Chest infections | Pokenga pūkahukahu

Key points about chest infections

  • Chest infections (pokenga pūkahukahu) affect your lungs and airways.
  • They are more common in winter, especially if you've had a cold or the flu.
  • They often cause a build-up of fluid (mucus) and your airways become swollen, making it difficult for you to breathe. 
  • Examples of chest infections include bronchiolitis, bronchitis, pneumonia and whooping cough. Read more about common chest infections below.
Older man holding handkerchief to mouth hand on chest
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A chest infection is an infection of your lungs or airways. Chest infections are common, especially during the autumn and winter, when temperatures are lower. They often start after a cold or flu. Chest infections are caused by viruses or bacteria. See the section below for examples of chest infections.

Who is most at risk?

Although anyone can get a chest infection, but they are more common in:

  • babies, young children and older people
  • pregnant women
  • people who smoke
  • people with long-term chest problems, eg, asthma
  • people with a weakened immune system due to illness, surgery or chemotherapy.

Bronchiolitis – infection of the small airways

  • This is a common viral chest infection that affects babies under 12 months of age.
  • Bronchiolitis often starts as sniffles or a cold and after a day or 2 causes the small breathing tubes (bronchioles) in the lungs to become swollen and full of mucus. This can make breathing difficult and sound wheezy.
  • Most cases of bronchiolitis are mild and can be treated at home. Babies or children with moderate to severe cases of bronchiolitis may need to go to a hospital. Read more about bronchiolitis

Bronchitis – infection of the larger airways

  • Bronchitis is swelling inside the larger airways that carry air to the lungs. The main symptom is coughing up mucus.
  • Acute bronchitis commonly occurs after a cold and is often known as a 'chest infection' or 'chest cold'. The main cause of acute bronchitis is a virus. This is often the same virus that causes a common cold, which is why it's common to get bronchitis after you’ve had a cold. Acute bronchitis is also more common in winter. It can affect people of all ages. Read more about bronchitis.

Pneumonia – infection of the air sacs in the lung

  • Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria or a virus, and is often triggered by a cold or the flu. 
  • Anyone can develop pneumonia, but young people and older people are often worst affected. See your healthcare provider if you have a chest infection that's not getting better.
  • Most cases of pneumonia can be treated successfully at home with rest, plenty of fluids and a course of antibiotics. Hospitalisation may be advised for young children, older people or those with severe pneumonia. Read more about pneumonia.

Whooping cough – also called pertussis

  • This is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and airways. It causes repeated coughing bouts that can last for 2 to 3 months or more.
  • Anyone can get whooping cough, but it causes the most severe (sometimes life-threatening) symptoms in babies, young children and older people.
  • Immunisation with the pertussis vaccine is the best way to protect against whooping cough. Read more about whooping cough.

Other causes of chest symptoms

Some other illnesses cause chest symptoms. These include:

Although most chest infections are mild and get better on their own, some cases can be very serious, even life-threatening. A bout of infection of the large airways in the lungs (acute bronchitis) usually gets better on its own within 7 to 10 days without any medicines. If you suspect that you have a severe infection of the lung (pneumonia), you should see your healthcare provider.

Self-help

If you have milder symptoms, treat your chest infection at home with:

  • rest
  • fluids (eg, water or lemon and honey drinks)
  • painkillers such as paracetamol
  • inhaling steam vapour.

In most cases, medicines to stop you coughing aren’t recommended, as coughing helps you get rid of the infection. If you have a dry, irritated cough, see your pharmacist or healthcare provider to discuss what might help. 

Antibiotics

Most chest infections are caused by viruses, so antibiotics are not much help. If your healthcare provider thinks your chest infection is caused by bacteria, or if you have pneumonia, then you'll be prescribed antibiotics. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily for chest infections caused by viruses can cause side-effects and do more harm than good, eg, it can lead to resistant infections.  

To help prevent chest infections, do the following:

  • Wash your hands often or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
  • Stay home when you're sick.
  • Avoid people who have a cold or the flu.
  • Quit smoking, as it damages your lungs and weakens your defences against infection.
  • Limit alcohol  – excessive and prolonged alcohol misuse can weaken your lungs’ natural defences against infections and increases your risk of chest infections.  
  • Eat healthily to strengthen your body’s immune system.

Vaccinations

Vaccines are available to reduce the risk of some types of chest infections.

  • Flu vaccine: If you're at an increased risk of chest infections, it's recommended that you get the 'flu vaccine every year, before winter. Having the flu vaccine reduces your risk of complications from the flu, eg, pneumonia. Read more about flu vacination.
  • Pneumococcal vaccine: The pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for babies, older people, and people at higher risk of getting seriously ill from pneumococcal infections. Having the pneumococcal vaccination can decrease the risk of lung infection caused by the bacteria (bug) pneumococcus, which is known to cause serious infections (eg, pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis). Read more about pneumococcal vaccination.
  • Whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine: These are free for pregnant people, all children under 18 years old and booster doses are available for adults from 45 and 65 years old depending on their vaccination history. Read more about pertussis vaccination

Chest infections (bronchitis)(external link) Ministry of Health, NZ
Chest infection(external link) Patient Info, UK
Chest infections(external link) Better Health Channel, Australia

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