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Chest Infections

Chest Infections

Younger children are more likely to develop chest infections than adults. Chest infection in child patients can also cause more severe symptoms due to their smaller airways and less developed immune systems. It is therefore important to be aware of the symptoms of chest infection in children so that you can seek help from a doctor when necessary. Parents often ask when is a chest infection contagious and what are the signs that they should they see a doctor about their child’s cough. Keep reading to find out the answers to these common questions about chest infection in child patients.

Symptoms of Chest Infections in Babies

The most obvious sign of a chest infection is a persistent cough, which usually appears after a milder cold or the flu. Coughs caused by chest infections in child patients often sound wet and chesty. Children may also cough up some mucus, which is usually green or yellow in colour.

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. The coughing associated with chest infection in child patients can sometimes cause them to retch or throw up because they are straining to cough so much. 

The symptoms can vary depending on the exact location of the chest infection. 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. Children should start to improve within a week to 10 days, but the cough can last for four to six weeks. You might also notice that your child is still feeling tired or acting a bit quieter than usual while they are recovering from their illness.

Complications of Chest Infections in Children

Chest infections can cause severe symptoms such as breathing difficulty in children. You might notice that your child is breathing faster than usual, breathing noisily, or having to work much harder to breathe. Sometimes these breathing difficulties can tire your child out or make it harder for them to eat and drink properly.

Chest infections can also develop into more serious complications. Children can develop cyanosis, which causes their skin or lips to turn blue because they aren’t getting enough oxygen. The respiratory symptoms can also be so severe that children need extra oxygen or help to breathe. 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 complications of chest infection in child patients can be very serious or even life threatening so it is essential to know when to see a doctor and to understand what you can do to prevent respiratory infections.

Causes of Chest Infections in Babies

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 cause of the chest infection is important as it can determine which treatment options are available. Antibiotics can only be used when chest infections in child patients are caused by bacteria as they aren’t effective against viruses.

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.

Is a Chest Infection Contagious in Children?

Chest infections are caused by germs that can spread from person to person, but these infections are less contagious when they are located in the lower respiratory tract. Upper respiratory tract infections tend to be more contagious because the germs are concentrated closer to the nose and mouth so it is easier for them to spread in coughs and sneezes. When the infection is in the lower airways or chest, it won’t spread as easily. However, it is still possible for a child to pass on a chest infection to others so you still need to take precautions:

  • Keep your child at home and avoid contact with anyone who is at higher risk from chest infections, such as babies and the elderly
  • Older children should be able to cover their mouths when they cough, ideally with a tissue that they should throw away immediately
  • Wash your child’s hands and your own hands regularly to get rid of any germs

Since chest infections in children often develop after a cold or the flu it is also a good idea to get the seasonal flu jab every year. Although it can’t prevent all strains of the flu it will reduce the chances of your child being affected, which can help to prevent secondary infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia from developing too.

You can also take steps to prevent your child from catching the viruses and bacteria that cause chest infections. These infections can affect different parts of the respiratory system and are most contagious when they are in the upper airways. You should try to avoid contact with anyone who has a cold or infection, especially if you have a young child or they’re at higher risk due to any underlying health conditions. Washing hands and surfaces where germs could linger can also prevent the spread of the viruses and bacteria that could cause upper and lower respiratory tract infections. It can reduce the chances that your child will catch colds or the viruses and bacteria that can cause chest infections.

When to See a Doctor?

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.

You should always make an appointment with a doctor if you think your child has a chest infection and you notice any of the following:

  • Breathing unusually quickly or heavily
  • Your child isn’t drinking much or passing urine as they may be dehydrated
  • Bluish or greyish colour in the fingernails, which can be a sign your child isn’t getting enough oxygen
  • The symptoms came on quickly and are relatively severe as this can be a sign that the infection is bacterial and it may be possible to treat it with antibiotics

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. A high fever is a temperature of more than 38.9 degrees Celsius in a child or more than 38 degrees Celsius in a baby. If you notice any of these symptoms you should seek urgent medical care. Your child might need some extra treatment to manage their symptoms as they recover from the chest infection.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Chest Infections

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. The tests can identify exactly which germ has caused the infection, which can help with treatment. Antibiotics can only help if the infection is caused by bacteria so it can be important to perform these tests if the symptoms of chest infection in child patients are severe.

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. You should take your child’s temperature once a day to check that their fever isn’t too high. It is also important to take steps to prevent the infection from spreading to other members of the household, especially those who are more vulnerable to infections. Chest infections aren’t as contagious as other respiratory illnesses, but they can still spread when people are in close contact with each other.

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. It’s important to follow the dosage instructions carefully and to complete the full course of antibiotics even if your child starts feeling better before taking all of the medication.

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. Sometimes children with chest infections such as pneumonia will need to stay in the intensive care unit (ICU) so that their condition can be monitored more closely.

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.

If you want to get the flu vaccine for your child or you’re concerned that they might have a chest infection then you can make an appointment with Professor Habibi. You will usually be able to manage the symptoms of chest infections in children at home, but it is still important to seek medical advice if you’re concerned. Chest infections can cause severe symptoms and they can develop into potentially life threatening complications in rare cases so it is important to know when to see a doctor.

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