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The most obvious sign of a chest infection is a persistent cough, which usually appears after a milder cold or the flu. Other symptoms may include a fever, wheezing, and coughing up phlegm or mucus. Children may also experience other flu-like symptoms, such as a headache, loss of appetite, fatigue, and aches and pains. Bronchitis, an infection in the main airways (bronchial tubes) that supply the lungs, is particularly likely to cause a wet, hacking cough that brings up green or yellow phlegm. Pneumonia, which is an infection in the lungs, may cause additional symptoms such as breathlessness, rapid breathing, and chest pain. Most chest infections in children will get better by themselves in a few days or weeks, but some can cause serious complications.
Chest infections can cause severe symptoms such as breathing difficulty in children. Chest infections can also develop into more serious complications. A mild chest infection or bronchitis can develop into a more serious one, such as pneumonia. Although pneumonia can often be relatively mild, it can cause stronger symptoms and there is a risk of worse complications. Possible complications of pneumonia include blood poisoning and pleurisy, which is inflammation of the membranes that surround your lungs.
The term chest infection is used to describe an infection in the lungs or air passages. The infection can be caused by bacteria or viruses, which spread in the same way as other infections, through coughs and sneezes. The two main types of chest infections are bronchitis, which is usually caused by a virus, and pneumonia, which is most often the result of a bacterial infection. Bronchitis is an infection in the bronchial tubes, the two main airways that lead into your lungs. Pneumonia is an infection in the lungs themselves, and it can actually develop as a complication of bronchitis as well as after other infections such as the flu.
Chest infections are more likely to take hold when you are recovering from another infection, such as the flu. This is one of the reasons why good hygiene is so important when your child is ill, as it can prevent exposure to secondary infections. Babies and young children are more likely to develop chest infections, because their lungs and immune systems are not yet mature. Other groups who are at higher risk include older people, pregnant women, and people with other health conditions such as asthma. Although chest infections aren't as contagious as colds or the flu, it is still important to keep anyone who is infected away from these high risk groups.
You should always consult a doctor if your child is under the age of five and you think that he or she has a chest infection. Older children won't usually need to see a doctor for a mild chest infection, but you should still seek medical advice if the symptoms are very severe or they last for more than a few weeks. Signs that a chest infection is very serious and requires immediate medical attention include a very high fever, difficulty breathing, blueness around the lips, and confusion or disorientation. If you notice any of these symptoms you should seek urgent medical care.
Chest infections can usually be diagnosed based on your child's symptoms and by listening to his or her chest with a stethoscope. The treatment will depend on how severe the symptoms are and on the cause of the infection. The doctor may need to run lab tests on a blood or mucus sample to find out if the cause is bacterial or viral.
Most chest infections can be treated at home with plenty of rest, lots of fluids, and any medication that your doctor has recommended or prescribed. Infant paracetamol (Calpol) or ibuprofen may help if your child is experiencing aches and pains, headaches, or similar symptoms. If your child has a serious chest infection that is caused by bacteria, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics can only help against bacterial infections, so they won't be prescribed if the infection is viral.
If the symptoms are very severe or your child develops complications, additional treatment may be needed in hospital. Your child may need to be given fluids to tackle dehydration, extra oxygen to help with breathing difficulties, or other treatments for complications such as pleurisy or blood poisoning.
Babies and young children who are eligible for a seasonal flu vaccine can also be vaccinated at the same time against pneumococcal infections, one of the causes of pneumonia. This can reduce the chances of developing a chest infection.