Is This a Chest Infection or Covid-19?

When experiencing coughing, shortness of breath, and fever, have you wondered if it’s Covid-19 or merely a chest infection? In this article, you will learn the difference between a chest infection and Covid-19 and what to do if you are infected.

It is important to note that different pathogens cause these infections. Bacteria or virus can result in the development of a chest infection. Whereas Covid-19 is caused by the SARS-COV2 virus. However, sometimes COVID-19 infection can lead to a chest infection.

Is this a chest infection or Covid-19?

A chest infection and Covid-19 are two completely separate things, however Covid-19 can lead to a chest infection. You might hear many cases of Covid pneumonia (pneumonia caused by Covid-19) in real life. After all, Covid-19 is a disease caused by the coronavirus, a large virus family, one strain of which leads to Covid-19 and the others leading to cold and flu-like symptoms.

Just like other viruses that cause you to have a cold or flu, the virus family leading to Covid-19 is also able to infect your lung or your bronchus, thus leading to a chest infection. As mentioned before, a chest infection usually does not appear right after you are infected by the virus. Instead, it follows a cold or flu. This also applies to Covid-19: when the virus infects the body, the patient does not immediately progress into the chest infection stage. It is usually that you have flu symptoms for several days and the symptoms do not improve (or the symptoms were not treated immediately so they become worse), then the disease will progress to the stage of chest infection.

So, is there any way to know if the chest infection is caused by Covid-19 or a common cold? Here are some tips to help you differentiate between the two:

  • It is common to have a fever or headache if you have Covid-19. However, it is rare that a chest infection following a common cold also has a high fever.
  • In some rare cases, Covid-19 patients can have diarrhea, but this does not occur when you have a common cold.
  • A runny nose is very common for a common cold, but it is rare for Covid-19.
  • When it comes to coughing, Covid-19 patients usually have a dry cough and some may even feel breathless. However, in common colds, the cough is not “dry”. Instead, it’s common to see yellow or green phlegm.

However, we strongly suggest that anyone who displays any of the symptoms should get a Covid-19 test to rule out the possibility of having the Covid-19 virus.

What is a chest infection and what causes it?

A chest infection is an infection of the lung and lower large airways and it often follows the flu or a cold. The two main types are bronchitis (usually caused by a viral infection) and pneumonia (usually caused by a bacterial infection). 

Bronchitis is the inflammation of your lower large airway, more specifically the bronchus, which is a series of tree-like tubes delivering air into your lungs. When the bronchus is infected its tubes will swell and be filled with mucus, making it difficult to breathe.

Pneumonia is an infection of your lungs, either one side or both sides. Although bacterial infection is the most common cause, viral and fungal infections are also possible causes. Pneumonia tends to be more serious than bronchitis and it usually needs treatment at the hospital.

So, how do  these infections spread? When an infected person coughs or sneezes, tiny droplets of fluid containing the virus or bacteria are spread into the air and the droplets are so small that they don’t fall down but float in the air for a while. When another healthy person breathes in this air, some droplets might get into the person’s airway and cause infection. Another transmission route is that the infected person coughs or sneezes onto their hand and they touch a surface which is later touched by a healthy individual. Also, if you have close contact with an infected person - such as shaking hands, hugging or kissing - this could cause passing on of the infection as well.

Symptoms of a Chest Infection

The main symptoms of a chest infection include:

  • Coughing up mucus that may become yellow or green
  • A high temperature
  • Sweating and shivering
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Aching muscles
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

The symptoms usually get better on their own in about 7 to 10 days, but the cough and mucus can last up to 3 weeks.

In more severe cases, chest infection can also lead to:

  • Quick, shallow breathing
  • Confusion
  • Low blood pressure
  • Coughing up blood
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea and vomiting

How to manage a Chest Infection

If, unfortunately, you get a chest infection, how can you care for it at home?

Here are some advice and tips to help you improve your symptoms:

  • The most important thing to do is to have plenty of rest. 
  • Always drink plenty of water (even when sometimes you do not feel thirsty) so that the mucus can be loosened by the water and you will cough it up more easily. Water can also prevent you from dehydration.
  • Try drinking a warm drink of honey and lemon to relieve a sore throat caused by persistent coughing.
  • You can use paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve your headache, treat high fever, aching muscles and other pain.
  • Some people might be unable to sleep well at night because they cannot breathe smoothly. To solve this, you could use extra pillows to raise your head.
  • You may also want to use an air humidifier or inhale steam from a bowl of hot water to ease your cough. However, young children should not inhale steam from hot water because of the risk of scalding.

In addition to the above tips, there are some things you should avoid. Otherwise, your condition and symptoms may become even worse:

  • Smoking.
  • Alcohol consumption.
  • Cough medicines are not recommended as there is little evidence to show that it can help. In fact, coughing is good for you to get rid of the mucus in your airway.
  • Giving aspirin to children under 16.
  • Antibiotics unless you have been diagnosed by a doctor as having a bacterial infection.

How to prevent chest infections

If you develop chest infections quite easily (e.g. asthmatic), or you think you are at risk of developing a chest infection, here are some things you could do for prevention:

  • Get the flu vaccine annually.
  • Ask your GP to see if you are suitable to get a pneumococcal vaccine, which can protect you against serious and potentially fatal pneumococcal infections.
  • Stop smoking and reduce alcohol intake.
  • Wash your hands frequently to reduce the risk of infection. Always remember to wash your hands after you go outside and before you eat. Or you can choose a hand sanitizer if you cannot wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, especially when you haven’t washed your hands.
  • Avoid sharing towels, cups or other household items with someone who may have a cold.
  • Wear masks in crowded places and indoors if there are many people.
  • Self-isolate if you think you might have a chest infection.

When should I see a doctor?

If you have any of the symptoms listed in the section ‘Symptoms of a Chest Infection’, and you are feeling very unwell, or you think your symptoms might be unmanageable, you should seek medical help immediately. However, there might be some situations where you cannot seek medical help right away or you just have very mild symptoms at the moment and you wish to know when, or whether you should, see your doctor. 

If you have the following symptoms, see your GP:

  • You feel very unwell or your symptoms are severe.
  • Your symptoms are not improving even though you’ve been trying different ways to improve them.
  • You feel confused, disorientated or drowsy.
  • You have chest pain or/and it is very difficult for you to breathe.
  • You cough up blood or blood-stained phlegm.
  • Your skin or lips develop a blue tinge (cyanosis). This is very serious, as cyanosis usually develops due to a lack of oxygen in the body. If your lips, tongue, face or skin suddenly turn blue and this is accompanied by chest pain and difficulty breathing, call 999 or go to accident and emergency (A&E). If your fingers, toes, hands or feet are blue, call NHS 111 to seek professional treatment.
  • You're pregnant.
  • You're 65 or over and/or have a long-term health condition.
  • You're very overweight and find it difficult to breathe.
  • You think a child under five has a chest infection.
  • You have a weakened immune system due to other clinical conditions.
  • Your cough has lasted more than 3 weeks.


As different pathogens result in these two infections, the symptoms of these infections also differ. However, it is important to be mindful of the steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing a chest infection or prevent the infection from getting worse. This includes self-care and seeking medical help (when necessary).

This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Adina Zhao

Medical Bioscientist - Imperial College London Medical Bioscience BSc
Modules covered: Integrative Body Systems, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Chemistry of Biological Interactions.
Past projects: Investigation of the influence of amino acid mutations of in-cluster gene lmbU on LmbU protein transcription and translation efficiency in Streptomyces lincolnensis, Investigation of the influence of red fluorescence protein mCherry on the photosynthetic efficiency of Arabidopsis thaliana .

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