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Chest infections and pneumonia

Chest infections are very common, particularly after a cold or a bout of the flu, and especially during the winter. Older people, people with other serious health conditions and people who smoke can be particularly vulnerable to catching chest infections.

If you're experiencing a chesty cough (which may or may not produce phlegm or mucus), pain in your chest that gets worse when you breathe in or cough, or difficulty breathing then you may have a chest infection.

There are two main types of chest infection - acute bronchitis and pneumonia. They both have similar symptoms but pneumonia is more serious and may need antibiotics or even hospital treatment.

Most chest infections clear up by themselves and don't need any medical treatment as long as you're generally in good health. However, you should see your GP if:

  • you have a chest infection that lasts for longer than three weeks
  • you start coughing up blood in your phlegm
  • you're running a high temperature
  • you experience sharp or stabbing pains in the chest.

Any of these signs could mean that your chest infection is getting worse and needs to be treated.

Serious chest infections need medical treatment, but if you have a mild chest infection there are a few things you can do to make yourself feel better.

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluid to prevent dehydration. This will also help to thin the mucus in your lungs, making it easier to cough up
  • take painkillers like paracetemol or ibuprofen to treat headaches, fever, and aches and pains
  • stop smoking - if you smoke it will make your symptoms worse
  • although cough medicines won't do anything to fight the infection, they may temporarily soothe some of the symptoms and make you feel a bit better. Warm drinks like lemon juice and honey in hot water will also help to soothe a sore throat
  • stay out of the cold and wrap up warm
  • make sure you cover your mouth when you cough, and dispose of any used tissues straight away to prevent passing the infection on to others
  • See your GP if your chest infection doesn't go away after a few weeks, or if you suddenly start to feel worse

You might be in a high risk group if you're over 65, or have other health conditions such as 

If you're at high risk of chest infections you may benefit from a pneumonia vaccination. Talk to your GP to find out more.

Older people are more at risk of getting chest infections. And severe chest infections can cause older people to suddenly appear very confused, as though they have suddenly developed dementia. If someone you know suddenly becomes confused consult a doctor immediately; if a chest infection is the cause of the confusion it can be treated and the confusion will go away as quickly as it appeared. 

The NHS website has more information on chest infections, bronchitis and pneumonia.