How do you know when a cold has gone to your chest?

I got a sore throat last Wednesday... here we go, I thought, and just prayed that it resolved itself without the usual chest infection - antibiotics - steroids.

Now it's Sunday, have woken up, chest feels very tight, bright yellow thick mucus coming up, constant cough trying to move it all upwards. Is this a chest infection or still just symptoms of my sore throat? Never sure when to go to the GP as many sites say even a chest infection will self-resolve.

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  • This is quite a tricky one and I'm not sure that I'm able to answer it fully. I will usually get in touch with the doctor and request an appointment if I develop a cough after a cold as a precaution, particularly if my peak flow begins to drop (and in my case it doesn't have to drop far - read on and you'll understand why). I don't care which doctor I see (I've made an effort over the years to get to know all of them at my local practice) and the receptionists know that. Fortunately, my local surgery has been dealing with my asthma for over twenty years so they know me well.

    However, in general I would say that even for someone who's had asthma for over fifty years it's not always easy to spot a chest infection. About ten years ago I went down with what I thought was a virus. I admit I had a bit of a cough, but as didn't seem to be affecting my asthma or peak flow that much I just carried on as usual. There was a lot to do at work, so I was reluctant to take time off. I struggled on for a couple of days, but things didn't improve, they got slowly worse. Eventually I was sent home from work when my boss said that I was getting paler every time he looked at me. I had begun to wonder whether I had developed flu: I was a little achy, suspected I had a temperature, but although the cough was beginning to get worse my peak flow was still holding up. Sure, it had dropped a bit (down to around 380 from 410) but certainly nothing alarming. I rang for a doctor's appointment, they fitted me in at once, and in I went, fully expecting to be told I had flu. I got a shock. The doctor took my temperature, listened to my chest, leaned back in his chair and calmly told me I had a chest infection. To say I was stunned is an understatement. It just hadn't felt like one. I was put on a seven day course of antibiotics and told to take time off work. I did pop back in briefly to finalise a couple of things and then took time off. It took the best part of four weeks to get over it fully.

    Fast forward three years and I went down with a really nasty infection. This one felt bad from the off, but inevitably it really flared up at the weekend when I couldn't access my local surgery. I was sent via the phone triage system to see a doctor (who turned out to be a nurse practitioner) who took my temperature, listened to my chest (which apparently was clear) noted that my peak flow hadn't dropped by much, and sent me on my way with nothing, saying that it was viral infection and to keep going with my inhalers. I was very unimpressed! The following two nights (Saturday and Sunday) I went to bed really wondering whether was going to make it through the night. When I finally got to the surgery the following week (they fitted me in with my own GP) I was in a bad way. I could hardly talk, my peak flow had dropped further, my temperature was rocketing (at 10.00 in the morning) and my oxygen sats were dropping. But when she listened to my chest she admitted that she too could hear nothing. Fortunately she took the view that something had to be causing all the symptoms and as this was two days before Christmas she wasn't going to take any chances: she put me on oral steroids and a hefty dose of antibiotics. Full recovery took a couple of weeks.

    Looking at these two incidents the main things that were common to both of them was the presence of a temperature and a drop in my peak flow ratings. Granted the drop was not a big one in either case, but my asthma is usually very well controlled. One of the other things to note is that I do wonder if recovery time would have been shortened if I had got to a doctor sooner - which is why I never take any chances now.

    Apols this is a bit on the long side, but hopefully it might help a bit. Other things that I find help with a cough resulting from a cold are Vicks vapour rub on my chest at night and I also find a hot ginger drink (1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root, one teaspoon honey topped with hot water) very soothing too.

    Hope you feel better soon.

  • sounds like it could be the start of a chest infection.. yellow means its begining.. green if you have an infection.. would see Dr and see if he wants to give you steroids and antibiotics in case a kind of pre-emptive strike

  • Thanks both, like you say it is often very hard to know where a virus has ended and a chest infection has begun. I will avoid going for now (hate antibiotics as they mess with my intestinal bacteria and give me several weeks' upset tummy every time) but will keep an eye out on my peak flow which is still 400 for now.

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