We were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying a glass of red wine when I looked over to see my friend’s 5-year-old boy standing rigidly in the middle of the living room floor. His face was pale. Suddenly his head thrust forward and a geyser of dinner spewed to the floor. He repeated this motion with another torrent of vomit. “Mommy, I don’t feel good,” he said.
My friend then explained that the whole family had been sick recently; two days later, so was I. I spent the next several nights with intense nausea, fever and sheet-soaking sweats that left my palms wrinkled in the morning. The flu also invaded my chest – spasms of coughing have now kept me from sleeping for the past seven nights. As I sit writing this article, my barking cough is still producing thick strings of sputum.
At first, the mucous coming out of my lungs was gray to yellow. The yellow colouration was from the remnants of the white blood cells and my immune system fighting the infection. At this stage the infection was almost certainly viral. If the mucous had turned green, or any other funky colour, it would have been a sign that a secondary bacterial infection was developing: time to see the doctor and consider antibiotics.
With a chest infection, it is important to keep the mucous moving. If it gets stuck in the lungs, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. A “pneumonia” occurs when mucous plugs the small airways; this can lead to worsening infection and the collapse of the lung behind the obstruction. A pneumonia is technically diagnosed when the diseased area becomes dense enough to create a shadow on an x-ray.
It is important to never take a cough suppressant if you are bringing up sputum. I coughed until my sides ached and my belly was sore, and I will keep coughing until my chest is clear. Incidentally, I also didn’t treat my fever with “Tylenol”. The fever reaction has a biological function: the immune system works better at a higher temperature. It made for a few uncomfortable nights, but once the fever broke, I knew I was getting better.
I have slept poorly this past week, which has amplified the fatigue and malaise of the infection. I have tried to make up some of this sleep with daytime naps. When sick, it is important to get enough rest, but it is even more important to get enough exercise. Every day I went outside for a walk; exercise keeps the lungs open and the increased blood flow helps the immune system function. Daily exercise also helps prevent another common complication of illness: blood clots in the lungs, a pulmonary embolism.
It is also important to keep well hydrated. For two days I couldn’t eat a thing, but my body can go a lot longer without food than without water. When sick, I almost always have a hot cup of herbal tea at hand. It is important that the tea not be caffeinated, as caffeine stimulates the kidneys, acting as a diuretic and dehydrating the body further. My favorite tea is licorice lemongrass mint, available at the local Farmer’s Market. A hot cup of tea not only gives my body the liquid it needs to keep my sputum loose and moving; it also washes the back of the mouth and helps keep the post-nasal drip from accumulating.
Nasal mucous and congestion are other uncomfortable aspects of a respiratory tract infection. I find that if I use a salt-water rinse (with a neti-pot) twice a day, I can keep my nose clear enough to breathe without the use of decongestants. A teaspoon of salt and a pinch of baking soda in a cup of warm water washes the nasal passages and prevents the accumulation of mucous. I follow my rinse with a hot cup of tea, breathing the moist air from the cup in through my nose as I swallow any residual drainage.
Thankfully, my drainage is now minimal and I am well on my way to recovery. This cough is likely to linger for some time yet; it is not unusual for a cough to last several weeks after an infection. As long as the sputum stays clear, I will not worry.
Chris Semrick, B.Sc, RRT, CRE is a Registered Respiratory Therapist, Certified Respiratory Educator and a Smoking Cessation Counselor.