Chest infections and asthma

Cut your risk of a chest infection, and stop your asthma getting worse if you catch one.

How chest infections affect asthma symptoms

Unfortunately, chest infections can be more likely in people with asthma, and they can make your asthma symptoms worse because they make your airways inflamed.

Asthma causes inflammation anyway, so if you get a chest infection (like pneumonia or bronchitis) it leads to a double whammy of extra inflammation and coughing, wheezing and breathlessness.

That’s why the best thing you can do is to use your preventer inhaler, as it’s made to calm down the inflammation in your airways. Taking it every day as prescribed will reduce your asthma symptoms and may make your chest infection a lot more bearable.

Is it asthma or a chest infection?

Some chest infection symptoms can feel like asthma symptoms - like coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. So, it can be hard to tell whether you have a chest infection, or if it’s your asthma symptoms getting worse (if your asthma symptoms do get worse, you need to take action, don’t ignore them).  

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

  • A chesty wet cough
  • Lots of yellow or green phlegm that is thick, and may be smelly
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • A high temperature of 38 degrees or above
  • Aching muscles
  • Tiredness

The difference between a chest infection cough and an asthma cough

In comparison to a dry asthma cough, a chest infection cough is wet and you might cough up phlegm. Some people with asthma say they feel a wet chest infection cough ‘in their chest’ more, whereas a dry ‘asthma cough’ irritates their throat.

The cough from a chest infection is usually the last symptom to go and could last up to three weeks. But if you have asthma, you might find you've still got a dry cough even after your chest infection has cleared up. This might be a sign that your airways are still inflamed, and it’s worth seeing your doctor and being extra careful.

Your doctor will take your peak flow and ask whether your cough seems to get better when you take your asthma medication. This will help them work out whether the cough is due to asthma or the after-effects of the chest infection.

If you’ve not been diagnosed with asthma, and if 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. They need different treatments, so it’s important to get the right diagnosis – go and see your GP. Find out more about diagnosing asthma.

When else to see your doctor about a chest infection

  • If your chest infection is making your asthma symptoms worse. Your doctor might give you a course of steroid tablets to treat the flare up.
  • 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 cough, wheeze or breathlessness.

If your reliever medication isn't lasting for four hours, this is an emergency and you need to see a doctor right away.

Should I get antibiotics for my chest infection?

Your doctor will probably be able to tell, based on their experience whether you need antibiotics, though sometimes they might send a sample of your phlegm 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.

This is because chest infections are either viral or bacterial – but viral chest infections (the most common type) 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.

Taking care of your asthma when you have a chest infection

The most important thing is to take your preventer as prescribed and follow your written asthma action plan. This will reduce the chances of you having an asthma attack on top of having a chest infection.

If your asthma symptoms are really bothering you, you can also try taking one dose of your reliever inhaler every four hours. This should help in the short term – but if you need it more than three times in a week, or it doesn’t last four hours, seek urgent medical advice.

How to prevent the next chest infection

It’s impossible to completely avoid chest infections, but you can reduce your risk by doing the following things.

Take steps to keep healthy

Making big lifestyle changes will take some work to begin with. But, trying just one of these could make life a lot easier in the long run, by keeping you healthy and free from chest infections.

  • Drink less alcohol
  • Eat a balanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruit and veg
  • Exercise regularly

Stopping smoking can also really help. Smoking damages your airways, so makes a chest infection more likely. It also makes steroids less effective so you’ll need a higher dose.

Avoid colds and the 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 avoid them.

The flu vaccine is free for people with asthma - see our vaccines advice for more.