Before antibiotics, pneumonia used to be called 'the old man's friend'. But these days, most chest infections can be treated if caught early enough. However, they can still take weeks to get over so prevention is definitely better than cure.
We all get coughs and colds - an average of four a year for adults and even more for children. But doctors don't define these as chest infections - we call them URTIs, or upper respiratory tract infections. 'Real' chest infections include pneumonia (infection deep in your lungs) or bronchitis (inflammation of the big airways that lead to your lungs). They can be caused by viruses, like colds - but bacterial infections are often more serious still.
The symptoms of bronchitis and pneumonia are similar, although you tend to be more unwell with pneumonia. They include high fever (often with bouts of feeling shivery and boiling hot by turns); a severe cough, sometimes producing blood or rusty coloured sputum; shortness of breath or wheezing; and chest pain when you breathe (rather than just when you cough). Do see your doctor if you get any of these 'red flags'.
As you get older, your immune system, which fights off infection, becomes less agile. It's not quite as well equipped to kill the germs that cause chest infections. Your immune system is also more vulnerable if you have other long-term conditions like heart or kidney disease or diabetes. Get your flu vaccine yearly and immunisation against pneumococcus if over 65 or have other health problems.
You won't be surprised to hear that if I have one piece of advice to avoid chest infections, it's DON'T SMOKE! Quitting is incredibly hard - nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs we know. It latches on to pleasure and reward centres in your brain, and causes psychological as well as physical addiction. But help is at hand - the NHS provides free tailored services up and down the country to offer support as well as nicotine replacement products. These can help you fight to get over the triggers to light up first, and you can then slowly wean yourself off the physical craving for nicotine. E-cigarettes have risen quickly in popularity in recent years. UK Scientists have concluded they're up to 95% less damaging than 'normal' cigarettes, although we don't know enough about long term effects yet. They can certainly help you quit. Tablets like Champix® (from your GP) act by stopping craving for nicotine.
If you have chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD) (a form of chronic lung disease that sometimes used to be called chronic bronchitis or emphysema) you're at much higher risk of chest infections. That's because your condition makes it hard for you to get rid of germs which can live at low levels in your lungs. Every so often you may get flare-ups, with an increase in cough and sputum and/or a change in the colour of your sputum. You may find yourself getting more breathless too.
Your GP will probably give you a 'rescue pack' of antibiotics and steroid tablets to keep at home. At the first sign of a flare-up, you should start taking the antibiotics - don't wait to speak to your GP before you do. Prompt treatment greatly reduces the chance of serious infection. If you get more breathless, increase the dose of your 'reliever' inhaler. If you're still breathless despite this, start taking your course of steroid tablets - usually for a week. Your doctor can advise you on other changes to your medicines and when you need to see them. See a doctor if you cough up blood, are short of breath or have chest pain on breathing (rather than just on coughing).
Even if you have COPD, giving up smoking will still help cut your risk of chest infections - it's never too late to quit and if anything you have more to gain than non-sufferers. Pulmonary rehabilitation - supervised exercise and teaching sessions with trained physiotherapists - can help you improve your exercise ability. This may cut the chance of serious infection. It can help you walk further, improving your general fitness and balance. This all stacks the odds in favour of staying out of hospital and recovering faster if you do get an infection.
A healthy balanced diet is hugely important for keeping your immune system strong. People who are malnourished are more prone to serious chest infections, and take longer to recover. There's also good evidence that people who exercise regularly get fewer infections. While getting very cold may increase the risk of complications from chest infections, you don't need to stay inside unless it's really cold outside. In fact a brisk walk in the park, well wrapped up, will still be a good idea when winter comes.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.