Chest infections - what you need to know

Caroline Cassidy
Sick woman cough in ved under blanket
Sick woman cough in ved under blanket

Winter is typically the time of year when colds and flu are at their most prevalent, and with some of those nasties come the risk of a chest infection. With symptoms ranging from the mild to the potentially life-threatening, here's what to look out for and how to treat a chest infection, as well as when to see a doctor.

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What causes chest infections?
Affecting the lungs or airways, chest infections are caused by either a virus or bacteria, typically airborne and therefore transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Bronchitis is usually caused by a virus, while pneumonia is often due to a bacteria.

While a chest infection is often not serious and will get better with minimal treatment, babies and young children, the elderly, pregnant women, those who smoke and anyone with a long-term health condition or weakened immune system could be at a higher risk of developing a more serious infection.

Symptoms to look out for
Chest infections usually manifest by way of a persistent cough, with sufferers typically coughing up yellow or green phlegm, sometimes even blood. Wheezing, tightness of the chest and breathlessness are also common, as is a high temperature. As with any kind of infection, headache, fatigue, joint or muscle pain and loss of appetite are also common symptoms.

In most cases, a chest infection will run its course within a few days or weeks, without the need for medication. But it can leave you feeling very low, so it is advisable to get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, and treat aches and pains with over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, although the latter is not recommended for asthma sufferers.

Inhaling steam may help to ease the cough and tightness in the chest, and if you have trouble sleeping, adding extra pillows may help you breathe more easily.

Where symptoms persist, it may be that you require antibiotics. These are only effective if the infection is caused by a bacteria or if your GP believes you are at risk of pneumonia or other complications that may make the problem more serious.

If your symptoms are very severe, you experience a persistent fever, cough up blood, your skin or lips are tinged blue, or your symptoms last longer than three weeks, it is advisable to see a doctor.
Similar to colds and flu, chest infections can be easily spread, so if you are coughing and sneezing, cover your mouth, bin tissues straight away, and wash your hands regularly to prevent passing it on to others. Smoking significantly increases your risk of developing a chest infection, and will exacerbate symptoms, so if you are prone to this particular problem, you can help yourself by quitting.

And for anyone with a long-term health condition such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as expectant mums and those over 65, it is well worth taking advantage of the free NHS flu jab to reduce your risk of infection.

Do you regularly suffer from chest infections? What advice would you give to other sufferers on easing the symptoms? Leave your comments below...

Chest Infection and Smoking
Chest Infection and Smoking