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Chest infection

Chest infections are common, especially after a cold or flu during autumn and winter. Although most are mild and get better on their own, some cases can be serious or even life-threatening.

What causes chest infections?

A chest infection is an infection of the lungs or airways. The main types of chest infection are bronchitis and pneumonia.

Most bronchitis cases are caused by viruses, whereas most pneumonia cases are due to bacteria.These infections are usually spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. This launches tiny droplets of fluid containing the virus or bacteria into the air, where they can be breathed in by others.

The infections can also be spread to others if you cough or sneeze onto your hand, an object or a surface, and someone else touches it before touching their mouth or nose.

Certain groups of people have a higher risk of developing serious chest infections, such as:

babies and very young children
children with developmental problems
people who are very overweight
elderly people
pregnant women
people who smoke
people with long-term health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cystic fibrosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
people with a weakened immune system this could be due to a recent illness, chemotherapy or a health condition, such as an undiagnosed HIV infection.

Many chest infections aren't serious and get better within a few days or weeks. You won't usually need to see your GP, unless your symptoms suggest you have a more serious infection.

When to see a doctor:

You should see your GP if:
you feel very unwell or your symptoms are severe
you have a persistent fever
your symptoms last longer than three weeks
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
you are pregnant
you are 65 or over
you are 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

Your GP should be able to diagnose you based on your symptoms and by listening to your chest using a stethoscope.

In some cases, further tests such as a chest X-ray, breathing tests and testing phlegm or blood samples may be necessary.
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