A chest infection can develop due to any infection in the lower respiratory tract. This includes infections in the airways, including the windpipe and bronchi, which are the main air passages into the lungs.
Most chest infections are mild and do not require any prescription medical treatment. However, some chest infections can be serious and require more extensive medical care.
In this article, learn about the symptoms and types of chest infections. We also cover at-home and medical treatments.
The symptoms of a given chest infection may vary from person to person, though typical symptoms tend to include:
- a wet, productive cough
- coughing up phlegm
- yellow or green mucus
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- a sharp sensation when breathing in
- a headache, typically from coughing too much
- a fever
- general fatigue
- aches and pains in the muscles
There are several types of chest infections, including:
Bronchitis is one of the most common chest infections. It occurs as a result of an infection of the bronchi, which are major airways to the lungs.
Sometimes, a bacterial infection may also cause acute bronchitis.
Pneumonia is an infection that occurs in the airways of the lungs, causing the air sacs to become inflamed and swell with fluid or pus. Many germs can cause pneumonia, though bacterial pneumonia and viral pneumonia are most common.
When a sick person coughs, sneezes, or breathes out particles into the air, another person can inhale the particles, which may grow in the airways. This may lead to pneumonia.
Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection that develops due to Mycobacterium tuberculosis in the lungs or airways.
In the United States, TB is rare. The American Lung Association note that it is not easy to catch a TB infection.
However, TB can be serious or potentially fatal without treatment. Most cases of TB resolve without complications if a person receives prompt, effective medical treatment.
Treatments can include:
In most cases, chest infections from viral sources — such as the common cold — do not require prescription medical treatment.
Doctors may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, such as ibuprofen or a cough and cold medication, to ease symptoms.
If a doctor identifies a particular bacterial or viral source of the infection, they may recommend certain medications.
Antibiotics can help clear out bacterial infections. Antiviral medications may be necessary in certain viral infections or for people at higher risk of complications. Such groups include young children, older adults, and those undergoing chemotherapy.
In severe cases, a person may need to go to the hospital and receive intravenous fluid hydration and antimicrobial treatment. A doctor may want to monitor a person to prevent any potentially serious complications from infections.
A range of home remedies can help with symptoms of a chest infection by clearing the airways or making a cough more able to move out mucus.
Home remedies include:
- using a humidifier
- drinking plenty of liquids to replenish lost fluid and keep mucus loose
- getting plenty of rest
- avoiding tobacco smoking
- keeping the head raised while sleeping to help open the airways
- inhaling steam from a warm bath
- inhaling the vapor from essential oils, such as rosemary or eucalyptus
Using OTC pain relief medications and decongestants may also help reduce symptoms. People should choose expectorants over cough suppressing medications.
Expectorants help break up mucus and make it easier to pass, which may help the body get rid of the infection faster.
Although a chest infection may be uncomfortable and painful, they tend to clear up without medical treatment. Symptoms usually resolve after just a few days.
Many people experience lingering symptoms, such as mucus and coughing, long after the infection clears up.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that symptoms of acute bronchitis last fewer than 3 weeks. Anyone whose symptoms last longer than 3 weeks should see a doctor.
Chest infections may be more common during cold and flu season, when cold weather keeps many people indoors.
Tips for preventing chest infections are similar to tips for avoiding colds or the flu. These tips include:
- regularly washing the hands
- sanitizing public items, such as doorknobs, elevator buttons, and ATM keypads
- avoiding people who are sick
- staying home from school or work when sick
- getting the flu shot
- eating a nutritious diet
- getting enough sleep
- exercising regularly
- avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke
Although most common chest infections will clear up without treatment, if the infection is particularly severe or symptoms do not begin to ease within 2–3 weeks, it may be time to see a doctor.
Other symptoms that also indicate it is time to see a doctor include:
- coughing up blood or bloody mucus
- symptoms that get worse over time
- shortness of breath that does not get better with time
- a fever over 100.4ºF (38ºC)
Some people are more at risk of complications and should see a doctor for any chest infection. This includes people who:
- are over the age of 65
- are under the age of 5
- are pregnant
- have a compromised immune system, such as from chemotherapy or HIV
- have other chronic health conditions, especially those that affect the airways
Doctors may do a physical exam and order other tests to check for different types of infections. They may also take a sample of the sputum the person is coughing up to help them determine the best treatment.
They may order other tests as well, such as a plain film X-ray of the chest, to gather more information for a diagnosis.
Chest infections are very common and may come on after a bout of the cold or flu. Usually, the body clears out the infection in a week or two.
However, some people may have lingering symptoms for a few weeks as mucus clears out of the lungs.
Anyone experiencing severe symptoms or symptoms that last longer than 2–3 weeks should see a doctor. They may run tests to check for other causes of the infection and recommend medical treatments.