About chest infections
Chest infections are common, especially after a cold or flu during autumn and winter.
Although most are mild and get better on their own, some can be serious or even life-threatening.
Signs and symptoms of a chest infection
The main symptoms of a chest infection can include:
- a persistent cough
- coughing up yellow or green phlegm (thick mucus), or coughing up blood
- breathlessness or rapid and shallow breathing
- a high temperature (fever)
- a rapid heartbeat
- chest pain or tightness
- feeling confused and disorientated
You may also experience more general symptoms of an infection, such as a headache, fatigue, sweating, loss of appetite, or joint and muscle pain.
What causes a chest infection?
A chest infection is an infection of the lungs or airways. The main types of chest infection are bronchitis and pneumonia.
Most bronchitis cases are caused by viruses, whereas most pneumonia cases are due to bacteria.
These infections are usually spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. This launches tiny droplets of fluid containing the virus or bacteria into the air, where they can be breathed in by others.
The infections can also be spread to others if you cough or sneeze onto your hand, an object or a surface, and someone else shakes your hand or touches those surfaces before touching their mouth or nose.
Certain groups of people have a higher risk of developing serious chest infections, such as:
- babies and very young children
- children with developmental problems
- people who are very overweight
- elderly people
- pregnant women
- people who smoke
- people with long-term health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cystic fibrosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- people with a weakened immune system – this could be due to a recent illness, a transplant, high-dose steroids, chemotherapy or a health condition, such as an undiagnosed HIV infection
When to seek medical advice
You should seek medical advice if:
- you feel very unwell or your symptoms are severe
- your symptoms are not improving
- you feel confused, disorientated or drowsy
- you have chest pain or difficulty breathing
- you cough up blood or blood-stained phlegm
- your skin or lips develop a blue tinge (cyanosis)
- you’re pregnant
- you’re 65 or over
- you’re very overweight and have difficulty breathing
- you think a child under five has a chest infection
- you have a weakened immune system
- you have a long-term health condition
- you have a cough that has lasted more than 3 weeks
Your consultant should be able to diagnose you based on your symptoms and by listening to your chest using a stethoscope.
In some cases, further tests – such as a chest X-ray, breathing tests and testing phlegm or blood samples – may be necessary.