What is Bronchitis?
Bronchitis is commonly thought of as just a nasty cough, but as it turns out, there is more you should know. Bronchitis is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes (the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs), and there are two types: acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis is what you might think of as a chest cold, and causes unpleasant symptoms like a cough that brings up mucus, slight fever, chills, fatigue, and chest discomfort. This kind of bronchitis is very common and can develop from a respiratory infection or cold. Chronic bronchitis tends to be more serious, and lasts for two to three months each year for at least two years. Bronchitis is caused by a virus, similar to a cold or the flu, so antibiotics can’t be used to treat it. Instead, over-the-counter cough medicine can be used to treat bronchitis at home.
Possible Symptoms of Bronchitis
The bronchial tubes are the air passages that connect your nose, mouth, and lungs. Bronchitis is the inflammation or irritation of these tubes. There are two forms of bronchitis: acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis.
Symptoms of Acute Bronchitis
Symptoms of acute bronchitis may include:
Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis
Chronic bronchitis can persist for much longer than acute bronchitis. Unlike acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis isn't caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Instead, it's a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is usually caused by smoking.
Symptoms of chronic bronchitis may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest discomfort
Top 3 Bronchitis Causes
1. A Viral Infection
You might develop bronchitis after an upper respiratory infection such as a cold or the flu. This type of bronchitis often resolves on its own. If your symptoms persist for more than two weeks, see a doctor. In some cases, antibiotics might be necessary.
2. Environmental Factors
Pollen, animal dander, smoke, chemical fumes, and dust can irritate the lining of your bronchial tubes. Short-term exposure to these substances can cause acute bronchitis, but long-term exposure can sometimes cause permanent damage that results in COPD.
Smoking is one of the most common causes of bronchitis. Cigar and cigarette smoke irritate your nose, throat, and lungs. Over time, you might be more likely to develop illnesses such as bronchitis or pneumonia. Smoking can also cause permanent damage to the tissue in your throat and lungs.
5 Ways to Prevent Bronchitis
1. Stop Smoking
Smoking can cause permanent lung damage as well as other health complications. Smokers are much more likely to develop pneumonia and lung cancer. If you are a smoker, ask your doctor for advice on how to quit.
2. Use a Humidifier
If you live in an arid climate, dry air and dust can irritate your lungs. A humidifier might help ease your cough and loosen phlegm. Breathing in steamy air from a shower or bowl of hot water can also help with a sore throat or a stubborn cough. If you have chronic bronchitis, ask your doctor if it’s safe to increase the humidity in your environment. Some people with COPD have trouble breathing in steamy environments.
3. Avoid Exposure to Pollutants and Irritants
Avoid or limit exposure to any substance that might irritate your lungs. If you can’t avoid these substances, use a mask that covers your nose and mouth. Keep windows closed when there are high levels of air pollution, pollen, and dust in the air.
4. Avoid Exposure to Viral Infections
Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. Whenever possible, avoid being around people who are sick. Many people pick up a cold or flu after touching a contaminated object and then rubbing their nose or eyes. Try to avoid touching your face unless you have just washed your hands.
5. Get Vaccinated
A yearly flu shot can help prevent illnesses that can lead to bronchitis or pneumonia. If you are over 65 or at a high risk of developing pneumonia, your doctor might also recommend the pneumococcal vaccine. These vaccines are available at doctors’ offices and most pharmacies, and insurance plans often cover them.
Possible Bronchitis Treatment Options
Drink plenty of fluids to help thin out the mucus in your nose and lungs. Avoid caffeine or alcohol, which can make your symptoms worse. If you have a cold or flu, be sure to get extra rest to help your body fight the infection.
Mild cases of acute bronchitis usually resolve on their own. Your doctor or pharmacist can recommend over-the-counter medicines to help ease your symptoms. Medications such as acetaminophen help lower your fever and provide pain relief. Talk to a pediatrician before giving over-the-counter medication to an infant or small child.
If your bronchitis symptoms are severe, your doctor might recommend an inhaler to make breathing easier. They might also prescribe antibiotics if they believe your bronchitis came from a bacterial infection. Follow your doctor or pharmacist’s directions when taking these medications. Do not skip doses. Finish all your medication unless your doctor tells you to stop taking it.
Chronic bronchitis or COPD can require special treatment. Your doctor might recommend that you see a pulmonologist, a doctor who specializes in treating diseases that affect the lungs. A specialist can offer advice on how to manage your symptoms safely.
Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Bronchitis
- How long have you had your symptoms?
- Do you smoke?
- Did you recently have a cold or the flu?
- Does anything make your symptoms better or worse?
- Which over-the-counter medications or home treatments have you tried?
- Are you coughing up yellow, green, or bloody mucus?
- Are you experiencing chest pain?
- Are you having trouble breathing?
Bronchitis May Also be Known as
- Acute bronchitis
- Chronic bronchitis
- Chest cold
- Acquired bronchiectasis
- Congenital bronchiectasis
- Mayo Clinic. Bronchitis. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bronchitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20355566
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. COPD. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/copd
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Bronchitis. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/bronchitis
- American Family Physician. Acute Bronchitis. https://www.aafp.org/afp/1998/0315/p1281.html
- US National Library of Medicine. High Lung Cancer Incidence in Heavy Smokers Following Hospitalization due to Pneumonia. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26551976
- Healthline. COPD and Humidity. https://www.healthline.com/health/copd/humidity
- US National Library of Medicine. Common cold. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000678.htm
- WebMD. Are You Making Your Cold Worse? https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/what-makes-colds-worse