How Do You Know If You Have A Chest Infection

Chest Infection Introduction

Chest infections occur when viruses or bacteria infect the lungs or airways. Chest infections are common, and whilst the majority can be mild and tend to resolve themselves without clinical intervention, others can be much more serious and require medical attention. There are two main types of chest infections: bronchitis (a viral infection) and pneumonia (a bacterial infection).

How Do You Get Chest Infections? 

Causes

Chest infections commonly appear after you have had a cold and the infection travels into the lungs and airways when your body is weaker and the immune system cannot fight pathogens as strongly. You can also catch a chest infection just like you would the coronavirus, common colds, and the flu, by either inhaling or touching pathogen-rich particles that someone nearby has coughed or sneezed out.

Risk Factors

Chest infections are more common in immunocompromised individuals, for example, those with asthma or diabetes, pregnant women, young children, or the elderly. Smoking is a large risk factor for chest infections because it damages the respiratory system's delicate lining which is integral for trapping and removing unwanted pathogens.1 Furthermore, the toxins in cigarette smoke irritate the lungs to make existing chest infections worse and develop into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Lastly, overweight and obese individuals are at a higher risk of developing respiratory infections as their immune response is compromised and therefore less effective. 

Chest Infection Signs And Symptoms

The clinical features of chest infections vary from patient to patient and are similar for both viral bronchitis and bacterial pneumonia infections.2 These include:

  • a persistent chesty cough (main symptom)
  • coughing up mucus (phlegm)
  • a sore throat
  • chest pain
  • fever (high temperature)
  • difficulty breathing, breathlessness or shallow breathing
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • muscle pain

How Does It Feel When Having a Chest Infection

These symptoms will culminate in you experiencing discomfort and feeling generally unwell. You may feel run-down and tired, unable to carry out day-to-day tasks. However, these unpleasant feelings should last around a week before your body fights off the infection in most cases.

How To Reduce The Risk Of Getting Chest Infections

To avoid contracting a chest infection, limit the lifestyle risk factors by taking control of your diet, as well as your exercise and smoking habits. An all-around healthier body will increase the effectiveness of your immune response. If you are within one of the at-risk groups mentioned, you may be eligible for the free NHS annual flu vaccine, which reduces the risk of flu to reduce the likelihood of the infection colonising the lungs and airways. The pneumococcal vaccine is available to help prevent bacterial chest infections that will cause pneumonia. If you are seeking these vaccinations, contact your GP for advice.

When To Consult A Doctor

Most bronchitis infections and walking pneumonia infections (less severe pneumonia) can be naturally fought by your body without medical intervention. It is important to be on the lookout for when your infection gets worse, and medical advice must be sought out. Contact your GP if you have a chest infection and cough up blood, or if you have a persistent cough for over 3 weeks. Your GP should be notified if you have a chest infection and are pregnant, immunocompromised, have chronic health issues, or are over the age of 65. This is because your weakened immune system will most likely not be strong enough to clear the infection on its own. You should contact your GP or pharmacist for advice if you have a chest infection and simply feel very unwell or like your symptoms are only getting worse. These chest infection warning signs may be indicative of pneumonia, which can be life threatening. Lastly, if you keep on getting chest infections, this might be a sign of something else, such as lung cancer, so contact your GP for advice.

Diagnosis And Treatment

If you have a chest infection, make sure you limit your social interactions to avoid the spread of infection to others, cough and sneeze into tissues, and wash your hands regularly. To help yourself, when you are experiencing a chest infection, get plenty of rest, sleep with your head raised to ease your breathing and mucus drainage, and stay hydrated by drinking lots of water. Painkillers like paracetamol will be useful for the symptoms of a sore throat and aches. Ibuprofen can be used for this too as well as helping to reduce fever symptoms. Decongestants will help to move stubborn thick mucus from your lungs and airways, so they are very useful drugs to take.

The medicines prescribed will depend on the type of chest infection you have. This can be determined by doing a diagnostic test of a mucus sample from the patient. Antibiotics will be given to patients with a bacterial chest infection (pneumonia). It is extremely important to finish the course of antibiotics your doctor gives you. Do not finish them early, even if you start to feel well again. Antibiotics do not work for viral chest infections. The infection is likely to clear up in a few weeks.

Summary

It is important to be mindful of chest infection symptoms and warning signs that the infection has gotten serious so that you can make decisions regarding your contact with people, the self-care that you need and the medical assistance you require.

References

  1. Jiang C, Chen Q, Xie M. Smoking increases the risk of infectious diseases: A narrative review. Tobacco Induced Diseases. 2020;18.
  2. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chest-infection/

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Frankie Perrett

MSc Molecular Medicine and BSc Biological Sciences – University of East Anglia, Norwich

Frankie works in an NHS Hospital Pathology laboratory so has acquired excellent insight into many different diseases and their mechanisms of action.

Frankie’s Master’s course focused on key areas of biomedicine, centring around patient-first learning. In her degree, she specialised in Lung adenocarcinoma and its mechanisms of cell communication.

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