Chest infectionOverview

A chest infection is an infection of the lungs or large airways. Some chest infections are mild and clear up on their own, but others can be severe and life threatening.

Check if you have a chest infection

Chest infections often follow colds or flu.

The main symptoms are:

  • chesty cough – you may cough up green or yellow mucus
  • wheezing and shortness of breath
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • high temperature (fever) of 38C or above
  • headache
  • aching muscles
  • tiredness

These symptoms can be unpleasant, but they usually get better on their own in about 7 to 10 days. The cough and mucus can last up to 3 weeks.

Things you can do yourself

If you have a chest infection:

Do

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of water to loosen the mucus and make it easier to cough up
  • use an air humidifier or inhale steam from a bowl of hot water (adults only) – you can add menthol or eucalyptus oil
  • raise your head up while sleeping using extra pillows to make breathing easier and clear your chest of mucus
  • use painkillers to bring down a fever and ease headaches and muscle pain
  • drink a hot lemon and honey drink to relieve a sore throat

Don't

  • do not let children breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water because of the risk of scalding
  • do not give aspirin to children under 16
  • do not take cough medicines – there's little evidence to show they help
  • do not smoke – it can make your symptoms worse

A pharmacist can help with a chest infection

Your pharmacist can suggest decongestant treatments to help loosen the mucus in your lungs so it's easier to cough up.

Coughing up the mucus helps clear the infection from your lungs.

See a GP if you have a chest infection and:

  • you feel very unwell or your symptoms get worse
  • you cough up blood or blood-stained mucus
  • you've had a cough for more than 3 weeks
  • you're pregnant
  • you're over 65
  • your immune system is weak – for example, you have a condition like diabetes or you're having chemotherapy
  • you have a long-term health condition, such as a heart, lung or kidney condition

You may have pneumonia if your symptoms are severe.

Treatment from a GP

Treatment will depend on what caused your chest infection:

  • a virus (like viral bronchitis) – this usually clears up by itself after a few weeks and antibiotics won't help
  • bacteria (like pneumonia) – your GP may prescribe antibiotics (make sure you complete the whole course as advised by your GP, even if you start to feel better)

Antibiotics are only used to treat bacterial chest infections. They're not used for treating viral chest infections, such as flu or viral bronchitis, because they don't work for this type of infection.

A sample of your mucus may need to be tested to see what's causing your chest infection.

How to avoid passing chest infections on to others:

  • cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • wash your hands regularly
  • throw away used tissues immediately

How to avoid getting a chest infection

If you keep getting chest infections, or you're at a high risk of getting one (for example, because you're over the age of 65 or have a serious long-term health condition), you should:

Page last reviewed: 17/08/2017
Next review due: 17/08/2020