Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the airways that carry air to your lungs. It causes a cough that often brings up mucus. It can also cause shortness of breath, wheezing, a low fever, and chest tightness.
There are two main types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Chronic bronchitis is one type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The inflamed bronchial tubes produce a lot of mucus. This leads to coughing and difficulty breathing. Cigarette smoking is the most common cause.
Breathing in air pollution, fumes, or dust over a long time may also cause it. To diagnose chronic bronchitis, your doctor will look at your signs and symptoms and listen to your breathing. You may also have other tests.
Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition that keeps coming back or never goes away completely. If you smoke, it is important to quit. Treatment can help with your symptoms. It often includes medicines to open your airways and help clear away mucus. You may also need oxygen therapy. Pulmonary rehabilitation may help you manage better in daily life.
Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. If it is acute, it happens once, and then a person recovers. If it is chronic, it never goes away, and a person lives with it constantly, although it may get better and worse at times.
Signs and symptoms of both acute and chronic bronchitis include:
- A persistent cough, which may produce mucus
- Low fever and chills
- A feeling of tightness in the chest
- A sore throat
- Body aches
- A blocked nose and sinuses
A person with bronchitis may have a cough that lasts for several weeks or even a few months if the bronchial tubes take a long time to heal fully.
The symptoms of chronic bronchitis can flare up regularly. For many people, this happens during the winter months.
However, bronchitis is not the only condition that causes a cough. A cough that refuses to go away may be a sign of asthma, pneumonia, or many other conditions. Anyone with a persistent cough should see a doctor for a diagnosis.
Acute bronchitis symptoms
Acute bronchitis lasts for a specific length of time. It commonly follows a similar pattern to a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu, and it may stem from the same virus.
The person may have:
- Cough with or without mucus
- Chest discomfort or soreness
- A mild headache and body aches
- Shortness of breath
Symptoms usually go away after a few days or weeks.
Chronic bronchitis symptoms
Chronic bronchitis has similar symptoms to acute bronchitis, but it is an ongoing illness.
One definition states that a person has chronic bronchitis if they have a daily, productive cough for at least 3 months of the year, 2 or more years in a row.
The National Library of Medicine describes it as a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in which the bronchial tubes produce a lot of mucus. It either does not go away, or it goes away and keeps coming back.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that a person who develops emphysema alongside chronic bronchitis will receive a diagnosis of COPD. This is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition.
Bronchitis happens when a virus, bacteria, or irritant particles trigger an inflammation of the bronchial tubes. Smoking is a key risk factor, but nonsmokers can also develop 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 results from repeated irritation and damage to the lung and airway tissues. The most common cause is smoking, 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 have a higher risk of both types of the disease. The best way to avoid chronic bronchitis is to avoid smoking.
Bronchitis Risk factors
Factors that increase your risk of acute bronchitis include:
- Breathing in cigarette smoke, including secondhand smoke
- Low resistance to illnesses or a weakened immune system
- Gastric reflux
- Frequent exposure to irritants, including dust or chemical fumes
- Lack of vaccinations for the flu, pneumonia, and whooping cough
- Age older than 50 years
A doctor may advise a person with bronchitis to:
- Drink fluids
- Take over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as ibuprofen
Taking OTC medication will help relieve a cough and ease any accompanying pain. In time, acute bronchitis will go away, often without treatment.
The symptoms of chronic bronchitis may resolve or improve for a while. However, they will come back or become worse again, especially if there is exposure to smoke or other triggers.
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.
Cough medicine is available for purchase online.
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.
Which home remedy is best for bronchitis?
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 to breathe
- Improving breathing technique through pulmonary rehabilitation
Doing breathing exercises, such as pursed-lip breathing, can help slow down breathing, and make it more effective.
Should people exercise when they have bronchitis?
If acute bronchitis results from a bacterial infection, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Taking antibiotics may also help prevent a secondary infection, in some cases.
These drugs are not suitable for a person with a virus, however.
Most doctors will not prescribe antibiotics unless they have identified bacteria as the cause of an illness. One of the reasons for this is concern about antibiotic resistance, as the overuse of antibiotics makes it harder to treat an infection in the long term.
Find out more about antibiotics, their uses, and the problem of antibiotic resistance.
A doctor will carry out a physical examination, using a stethoscope to listen for unusual sounds in the lungs.
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
The most common complication of bronchitis is pneumonia. This can happen if the infection spreads further into the lungs. In a person with pneumonia, the air sacs within the lungs fill with fluid.
Pneumonia is more likely to develop in older adults, smokers, those with other medical conditions, and anyone with a weakened immune system. It can be life-threatening and needs medical attention.
Learn more here about pneumonia.
When to see a doctor
Most people with bronchitis can recover at home with rest, anti-inflammatory medication, and plenty of fluids.
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
Anyone with an existing lung or heart condition should see a doctor if they start to have symptoms of bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis is a common condition. It can be uncomfortable, but it will usually resolve on its own within a few days.
Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing condition. If a person smokes and continues to smoke, they may develop worsening symptoms, emphysema, and COPD. All these conditions can be life-threatening.
Frequently Asked Questions about Bronchitis
What is bronchitis?
Bronchitis occurs when the bronchioles (air-carrying tubes in the lungs) are inflamed and make too much mucus. There are two basic types of bronchitis:
- Chronic bronchitis is defined as cough productive of sputum that persists for three months out of the year for at least two consecutive years. The cough and inflammation may be caused by initial respiratory infection or illness, exposure to tobacco smoke or other irritating substances in the air. Chronic bronchitis can cause airflow obstruction and then is grouped under the term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Acute or short-term bronchitis is more common and usually is caused by a viral infection. Episodes of acute bronchitis can be related to and made worse by smoking. Acute bronchitis could last for 10 to 14 days, possibly causing symptoms for three weeks.
What are the symptoms of bronchitis?
Symptoms of bronchitis include:
- A cough that is frequent and produces mucus.
- A lack of energy.
- A wheezing sound when breathing (may or may not be present).
- A fever (may or may not be present).
- Shortness of breath.
Is bronchitis contagious?
Acute bronchitis can be contagious because it is usually caused by infection with a virus or bacteria. Chronic bronchitis is not likely to be contagious because it is a condition usually caused by long-term irritation of airways.
How long are you contagious if you have acute bronchitis?
If you have begun taking antibiotics for bronchitis, you usually stop being contagious 24 hours after starting the medication. If you have a viral form of bronchitis, antibiotics will not work. You will be contagious for at least a few days and possibly for as long as a week.
How is acute bronchitis spread?
If bronchitis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection, it is spread the same ways that colds are spread—by germs traveling through the air when someone coughs or sneezes. You can breathe the germs if you are close enough. You could also touch something that has germs on it, like a door, and then transfer the germs by touching your nose, mouth or eyes. That is why good handwashing practices are important for adults and children.
How Long Does a Cough Last After Bronchitis?
Acute bronchitis often thrives three to four days after a cold or the flu. It may kick-start with a dry cough, then after a few days, the coughing spells may bring up mucus. Most people get over an acute bout of bronchitis in two to three weeks, although the cough can sometimes hang on for four weeks or more.
Is Bronchitis Viral or Bacterial?
Acute bronchitis is common and is usually caused by a virus. Often a person gets acute bronchitis a few days after having an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold or the flu. Infection with a germ (a bacterial infection) is a less common cause. Sometimes acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria too. Also, as stated above in this blog, dust, fumes, air pollution, and tobacco smoke can cause bronchitis by damaging your lungs, if exposed to them for a longer-term.
What Causes Acute Bronchitis in Adults?
In many instances, a person gets acute bronchitis a few days after having an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold or the flu. Sometimes acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria. This can also be caused by breathing in things that irritate the bronchial tubes, such as smoke.
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