What are the symptoms of a chest infection?
A cold - often called an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) - usually starts with a combination of blocked and/or runny nose and sneezing, sometimes with a mild high temperature (fever). You will usually get a cough, which is often dry and harsh but can also sound like you have a lot of phlegm (sputum), which you may bring up. You may also feel tired and achy, but these symptoms are usually fairly mild and you'll be able to keep going with everyday activities. Chest infections can start with these symptoms too, but you don't need to see a doctor if these are the only symptoms you have. The only exceptions are people with long-term lung conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who are more likely to develop serious complications.
The main symptoms of a chest infection are:
- A chesty cough.
- Breathing difficulties (including shortness of breath and wheezing).
- Chest pain or tightness.
- High temperature.
- Muscle aches and pains.
- Feeling very tired.
- A rapid heartbeat.
When should you see a doctor?
Infection of the large airways (bronchi) in the lungs (acute bronchitis) usually gets better by itself, so there is often no need to see a GP. If you have asthma or COPD you should take your doctor's advice. They may have given you recommendations about increasing your inhaler medication or taking a 'rescue pack' of antibiotics and steroid tablets at the first sign of an infection. If not, speak to them for advice if you develop symptoms of a chest infection.
There are a number of symptoms that mean you should see a GP even if you do not have any other lung problems. They include:
- If a fever, wheezing or headache becomes worse or severe.
- If you develop fast breathing, shortness of breath, or chest pains.
- If you cough up blood or if your phlegm becomes dark or rusty-coloured.
- If you become drowsy or confused.
- If a cough lasts for longer than 3-4 weeks.
- If you have repeated bouts of acute bronchitis.
- If any other symptom develops that you are concerned about.
Further reading and references
Guidelines for the management of community acquired pneumonia in adults; British Thoracic Society (2009), Thorax Vol 64 Sup III
Guidelines for the management of adult lower respiratory tract infections; European Respiratory Society and European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (September 2011)
Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for children; Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), 2009
Antibiotic awareness resources: key messages on antibiotic use; Public Health England
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