What Is a Chest Infection?

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A chest infection is an infection that affects the lower respiratory tract, including bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Often, chest infections are self-limiting and don’t require medical treatment. However, it’s possible for an infection to become severe.

Doctor analyzing lung x-ray film

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Types of Chest Infections 

The most common types of chest infections include pneumonia and bronchitis. While tuberculosis is common worldwide, it’s not as common in the United States.

Bronchitis

Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchi, the tubular structures that bring air in and out of the lungs. There are two main types of bronchitis: acute (short term) and chronic (persisting or constantly recurring). 

Risk factors include:

  • Having a cold or other viral respiratory tract infection
  • Chronic sinus infections
  • Allergies
  • Enlarged tonsils

Most people who develop acute bronchitis don’t need medical intervention. However, people with certain conditions like existing heart or lung diseases should talk to a healthcare provider if they think they have or might develop bronchitis.

Pneumonia

In some people, bronchitis can develop into a more serious infection called pneumonia, which is an infection of one or both of the lungs. People at higher risk of getting pneumonia include:

  • Older adults
  • Infants under 24 months
  • Smokers 
  • People with underlying medical conditions 

Chest Infection Symptoms


Here are some of the symptoms of certain chest infections. 

Bronchitis 

Symptoms of acute bronchitis may include:

  • Body aches
  • Coughing that starts off dry then eventually produces mucus
  • Mild fever and chills
  • Fatigue
  • Runny nose
  • Breathing issues
  • Sore throat

Pneumonia

Symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • Blue tinge to the lips and fingernail beds
  • Confusion
  • Coughing that produces mucus
  • Fever and chills
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Chest pain when breathing in or coughing
  • Breathing issues 

Symptoms may vary depending on the individual and the type of pneumonia they have.

Mycoplasma pneumonia, or walking pneumonia, is the mildest form of this type of infection. It often presents similarly to the common cold.

Tuberculosis (TB)

This airborne bacterial infection mainly affects the lower respiratory tract. Symptoms of tuberculosis include:

  • Chronic cough that lasts longer than three weeks
  • Fever and chills
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Weight loss
  • Night sweats 

Some people may also cough up blood.

Causes

Acute bronchitis is usually the result of a virus, but it can be bacterial in origin. Irritants also can cause acute bronchitis. Pneumonia has many different potential causes. Bacteria, viruses, and fungi may all cause pneumonia. TB is a bacterial infection caused by a specific bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Diagnosis

Healthcare providers will perform a physical exam and take a medical history to diagnose bronchitis. Your healthcare provider may order a chest X-ray to check for pneumonia. A sputum culture can help determine whether the infection is bacterial or viral.

If your healthcare provider suspects you have pneumonia, you may be asked to get a computed tomography (CT) scan of your chest, a bronchoscopy (a procedure to look directly into your lungs and air passages), and blood tests.

If TB is a possibility, tests to confirm the diagnosis include:

  • Skin tests
  • Blood tests
  • Chest X-ray or CT scan 
  • Sputum culture

Some of these tests can take weeks to produce results.

Treatment

Most chest infections, including bronchitis, don’t produce complications. If bronchitis occurs because of a virus, antibiotics won’t help fight the infection. 

Healthcare providers may use antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection that has developed into pneumonia. Viral pneumonia typically clears up on its own in an otherwise healthy person. 

At-home treatment strategies to manage symptoms include:

  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine
  • Using a humidifier
  • Hydrating to thin out mucus
  • Getting lots of rest

Pneumonia is also treated with similar strategies, but depending on the cause, the severity of the case, and your underlying health, it may need to be treated with prescription drugs or even hospitalization and breathing support. Antibiotics may be prescribed for bacterial pneumonia, antiviral medications for influenza, and antifungal medications for pneumonia caused by fungal infections.

Treatment for TB depends on whether the infection is active or latent. In people infected with TB but with no active infection, the treatment is preventative and involves taking an antibiotic called isoniazid for up to nine months. 

If the infection is active, treatment involves taking antibacterial medications for up to a year. It’s crucial to take the whole course of medication to prevent treatment-resistant TB. 

A Word From Verywell 

We’ve all dealt with the common cold at some point. Even a mild cold can drag a person down for days. Most people get over a cold without issue. Sometimes, though, the viral infection can progress, move into the lower respiratory tract, and cause more pronounced symptoms.

Chest infections, whether viral, bacterial, or fungal in origin, will often go away with proper at-home treatment—and lots of rest. However, if your symptoms are not going away or are getting worse, you should talk to your healthcare provider. Sometimes people with chest infections require medical treatment.

If you have underlying medical conditions, are over the age of 65, or have a compromised immune system, tell your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing any respiratory symptoms. Parents of very young children should get in touch with their pediatrician if you notice your child is sick and experiencing signs of a respiratory tract infection. 

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Acute bronchitis.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Pneumonia.

  3. Penn Medicine. Could it be pneumonia? January 1, 2021.

  4. American Lung Association. Tuberculosis symptoms and diagnosis. Updated March 9, 2020.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chest cold (acute bronchitis). Updated August 30, 2019.

  6. American Lung Association. Pneumonia treatment and recovery. Updated October 23, 2020.