Bronchitis is an inflammation or swelling of the bronchial tubes (bronchi), the air passages between the mouth and nose and the lungs.

More specifically, bronchitis describes a condition where the lining of the bronchial tubes becomes inflamed.

Individuals with bronchitis have a reduced ability to breathe air and oxygen into their lungs; also, they cannot clear heavy mucus or phlegm from their airways.

Fast facts about bronchitis

Bronchitis can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and other particles that irritate the bronchial tubes
Acute bronchitis is a short-term illness that often follows a cold or viral infection
Chronic bronchitis is a long-term illness and can be the result of environmental factors or extended illness
Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis
Chest X-ray, lung function testing, and blood testing are used to diagnose bronchitis

Signs and symptoms of both acute and chronic bronchitis include:

Blocked nose and sinuses

Body aches

Breathlessness

Chest tightening

Headaches

Low fever and chills

Persistent cough, which may produce mucus

Sore throat
Wheezing

One of the main symptoms of acute bronchitis is a cough that lasts for several weeks. It can sometimes last for several months if the bronchial tubes take a long time to heal fully.

It is common for the symptoms of chronic bronchitis to get worse two or more times every year, and they are often worse during the winter months.

However, a cough that refuses to go away could also be a sign of another illness such as asthma or pneumonia.

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is a shorter illness that commonly follows a cold or viral infection, such as the flu. It consists of a cough with mucus, chest discomfort or soreness, fever, and, sometimes, shortness of breath. Acute bronchitis usually lasts a few days or weeks.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a serious, ongoing illness characterized by a persistent, mucus-producing cough that lasts longer than 3 months out of the year for more than 2 years. People with chronic bronchitis have varying degrees of breathing difficulties, and symptoms may get better and worse during different parts of the year.

If chronic bronchitis occurs with emphysema, it may become chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Treatments for bronchitis

Taking cough medicine can help to treat the symptoms of bronchitis.

People suffering from bronchitis are usually instructed to rest, drink fluids, breath warm and moist air, and take OTC cough suppressants and pain relievers to manage symptoms and ease breathing.

Many cases of acute bronchitis go away without any specific treatment, but there is no cure for chronic bronchitis. To keep bronchitis symptoms under control and relieve symptoms, doctors might prescribe:

Cough medicine – although coughing should not be completely suppressed as this is an important way to bring up mucus and remove irritants from the lungs.

Bronchodilators – these open the bronchial tubes and clear out mucus.

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

Anti-inflammatory medicines and glucocorticoid steroids – these are for more persistent symptoms to help decrease chronic inflammation that may cause tissue damage.

Oxygen therapy – this helps improve oxygen intake when breathing is difficult.

Pulmonary rehabilitation program – this includes work with a respiratory therapist to help improve breathing.

Antibiotics – these are effective for bacterial infections, but not for viral infections. They may also prevent secondary infections.

Causes of bronchitis

Bronchitis is caused by the inflammation of the bronchial tubes, by viruses, bacteria, or other irritant particles.

Causes of acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is normally caused by viruses, typically those that also cause colds and flu.

It can also be caused by bacterial infection and exposure to substances that irritate the lungs, such as tobacco smoke, dust, fumes, vapors, and air pollution.

Causes of chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is caused by repeated irritation and damage to the lung and airway tissue.

Smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis, with other causes including long-term exposure to air pollution, dust, and fumes from the environment, and repeated episodes of acute bronchitis.

Diagnosis of bronchitis

The doctor will ask about the symptoms and in particular the cough.

They may also ask about the patient’s medical history, whether they have recently suffered from a cold or flu, whether they smoke, or whether they have been exposed to substances such as dust, fumes, vapors, or air pollution.

A doctor will usually use a stethoscope to listen for any abnormal sounds in the lungs. They may also examine mucus or test the oxygen levels in the blood and may recommend a chest X-ray, pulmonary lung function test, or blood tests.

Complications of bronchitis

The most common complication of bronchitis is pneumonia; this occurs when the infection spreads deeper into the lungs. This infection causes the air sacs within the lungs (alveoli) to fill with fluid.

Pneumonia is more likely to develop in older adults, smokers, people with diseases in other organs, and anyone with a reduced immune system.

Most cases of bronchitis can be treated at home with rest, anti-inflammatory medication, and plenty of fluids. However, in some cases, it is important to see a doctor. The following are signs that a visit to the doctor is in order:

Cough lasts more than 3 weeks.
Constant fever lasting 3 days or more.
If coughed up mucus includes blood.
Anyone with an existing lung or heart condition.
Rapid breathing and/or chest pains.
Becoming drowsy or confused.
If bronchitis is recurring

Acute bronchitis is a common condition. Although it can be uncomfortable, in most cases, it will resolve on its own.

If it is not improving, or any of the signs above are present, it is important to see a doctor who may be able to prescribe medications.

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