Chest and lung infections: what are they and when should you see a doctor?

We explain what you need to know about this common condition...

We found out if there’s a difference between chest and lung infections and what you can do about them…

What are respiratory tract infections?

Any infection of the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs is known as a respiratory tract infection, aka RTI, of which colds are the most common.

RTIs are then split into upper respiratory tract infections, affecting the nose, sinuses and throat, and lower respiratory tract infections, affecting the lungs and airways.

[Read more: Cold or flu? How to tell the difference between wintry sniffles and something more serious]

What is a chest infection?

A chest infection is one that affects just the lungs or airways, so a lung infection is a chest infection and also a lower respiratory tract infection. The main types of chest infection are bronchitis and pneumonia.

They’re more common in autumn and winter, particularly after a cold or flu, and while most are mild and clear up by themselves, some can be life-threatening.

While bronchitis is caused by a virus, pneumonia is most often caused by bacteria, and both are spread when a person coughs or sneezes and infected particles become airborne.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of chest infections, according to the NHS, are:

  • A persistent cough

  • Coughing up yellow or green phlegm (thick mucus), or coughing up blood

  • Breathlessness or rapid and shallow breathing

  • Wheezing

  • A high temperature (fever)

  • A rapid heartbeat

  • Chest pain or tightness

  • Feeling confused and disorientated

What can I do at home to help?.

Woman with hot drink

There’s plenty you can do to look after yourself without having to see your GP.

Make sure you get lots of rest and drink lots of liquid to stop dehydration and soften the mucus in your lungs, so it’s easier to cough it up.

You can take painkillers like paracetamol for any aches and pains, and drink hot honey and lemon to soothe sore throats. Inhaling steam over a bowl of hot water should ease your cough, likewise having a hot, steamy shower or bath and propping your head up on pillows at night will help you breathe more easily as it opens the airways.

When should I see a doctor?

Chest infections can be serious, so the NHS says you should make sure you see your doctor 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 (known as 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


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