Bronchitis is one of the most common illnesses out there, affecting more than three million people each year in the US.
It is often undiagnosed and untreated. Bronchitis is the swelling of the bronchial tubes. These are the tubes that allow air to flow through the lungs. Bronchitis itself is not an infection; it is the body's immune response to viruses, bacteria, or lung irritants. As the body fights germs or irritants, the bronchial tubes swell and produce more mucus. This swelling narrows the openings for air to flow through and makes it harder to breathe. Ninety percent of cases are caused by viruses – the same viruses that cause influenza and the common cold. Rarely, bronchitis is caused by bacteria. Bronchitis is often called a chest cold, while the primary infection may be called a head cold. Coughing is the body's natural response to clear mucus from the lungs. Therefore, a hacking, persistent cough that produces mucus is the most predominant indicator of both acute and chronic bronchitis.
Acute vs Chronic Bronchitis
Acute bronchitis is a sudden inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which causes no permanent damage and typically goes away on its own without treatment. In contrast, chronic bronchitis is a long-term and incurable condition caused by prolonged exposure to lung irritants. By far, the most common cause of chronic bronchitis is smoking. Other causes are long-term exposure to paint and chemical fumes, second-hand cigarette smoke, air pollution, coal and dust.
Questions and Answers
You may have a few questions outstanding about bronchitis. The following are some common basic questions with simple answers. Remember to speak to your doctor for full details about any facet of bronchitis.
Q: What are the symptoms of bronchitis?
A: Common symptoms include:
- Persistent cough
- Increased mucus
- Chest or rib soreness while coughing
- Chest congestion or tightness
- Low grade fever
- Runny nose
- Wheezing or whistling sound when breathing
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Sore throat
Q: Can bronchitis be prevented?
A: Not entirely. It's widespread and contagious. But here are several measures that can help:
- Since the influenza virus can also cause bronchitis, a yearly flu shot reduces the chance of getting bronchitis.
- Keeping a distance from anyone with cold or flu symptoms will minimize risk.
- Frequent hand washing can keep viruses from spreading.
- Don't smoke, and avoid inhaling second-hand smoke.
- Wear a mask around lung irritants, such as paint and chemicals.
Q: When is it necessary to call a doctor?
A: No treatment is necessary other than symptom management for bronchitis caused by a virus. The condition will usually resolve on its own in a few days or weeks. However, bronchitis can develop into pneumonia. Consult a doctor if any of these symptoms are present:
- Fever of 100.4 degrees or more
- Cough persisting for more than three weeks
- Cough producing blood or dark-colored mucus
- Wheezing or shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Q: How long does bronchitis last?
A: Acute bronchitis is a short-term condition lasting a week to ten days. However, coughing may endure for several weeks while the bronchial tubes heal and the swelling decreases. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term incurable illness. An individual who has bronchitis symptoms for three months out of a year for two consecutive years may be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis.
Q: Who is most at risk of developing bronchitis?
A: Smokers, asthma and allergy sufferers, individuals with weakened immune systems, the elderly, young children and those with a family history of lung disease.
Q: How can bronchitis be treated at home?
A: Here are a few tips to help manage symptoms:
- Drink 8-12 glasses of water a day to thin mucus and make it easier to cough.
- Use over-the-counter pain relievers to assist with symptoms.
- Don’t overuse cough medicine. Coughing is the body’s way to clear mucus from the lungs.
- Use a humidifier.
- Get a lot of rest.