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Approach to Treating Chest Infections

What are chest infections?

Chest infecctions occur when a germ - it might be a virus or bacterium - gets inside your airways. The type of infection depends of the sort of germ that causes is, as well as the area that becomes affected. Chest infections are easily transmitted, especially in closed and/or crowded environments. Every time an infected person coughs or sneezes, they expel tiny drops of mucus or saliva with the virus. Whoever breathes or comes in contact with those germs may potentially become sick too. 

Good news is that most chest infections are mild and get better by themselves in a matter of days. Only at the third week of non-stop symptoms it is advised to consult a GP if you don't have any special risk factors. Common symptoms of chest infections include:

Coughing Fever Joint pain Wheezing
Headaches Breathlessness Opaque phlegm Drowsiness

There are two types of chest infections. Bronchitis affects the airways and is often caused by viruses, while pneumonia is more commonly caused by bacteria. Bronchitis is rarely a severe affection, while pneumonia is a bit more dangerous and might cause health complications.

While some chest infections may spread to the rest of your body or cause respiratory faliure, thus threatening your life, this isn't a very common outcome. You should only see a GP if you have a risk factor - like, being over 65 years old, a smoker, immune vulnerability or an ongoing chronic disease like asthma -. If the infection persists for over 3 weeks, you might need to take antibiotics, which your doctor will prescribe. If you want to learn more about chest infections, click here for further details.

When is it right to take antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medication that kills bacteria. From this definition, you can get to a very simple conclusion: antibiotics should only be taken when your chest infection is caused by bacteria. This is important because many of them, including most cases of bronchitis, are caused by viruses instead. Viruses do not get killed by antibiotics, so taking them would not only be useless, but you could subject yourself to side effects of the medication, for nothing.

For this reason, you need to go to a doctor and get tested. Your doctor will request a throat swab and/or an X-ray of your chest to diagnose the cause of your infection. Most germs infect your throat first and then go down to your chest, and that's why most chest infections occur right after a flu or cold. Once the cause of your infection has been diagnosed, if it is determined that you have bacteria inside your chest, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.

Taking antibiotics without a prescription isn't recommended. Not only could they be ineffective - in case you have a virus - but also you if you don't take them the right way you might be helping bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, and so they will be harder to fight in the future. If you want to learn more about antibiotic resistance, we suggest that you read the NHS advice on use of antibiotics.

What antibiotics are prescribed for chest infections?

The most common antibiotic prescribed for chest infections is Amoxicillin. This is a penicillin-based antibiotics used for treating chest infections as well as other conditions such as urinary infections and ulcers. Just as any other antibiotic, it should be taken as the pharmacist or doctor indicates, and you shouldn't by any mean interrupt the treatment before it ends, even if you feel better or the symptoms are gone. You should consult your doctor before taking Amoxicillin, so you make sure you actually need it, as well as check that it won't do you any harm - which is a possibility if you are taking other medication, have certain conditions, etc. You can find more information and advice here.

Even if most people are prescribed with Amoxicillin as the first line treatment for chest infections, some people shouldn't take Amoxicillin. People who are allergic to penicillin are very likely to have a bad reaction to it. If you have never taken penicillin-based medication before, you have to be very careful. If after taking this medication you experiment an allergic reaction, such as an itchy rash, swelling or difficulty breathing, you should interrumpt the treatment immediately and contact your doctor. Clarithromycin in cases of penicillin allergies is the most common prescription in these cases, because this antibiotic isn't penicillin-based. People who are allergic to penicillin shouldn't have problems taking it. Azithromycin is another antibiotic that is available in those cases.

Before taking any antibiotic, you have to consult your doctor. Once the right antibiotic has been prescribed, you can get it at the pharmacy or buy it online.

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