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Are chest infections contagious? Signs your cough is not a common cold

Coronavirus: Experiment shows how air spreads when coughing

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A chest infection is an infection of the lungs or large airways, which can be caused by either bacteria or viruses. Bronchitis and pneumonia are the two main types of chest infection, and are both characterised by similar symptoms. The main signs of a chest infection include a persistent cough and difficulty breathing, but are these symptoms contagious? These are the key ways to tell if your cough is more than just a common cold.

Are chest infections contagious?

While most bronchitis cases are caused by viruses and most pneumonia cases are due to bacteria, both pathogens can spread in similar ways.

When a person coughs, tiny droplets of fluid containing the virus or bacteria are launched into the air, where they can be breathed in by others.

Hussain Abdeh, Clinical Director and Superintendent Pharmacist at Medicine Direct told Express.co.uk: “The common sense approach of covering your mouth when you cough, using tissues (and throwing them away straight after using them), and washing your hands regularly are all simple and effective ways of minimising the risk of passing your infection on to somebody else.”

The pathogens which cause the infection can be spread through coughing and sneezing, but it is not likely that a chest infection will spread through a household in the same way as coronavirus or norovirus.

Most healthy people will be fine while spending time around those with a chest infection, though there are some groups who are more susceptible to developing more serious symptoms.

According to NHS Inform, these include:

  • Babies and very young children
  • Children with developmental problems
  • People who are very overweight
  • Elderly people
  • Pregnant women
  • People who smoke
  • People with long-term health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cystic fibrosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • People with a weakened immune system – due to a recent illness, a transplant, high-dose steroids, chemotherapy or a health condition

Should you self-isolate if you have a chest infection?

While the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of isolating while fighting a contagious illness, there is generally no need to isolate yourself from others while battling a chest infection.

Mr Abdeh said: “Typically, chest infections are less contagious than other conditions like colds and Covid, but that doesn’t mean that they are not transmissible.

“While it is not as imperative that you isolate yourself when you have a chest infection, you should still avoid close contact with other people.”

Rest is crucial to speed up your recovery while fighting a bacterial or viral infection, so it is often recommended that you take time off if your symptoms are particularly bad.

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How to tell if your cough is a chest infection?

According to Mr Abdeh, the most common symptom of a chest infection is a chesty cough.

When your cough is more than just a common cold, it is likely that you will also experience wheezing and may also produce mucus that is green or yellow.

Pain in your chest, headaches, muscle aches and tiredness are also common symptoms which are often caused by the constant coughing.

If your symptoms are accompanied by any of the following, Monika Wassermann, Medical Doctor at oliolusso.com recommended contacting your GP immediately:

  • You have blood or thick mucus while coughing
  • You see a blue dash on the lips
  • You have had persistent wheezing coughs for more than two weeks
  • You have troubled breathing, feel drowsy, and have endless chest pain

How is a chest infection different to COVID-19?

The symptom that is most easy to differentiate between a chest infection and COVID-19 is the type of cough you have.

Both problems can cause continuous coughs as their primary symptom, but Covid is more commonly linked to a dry, “hacking” cough rather than thick mucus.

Mrs Wassermann said: “Chest infections tend to have more ‘normal’ coughs that do not affect the senses, while Covid coughs tend to be sudden and persistent, often accompanied with a loss of taste or smell.”

How to treat a chest infection

A mild chest infection can be treated with a number of home remedies to ease symptoms, such as:

  • Drinking a warm lemon water and honey mixture to ease the sore throat caused by coughing
  • Staying hydrated and inhaling steam from hot water to loosen mucus on the chest
  • Using painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen to reduce headaches
  • Resting to help your body fight the infection

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