Chest infections and asthma

Find out how having a chest infection can affect your asthma symptoms and what treatment you might need.

How do chest infections affect asthma symptoms?
How can I tell the difference between asthma symptoms and a chest infection?
How do I take care of my asthma if I have a chest infection?
Diagnosing a chest infection
Treatment for a chest infection
I’ve had treatment for my chest infection, but I’m still having symptoms. What should I do now?
How can I help prevent another chest infection?

How do chest infections affect asthma symptoms?

If you have asthma, you can have an increased risk of getting a chest infection. Chest infections can also make your asthma symptoms worse, as they make your airways inflamed.

Asthma causes inflammation in your airways. If you get a chest infection like pneumonia or bronchitis, it can make this inflammation worse, as well as causing:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • breathlessness.

How can I tell the difference between asthma symptoms and a chest infection?

Some chest infection symptoms can feel like asthma symptoms. This can make it hard to tell if you have a chest infection, or your asthma symptoms are getting worse.

If you have some, or all, of these symptoms, you might have a chest infection:

  • A chesty wet cough, with yellow or green phlegm
  • Wheezing or breathlessness
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • A high temperature of 38 degrees or above
  • Aching muscles
  • Tiredness
  • Headache

A high temperature can also be a symptom of COVID-19, so it’s important that you get a test as soon as possible if you have any of the main symptoms. For more advice, check the NHS website.  

How do I take care of my asthma if I have a chest infection?

If you get a chest infection, the most important things you should do are:

This will lower the chances of you having an asthma attack caused by your chest infection.

It’s really important you take your preventer inhaler in the right way, to make sure the medicine gets straight to your lungs. Watch a video on how to use your inhaler properly.

If your asthma symptoms are really bothering you, you can also take your reliever inhaler when you get asthma symptoms. If you have a chest infection, you may need to use your reliever inhaler more than normal.

This should help in the short term, but if you are needing to use your inhaler more than normal, get urgent medical advice. You should also get medical advice if your reliever inhaler isn’t lasting for four hours.

Diagnosing a chest infection

If you have asthma and think you may have a chest infection, make sure you tell your doctor:

  • about your asthma symptoms
  • how well your inhalers are working
  • what your peak flow readings are showing
  • if your peak flow improves after taking your inhaler.

If you’ve not been diagnosed with asthma and you’ve had a cough for more than three weeks, it could be that you have asthma or another lung condition, rather than a chest infection. It’s important to get the right diagnosis, so you get the right treatment.  

 

Chest infections and asthma

Asthma UK nurse Suzanne explains how to stay well if you've got asthma and you get a chest infection

Video: Chest infections and asthma

Asthma UK nurse Suzanne explains how to stay well if you've got asthma and you get a chest infection

0:00 Chest infections can be a real pain – making you feel horrible… …and getting in the way of work and your social life. If you have asthma, they can also make your asthma symptoms worse. …and getting in the way of work and your social life. If you have asthma, they can also make your asthma symptoms worse. That’s why the best thing you can do is to take your preventer inhaler, as it’s made to calm down the inflammation in your airways. Taking it daily as prescribed will reduce your asthma symptoms and make your chest infection a lot more bearable Chest infections have similar symptoms to asthma like coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. This can make it hard to tell whether you have a chest infection or if your asthma symptoms are getting worse. The biggest indicator of a chest infection is a high temperature – of 38 degrees or above. If you have some, or all, of these symptoms, it might be a chest infection: A temperature of 38 degrees or above A chesty wet cough Lots of yellow or green phlegm that is thick, and may be smelly” Chest pain or discomfort A headache Aching muscles Or tiredness If your chest infection is making your asthma symptoms worse. Sometimes your doctor might give you a course of steroids to treat the flare up. If your reliever medication isn't lasting for four hours If your asthma is waking you at night If you feel like your chest infection has cleared up, but you’re still having asthma symptoms, such as a dry cough or breathlessness.

Treatment for a chest infection

If your chest infection is making your asthma symptoms worse, your doctor might give you a course of steroid tablets or make changes to your inhaled medicines to treat the flare up.

Your doctor will probably be able to tell whether you need antibiotics, although they might send a sample of your phlegm away to be tested.  

If they’re not sure, they might give you a ‘delayed prescription’ of antibiotics, meaning you should only take them if you don’t feel better in a few days. Most chest infections are caused by viruses, which can’t be treated with antibiotics.

Viral chest infections can’t be treated by antibiotics. It can be tempting to ask for antibiotics ‘just in case’ because you want to get rid of your symptoms. But it’s important that you only take antibiotics if you really need them.

I’ve had treatment for my chest infection, but I’m still having symptoms. What should I do now?

The cough from a chest infection is usually the last symptom to go and could last up to three weeks, even after treatment. If you find you've still got a cough after your chest infection has cleared up, this might be a sign that your airways are still inflamed, so it’s worth seeing your doctor.

You should also see a doctor if:

  • your asthma is waking you at night
  • you feel like your chest infection has cleared up, but you’re still having asthma symptoms three or more times a week
  • your chest infection doesn’t get completely better after a course of treatment. 

You should phone 111 or 999 if you:

  • feel your chest infection symptoms get worse at any point
  • develop a fever
  • start getting more breathless
  • develop chest pains
  • start coughing up blood. 

How can I help prevent another chest infection?

It’s impossible to completely avoid chest infections, but there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of getting them.

Take steps to keep healthy

You can do this by making a few lifestyle changes, such as:

Avoid colds and flu 

Try to protect yourself from other infections like colds and flu, as this will make a chest infection less likely. Our page on colds and flu has lots of practical ideas you can follow to protect yourself against them.

Last updated November 2020

Next review due November 2023