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When should you go to the hospital for a chest infection?

Chest infections, also known as lower respiratory tract infections, can range from mild to severe. Most chest infections can be treated at home with rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medications. However, some symptoms may indicate a more serious infection that requires hospitalization. This article provides guidance on when you should go to the hospital for a chest infection.

When to Seek Medical Care

In general, you should see a doctor if you have symptoms of a chest infection, such as:

  • Coughing up mucus
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Chest pain when breathing or coughing
  • Fever above 101°F
  • Chills and sweating
  • Persistent cough lasting more than 3 weeks

Seeing a doctor quickly can help determine the cause and severity of your illness. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or other medications to treat your infection. They can also advise if hospitalization may become necessary.

Emergency Warning Signs

You should go to the emergency room or call 911 if you experience any of the following:

  • Severe shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain, especially when breathing
  • High fever above 103°F
  • Confusion, dizziness, or fainting
  • Blue lips or face

These emergency symptoms can indicate complications like pneumonia, lung collapse, respiratory failure, or sepsis. Getting emergency care increases your chances of survival and prevents serious damage to your lungs or other organs.

People at High Risk

Some people are at higher risk of developing life-threatening complications from chest infections. High-risk individuals should go to the hospital if they experience any of the following:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath at rest
  • Fever above 100.4°F that lasts more than 3 days
  • Chest pain with coughing
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Nausea and vomiting

High-risk groups include:

  • Adults over age 65
  • Children under age 2
  • People with chronic illnesses like heart or lung disease
  • Those with weakened immune systems
  • Pregnant women

These vulnerable populations are more prone to severe illness and benefit from earlier hospital care. Doctors can provide intravenous fluids, oxygen support, and intensive monitoring at the hospital.

Consider Hospitalization If

You should also consider going to the hospital if you experience any of the following:

  • No symptom improvement after 1 week of antibiotic treatment
  • Dehydration from fever, vomiting, or sweating
  • Rapid worsening of symptoms
  • New confusion or drowsiness
  • Chest pain while at rest

Worsening symptoms can signal complications like pneumonia, lung abscesses, or pleural effusion. Hospitalization allows doctors to modify your treatment plan and provide supportive care.

What to Expect in the Hospital

If admitted to the hospital for a chest infection, you can expect:

  • Evaluation and diagnostics – Doctors will do a medical history, exam, lab tests, and imaging like x-rays or CT scans to diagnose the infection and complications.
  • Intravenous (IV) antibiotics – IV antibiotics work better than oral antibiotics for severe infections.
  • Oxygen therapy – You may get supplemental oxygen through a nasal tube or face mask.
  • Medications for symptom relief – You may receive cough medicine, fever reducers, or pain medication.
  • Chest physiotherapy – Techniques like vibration and postural drainage help clear mucus from your lungs.
  • Monitoring – Your breathing rate, oxygen levels, heart rate, and other vitals will be closely tracked.

With inpatient treatment, most people begin to recover from a chest infection within 3-7 days. You may need to finish recovering at home with oral antibiotics after hospital discharge.

Home Recovery Tips

To continue recovering from a chest infection at home:

  • Get plenty of rest and avoid strenuous activity.
  • Drink fluids to stay hydrated.
  • Take all prescribed antibiotics fully.
  • Use cough drops and throat sprays for comfort.
  • Try over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs, expectorants, and decongestants.
  • Use an inhaler or nebulizer if prescribed.
  • Apply a warm compress to your chest for congestion relief.
  • Consider chest physiotherapy exercises to improve breathing.

Follow up closely with your doctor during your recovery period. Contact your doctor right away if symptoms recur or worsen.

Preventing Chest Infections

You can reduce your risks of developing chest infections by:

  • Getting recommended vaccines like the flu shot and pneumococcal vaccines.
  • Washing hands frequently and practicing good hygiene.
  • Not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke.
  • Treating underlying conditions like asthma, COPD, and diabetes.
  • Avoiding exposure to air pollution.
  • Exercising regularly to strengthen lungs.
  • Eating a healthy diet with whole foods.


Chest infections often improve with home treatment but can become life-threatening if complications develop. Seek prompt medical attention or hospital care if your symptoms are severe, persistent, or worsening despite treatment. High-risk groups should have a low threshold for going to the hospital when ill. With appropriate antibiotic therapy and supportive care, most people recover well from chest infections.