Lung infections are common illnesses of the lower respiratory tract. They are sometimes known as pulmonary infections. They can make the affected person feel very unwell and may become chronic and potentially debilitating. Lung infections usually last longer than infections of the upper respiratory tract and can become very serious and even life-threatening. For this reason, it's important to seek prompt treatment for symptoms that may indicate an infected lung.
Bronchitis is one of the two main types of lung infection. It occurs when the bronchi -- the larger airways within the lungs -- become infected and inflamed. Bronchitis is usually a viral infection. Symptoms include a persistent cough that produces mucus. Infected individuals may feel wheezy and short of breath. They are also likely to feel pain and discomfort in the chest. Most people with bronchitis will get the acute form, which lasts for a few weeks. However, some people develop chronic bronchitis. This means they experience recurrent bouts of bronchitis lasting for months at a time.
Pneumonia is another common lung infection. It occurs when the air sacs inside the lungs become inflamed. Unlike bronchitis, a bacterial infection is the most likely cause. People with pneumonia usually have a severe cough that produces mucus. More advanced cases may present with blood-stained mucus. People with pneumonia tend to develop high-grade fevers, chills, and sweating. They may lose their appetite. A fast heart rate is also common, along with pain in the chest that is aggravated by breathing or coughing.
Lung infections can have a viral or a bacterial cause. The same germs that cause the common cold and flu can also lead to lung infections. Certain fungal infections can spread to the lungs, although this is rare. Pneumonia can also develop as the result of aspiration of vomit, a harmful substance, or a foreign body. People in the hospital may also contract pneumonia, due to the insertion of breathing tubes, for instance.
Certain groups are at a higher risk of developing lung infections: babies, young children, and older adults. Smoking also makes the condition more likely, as does having a weakened immune system. Some illnesses also make contracting a lung infection more likely. People with cystic fibrosis, asthma, and heart or lung disease are at greater risk than the rest of the population.
Doctors can often diagnose chest infections based on symptoms. They may wish to carry out a chest examination, especially if they suspect pneumonia. This may involve listening for crackling or rattling sounds using a stethoscope. Tapping the chest can also help detect fluid on the lungs, which is a sign of pneumonia. A doctor may order a chest x-ray and test the patient's mucus or sputum. This is more likely if the doctor suspects severe pneumonia or if the person fails to respond to treatment.
Most people with acute bronchitis will recover on their own without treatment. This type of lung infection usually clears up in around three weeks. Plenty of rest and lots of fluids are essential until the individual is feeling better. Over-the-counter painkillers can generally deal with symptoms such as pain and fever. Some people find cough medicines and hot honey and lemon drinks helpful. Doctors do not usually prescribe antibiotics for bronchitis because it most often has a viral cause. However, antibiotics can help prevent the infection from progressing to pneumonia in people considered at high risk.
Lifestyle changes are the most effective methods for treating chronic bronchitis. Symptoms can be improved by stopping smoking and maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine. Doctors may also prescribe medications such as bronchodilators and steroids in either tablet or inhaler form, to ease inflammation in the airways. Medications to thin the mucus in the lungs can also make it easier and less painful to cough up.
Antibiotics are the most common treatment for pneumonia. If the infection is mild, the person can usually recover at home. It's important for anyone with pneumonia to get lots of rest and remain well-hydrated. If the infection is severe or the person is part of an at-risk group, a doctor may recommend hospital admission for observation and treatment. They may be given intravenous antibiotics to eradicate the infection more quickly.
The most common complication of bronchitis is the progression to pneumonia, which is the more serious of the two lung infections. Around five percent of bronchitis cases progress to pneumonia, the complications of which can be very serious. Some people develop a condition called pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining separating the lungs from the ribs that can cause respiratory failure. In rare cases, pneumonia can cause lung abscesses or blood poisoning, and can even be fatal. People in poor health and older adults are more likely to face these extreme complications.
Lung infections caused by bacteria are often not preventable. However, maintaining good hygiene such as thorough hand washing routines can prevent the germs that cause infections from spreading. Avoiding contact with people infected with colds or the flu can prevent viral infections. Because the flu virus can cause some lung infections, getting vaccinated can offer protection. People can lower their overall risk of developing lung infections of both kinds by maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine, quitting smoking, and avoiding smoky environments.
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