses cause chest symptoms, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchiectasis, influenza (the flu), pleurisy (an inflammation of the lung lining) and tuberculosis (a bacterial infection that affects your lungs).

Who is most at risk?

Chest infections are very common, especially during the autumn and winter, when temperatures are lower. They often start after a cold or flu. Although anyone can get a chest infection, they are more common in:

  • Babies, young children and the elderly.
  • Pregnant women.
  • People who smoke.
  • People with long-term chest problems such as asthma.
  • People with a weakened immune system due to illness, surgery or chemotherapy

How are chest infections treated?

Although most chest infections are mild and get better on their own, some cases can be very serious, even life-threatening. A bout of infection of the large airways in the lungs (acute bronchitis) usually gets better on its own within 7-10 days without any medicines. If you suspect that you have a severe infection of the lung (pneumonia), you should see your doctor.

Self-help

If you have milder symptoms, treat your chest infection at home with:

  • rest
  • fluids (e.g. water or lemon and honey drinks)
  • painkillers such as paracetamol
  • inhaling steam vapour.

In most cases, medicines to stop you coughing aren’t recommended, as coughing helps you get rid of the infection. If you have a dry, irritated cough, see your pharmacist or doctor to discuss what might help. 

Antibiotics

Most chest infections are caused by viruses, so antibiotics are not much help. If your doctor suspects that your chest infection is caused by bacteria or if you have pneumonia, then you will be prescribed antibiotics. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily for chest infections caused by viruses can cause side-effects and do more harm than good, such as leading to resistant infections.  

How to prevent chest infections

Chest infections spread when you cough or sneeze tiny droplets into the air, which other people breathe in, so cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands regularly and throw away used tissues.

Also:

  • Quit smoking, as it damages your lungs.
  • Limit alcohol, as it weakens your lungs’ natural defences against infections.
  • Eat healthily to strengthen your body’s immune system.

Vaccinations

Vaccines are available to reduce the risk of some types of chest infection. Some groups like the elderly and people with chronic, long-term conditions can be vaccinated against one of the most common types of bacterial pneumonia such as pneumococcal vaccine. The elderly and people with chronic conditions are advised to have a flu vaccination every year before winter comes as influenza can be complicated by pneumonia. Read more about vaccines and immunisations.

Learn more

Chest infections (bronchitis) Ministry of Health, NZ
Chest infection Patient Info, UK
Chest infections Better Health Channel, Victoria, Australia

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Syed Hussain, Auckland DHB (9 June 2017) Last reviewed: 09 Jul 2017