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Chest Infections


The human respiratory tract can be divided into the upper and the lower tract. The lower respiratory tract is situated inside the chest and consists of the airways and the air sacs. The term ‘chest infection’ includes infections of the airways (bronchitis) to the air sacs (pneumonia). Generally, chest infection refers to pneumonia, which means infection of the tissue of the lungs. Chest infections are common among young children and the elderly. Chest infections are usually caused by viruses or bacteria. They sometimes follow an infection of the upper respiratory tract infection (the common cough and colds). These infections may range from mild respiratory illness to life threatening conditions.

What are the signs & symptoms?

The signs and symptoms will vary depending on the cause, age and associated illnesses of the person. Generally, children may experience:

  • High grade fever.
  • Cough (with or without phlegm).
  • Chest pain.
  • Poor appetite, feed refusal.
  • Unwell, irritable.
  • Fast breathing or breathlessness.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea.

Are chest infections serious?

Chest infection sometimes can become very severe rapidly, especially in very young children. The child may be dehydrated (dry) or not getting enough oxygen. Children with the symptoms below need to be admitted to the hospital:

  • Very fast breathing.
  • Difficulty in breathing.
  • Bluish colour of the lips.
  • Cough with blood.
  • Inability to eat or drink or pass urine.

How are chest infections treated?

The type of treatment will depend on the severity of infection. Many infections are mild and are caused by viruses, so the body’s own defence is the main way of fighting the infections. Some self-care measures include:

  • Paracetamol.
  • Bed rest.
  • Ample fluids.

For mild infections, they can be given by mouth but for more severe infections, they need to be given by injection. If the chest infection is progressive or severe, then admission to hospital, administration of oxygen, antibiotics and other support can be life saving.

Are there any measures to be taken to prevent chest infections?

Maintaining good health and good hygiene and preventing over crowdy is important. For infants, breastfeeding reduces risk of respiratory infections. However immunization is a mainstay of prevention of some major chest infections. Certain vaccines help prevent respiratory infections such as:

  • Pertussis and measles – compulsory for all children under the National Childhood Immunization Programme.
  • Influenza – for certain children with specific risk factors e.g. severe chronic respiratory illnesses, cyanotic heart disease and immunodeficiency disorders.
  • Pneumococcal infection – also for high risk groups e.g. children who have undergone splenectomy, children with chronic renal failure and those receiving immunosuppressive therapy.

If you feel your child may have any risk factor do consult your doctor. .

Last reviewed : 26 April 2012
Content Writer : Dr. Chan Kwai Cheng
Reviewer : Dr. Norzila bt. Mohamed Zainudin