Bronchitis: What to know

Those with bronchitis in their bronchial tubes have swelling and inflammation, the air passages that connect the mouth and nose to the lungs.

Bronchitis symptoms include a cough, wheezing, and respiratory problems. People may also have trouble clearing their airways from heavy mucus or phlegm.

The bronchitis can be chronic or acute. Acute bronchitis appears to clear up but recurrent bronchitis is persistent and never goes away completely. Quitting smoking or avoidance can help prevent bronchitis.

This article looks at the causes, symptoms, treatments, and prevention of bronchitis.

Symptoms

A lady having sore throat
A person with bronchitis may experience a sore throat, a persistent cough, and a fever.

The bronchitis can be chronic or acute. It happens once when it’s acute and then a person recovers. If it is chronic, it never goes away, and a person is constantly living with it, though it may sometimes get better and worse.

Signs and symptoms of both chronic and acute bronchitis include:

  • a persistent cough, which may produce mucus
  • wheezing
  • a low fever and chills
  • a feeling of tightness in the chest
  • a sore throat
  • body aches
  • breathlessness
  • headaches
  • a blocked nose and sinuses

A person with bronchitis may have cough that lasts for several weeks or even a few months if it takes a long time for the bronchial tubes to fully heal.

The symptoms of chronic bronchitis can periodically flare up. This happens during the winter months for a lot of people.

Bronchitis, though, isn’t the only condition that can induce cough. A cough refusing to leave can be a sign of asthma, pneumonia or many other conditions. Anyone diagnosed with persistent cough should see a doctor.

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis lasts a given length of time. It commonly follows a pattern similar to a viral infection, such as a cold or flu, and may originate from the same virus.

The person may have:

  • a cough with or without mucus
  • chest discomfort or soreness
  • fever
  • a mild headache and body aches
  • shortness of breath

Symptoms usually go away after a few days or weeks.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis has symptoms similar to acute bronchitis but it’s an ongoing disease.

One description states that a person has persistent bronchitis if he or she has a normal, successful cough for at least 3 months a year, 2 years in a row or more.

It is described by the National Library of Medicine as a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ( COPD), in which the bronchial tubes produce much mucus. It either doesn’t go away, or it goes away, and continues to return.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC) notes that the COPD diagnosis will be given to a person who develops emphysema alongside chronic bronchitis. This is a serious condition, and potentially life-threatening.

Transmission

If bronchitis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection, the infection can be transmitted through droplets to another person when coughing.

A person should: To reduce the risk of transmitting an infection.

  • wash their hands often
  • cough into a tissue
  • take extra care around young children, older people, and those with a weakened immune system

Causes: How do you get bronchitis?

Bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes are inflamed by a virus , bacteria, or irritant particles. Smoking is a key risk factor but non-smokers can develop bronchitis as well.

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis can result from:

  • a virus, for example, a cold or flu virus
  • a bacterial infection
  • exposure to substances that irritate the lungs, such as tobacco smoke, dust, fumes, vapors, and air pollution

People have a higher risk of developing acute bronchitis if they:

  • experience a virus or bacteria that causes inflammation
  • smoke or inhale secondhand smoke
  • have asthma or an allergy

Ways to avoid infection include regular hand washing and avoiding smoke and other particles.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is the result of chronic irritation and tissue damage to the lungs and airways. Smoking is the most common cause but not everyone with bronchitis is a smoker.

Other possible causes include:

  • long term exposure to air pollution, dust, and fumes from the environment
  • genetic factors
  • repeated episodes of acute bronchitis
  • a history of respiratory disease or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Exposure to pesticides may increase the risk.

People with asthma or allergies are at a higher risk of both disease types. Avoiding the smoking is the best way to avoid chronic bronchitis.

Treatment

A doctor may advise a person with bronchitis to:

  • rest
  • drink fluids
  • take over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as ibuprofen

Taking OTC medication will help relieve a cough and ease any accompanying pain. Acute bronchitis, often without treatment, will go away in time.

Chronic bronchitis symptoms may resolve or improve for some time to come. Symptoms will however come back or get worse again, particularly if smoke or other causes are exposed.

Options that may help include:

Cough medicine: Coughing is useful for removing mucus from the bronchial tubes, but medication can help bring relief, for example, at night.

Taking honey: Taking 2 spoonfuls of honey may bring relief of cough symptoms.

Using a humidifier: This can loosen mucus, improve airflow, and relieve wheezing.

Bronchodilators: These open the bronchial tubes and may help clear out mucus.

Mucolytics: These loosen or thin mucus in the airways, making it easier to cough up sputum.

Anti-inflammatory and steroid drugs: These can help reduce inflammation that can cause tissue damage.

Oxygen therapy: In severe cases, a person may need supplemental oxygen to ease their breathing.

Behavioral remedies

Other strategies for treating bronchitis include the following:

  • removing a lung irritant, for example, by not smoking
  • exercising to strengthen the chest muscles to help breathing
  • improving breathing technique through pulmonary rehabilitation

Breathing exercises, such as pursed-lip breathing, can help slow down and make breathing more effective.

Antibiotics

If a bacterial infection results in acute bronchitis a doctor can prescribe antibiotics. Taking antibiotics can also in some cases help prevent a secondary infection.

Nevertheless, such drugs are not ideal for a person with a virus.

Most physicians do not recommend antibiotics until bacteria have been reported as the cause of an illness. One of the reasons for this is concern about antibiotic resistance, since overuse of antibiotics makes long-term treatment of an infection more difficult.

Learn more about antibiotics, their uses and the antibiotic resistance problem.

Diagnosis

A doctor will perform a physical examination to listen to unusual sounds in the lungs using a stethoscope.

They may also ask an individual about:

  • their symptoms, and especially the cough
  • their medical history
  • any recent bouts of cold or flu
  • whether they smoke
  • exposure to secondhand smoke, dust, fumes, or air pollution

The doctor may also:

  • take a sputum swab to test for bacteria or viruses in the lab
  • check the oxygen levels in the person’s blood
  • recommend a chest X-ray, pulmonary lung function test, or blood tests

Complications

Pneumonia is the most common complication of bronchitis. This may occur when the infection spreads further into the lungs. In a person with pneumonia, fluid fills the air sacs inside the lungs.

Older adults, smokers, people with other medical problems and those with a compromised immune system are more likely to develop pneumonia. It can be life threatening and requires medical care.

Learn more here about pneumonia.

When to see a doctor

Many bronchitis patients will recover with rest, anti-inflammatory drugs and plenty of fluids at home.

However, a person should see a doctor if they have the following:

  • a cough that lasts more than 3 weeks
  • a fever that lasts 3 days or longer
  • blood in their mucus
  • rapid breathing, chest pains, or both
  • drowsiness or confusion
  • recurring or worsening symptoms

Whoever has an existing lung or heart condition should see a doctor if they begin to have bronchitis symptoms.

Prevention

Preventing acute or chronic bronchitis isn’t always possible, but several things can reduce the risk.

These include:

  • avoiding or quit smoking
  • avoiding lung irritants, such as smoke, dust, fumes, vapors, and air pollution
  • wearing a mask to cover the nose and mouth when pollution levels are high
  • washing the hands often to limit exposure to germs and bacteria
  • asking about vaccinations to protect from pneumonia and the flu

Find out more about the flu and how to prevent it.

Outlook

Acute bronchitis is a common condition. It can be uncomfortable, but usually within a few days it will resolve on its own.

Chronic bronchitis is a permanent condition. If a person smokes, and continues to smoke, symptoms, emphysema, and COPD may worsen. All of these can be life threatening conditions.

Anyone who has concerns about potential bronchitis symptoms should see a physician.

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