A chest infection is an illness that affects the lower part of the respiratory tract, which comprises the trachea, bronchi, and lungs. It occurs especially after a cold or flu.
Major reasons for chest infection include viruses and bacteria, and occasionally fungi. Chest infections spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. They can result in coughing, congestion, distended airways, dyspnea, fever, etc.
Although most chest infections are mild and get better with time, some can be severe. They affect people of all ages. However, children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with chronic health conditions, weakened immunity, and smokers are groups majorly at risk.
The symptoms and signs of a chest infection may be similar to those of a cold or flu, but they last longer. The severity depends on the patient’s age and overall health and whether the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria.
Some typical symptoms include:
- Chest discomfort
- Rhinorrhea (runny nose)
- Fever (high temperature)
- Tachypnea (rapid breathing)
- Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
- Cyanosis (bluish discolouration of the mucous membrane)
- Coughing (with or without brown, yellow, or green phlegm or blood)
- Dyspnea (difficulty breathing, including shortness of breath and wheezing)
Besides the above, patients may experience chest infection symptoms such as cephalalgia (headache), fatigue, diaphoresis (cold sweats), dehydration, loss of appetite, confusion, and disorientation or myalgia (muscle pains).
The most common chest infections are acute or chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. Infection in the alveoli is called pneumonia, whereas that in the bronchi is called bronchitis. Bronchitis is caused mainly due to viruses, as opposed to pneumonia which is caused due to bacteria.
Patients might develop a chest infection by breathing in (inhaling) the respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
They can also acquire the infection by coming into contact with a surface infected with the virus or bacteria and then touching their mouth or face.
To diagnose a chest infection, patients’ vitals and medical history is assessed. Additionally, their work, recent travels, or exposure to an infected person are also considered.
Then patient’s body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen levels are checked. Lungs are further checked for crackling or wheezing sounds.
We don’t run tests if patients have an infection of the bronchi and their symptoms are mild. However, if the symptoms are severe, then it may be necessary to run a chest infection test. Some of the most recommend tests are as follows:
- CBC – Complete blood count can measure the count of white blood cells (WBC) in the blood. An increase in the count confirms infection or inflammation.
- Chest X-Ray – An X-ray of a chest infection displays abscesses or pleural effusions (fluid surrounding the lungs). Further, it can expose additional signs like cavitary pulmonary disease and lung nodules.
- CT Scan – To support the diagnosis of any chest infection, we may run a CT scan, as it is more precise than a chest X-ray.
- Spirometry – This test measures the quantity and rate of the air the patient exhales to assess oedema and stenosis in their bronchial tubes.
- Bronchoscopy – An endoscope is inserted into the airway to inspect any obstructions or to draw samples for assessment.
- Pulse oximetry – An oximeter estimates the quantity of oxygen in the blood with a device attached to the finger.
- Sputum analysis- Patients may be asked to provide a sample of phlegm to be scanned for bacteria.
- Arterial blood gas (ABG) – This blood test assesses the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood and measures the blood’s acidity.
- Pleural fluid culture – A needle is inserted between the ribs to get a sample of the fluid between the lungs and chest wall for testing.
- PCR & Enzyme Immunoassays – Viral chest infections are diagnosed using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and enzyme immunoassays. To perform any of these chest infection tests, a sample (blood, sputum, nasal secretions, or saliva) is collected and assessed in a laboratory.
Viral chest infections resolve in a few weeks and mostly clear up on their own. For bacterial infections, patients need to consult our pulmonology specialists, who will prescribe a prognosis involving a course of antibiotics.
Most chest infection symptoms subside within 7 to 10 days, although a cough can last up to 3 weeks. In the meantime, patients can comfort themselves with a few self-care treatments:
- Drink plenty of water to relieve congestion and sip on therapeutic herbal teas for sore throat.
- Inhale steam to relieve coughing. However, do not let children inhale steam directly from a vessel of hot water to avoid burns and scalds.
- Take OTC analgesics (pain relievers) like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to lessen fever and body aches and decongestants (nasal congestion relievers) to relieve mucus in the lungs. However, avoid taking cough medications or giving aspirin to children below 16 years of age.
- Rest adequately while avoiding lying flat when sleeping. Use extra pillows to elevate the head and chest.
For more severe and complicated chest infections, it is necessary to visit a hospital where patients may be given antibiotics, IV fluids, and different respiratory treatments as per their symptoms.
Chest infections are contagious; an infected person can pass them on to others through coughing and sneezing. Therefore, people must know a few measures to prevent and contain their spread.
While not all chest infections can be prevented, people can certainly minimize their risk:
- Cold and flu are the primary reasons for a chest infection, for which seasonal vaccines are available. Further, patients can also consider taking the pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumonia.
- Keep hands clean, especially before consuming or touching the face or mouth.
- Consume a wholesome diet. This can help strengthen immunity and make patients less susceptible to infection.
- Avoid smoking and drinking. Excessive and chronic alcoholism and smoking can weaken patients’ innate protection against infections and make them prone to chest infections.
- Patients who are already ill must wash their hands often and be sure to cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing. Further, dispose of any used tissues appropriately.
At the CK Birla Hospital, we conduct thorough diagnosis and treatment of lung and chest infections. Our unit of pulmonologists provides holistic care to improve patients’ quality of life. We deliver rapid diagnoses followed by treatment of the underlying cause.
Our chest clinic under the department of pulmonology incorporates 24×7 emergency and critical care services and offers round-the-clock facilities like chest X-rays, CT scans, and other imaging tests. We offer secure and precision-driven procedures at par with international clinical protocols and safety norms.
We have pledged to transform healthcare in India with our empathetic and patient-led environment. Visit your nearest CK Birla Hospital or book an appointment with Dr Kuldeep Grover for rapid diagnosis and treatment of chest infections.