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eMedical Features 

This Week's Topic

Chest Infections

6 August 2007

A chest infection is an infection that affects your lungs, either in the larger airways (bronchitis) or in the smaller air sacs (pneumonia). There is a build-up of pus and fluid (mucus) and the airways become swollen, making it difficult for you to breathe.

Chest infections can affect people of all ages. Young children and the elderly are most at risk, as well as people who are ill and smokers. A chest infection can be serious for these people.

Pneumonia is more common in winter and spring. It can strike suddenly or come on slowly over a few days. The symptoms will depend on your age, the cause and severity of the infection, and any other medical problems you may have. Symptoms include:

* Fast or difficult breathing
* Coughing with brown or green coloured phlegm
* Fever (sweating, shivering, chills)
* Feeling unwell
* Blue colour around the lips (cyanosis)
* Stomach pain
* Chest pain
* Headaches
* General aches and pains
* Loss of appetite
* A child may vomit, have diarrhoea, and be irritable or lethargic.

Causes of chest infections
The main causes include:

* A virus
* Bacteria
* Mycoplasma (a special kind of bacteria).

Diagnosis methods
Your doctor may arrange some tests which could include:

* Chest x-ray
* A sample of your phlegm
* Blood tests.

Treatment options
Most people can be treated at home and make a full recovery. Treatment options include:

* Your own immune system will probably deal with the infection.
* Antibiotics are sometimes needed to help with recovery.
* Painkillers, such as paracetamol, may be advised for pain and fever.
* Your doctor will advise you about other drugs you need to get over this attack.
* Some people need to be admitted to hospital for further treatment, particularly young children and the elderly who are at greater risk of serious complications.
* Review with your local doctor may be needed within 48 hours, especially if you are not improving, and again in six weeks to make sure that you have made a full recovery. A chest x-ray may be needed at this time.

Taking care of yourself at home
If you have a bacterial chest infection, you should start to feel better 24 to 48 hours after starting on antibiotics. You may have a cough for days or weeks. For other types of chest infections, the recovery is more gradual. You may feel weak for some time and need a longer period of bed rest.

Be guided by your doctor, but general self-care suggestions include:

* Take your medication as directed. Even if you feel better, finish the course of pills.
* Drink plenty of fluids.
* Rest for a few days.
* Prop yourself up on a couple of pillows to sleep - it will make it easier to sleep.
* Stop smoking, at least until you feel better if you can't give up at this stage.
* Contact your local doctor if you have any concerns or questions.
* Go straight to your local doctor or the nearest hospital emergency department if you (or your child) have trouble breathing, have a high fever or feel worse.

Vaccination is available
Vaccines are available to reduce the risk of some types of chest infection. Some groups like the elderly and people with chronic conditions can be vaccinated against one of the most common types of bacterial pneumonia every five years. A different vaccine is used for children. The elderly and people with chronic conditions are advised to have a flu vaccination every year before winter comes. See your doctor for more information.

Where to get help

* Your doctor
* Emergency department of your nearest hospital
* Always call an ambulance in an emergency Tel. 000
* The Australian Lung Foundation Tel. (03) 9570 3893 or 1800 654 301
* Quitline Tel. 131 848

Things to remember

* A chest infection affects your lungs, either in the larger airways (bronchitis) or in the smaller air sacs (pneumonia).
* It is likely that your own immune system will deal with the infection, as most chest infections are caused by a virus. However, antibiotics are sometimes needed to assist with recovery.
australian lung foundation - chronic bronchitis and emphysema

Rating: 3
Description: This site, maintained by the Australian Lung Foundation, is an excellent source of information for those wanting to find out more about bronchitis, along with many more respiratory diseases. (To read information about chronic bronchitis, click on "Learn About Lung Health".) The site provides useful links to other organizations and websites, for both professionals and patients. A feedback facility is also provided, which gives another avenue to further research into bronchitis.

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