Bronchitis: Symptoms and Treatment

A pharmacist explains how to identify and treat acute and chronic bronchitis.

A mature businessman with a severe coughing fit.
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Bronchitis is a condition in which the bronchial tubes are inflamed. These tubes carry air to the lungs. When the tubes become inflamed or infected, they produce a lot of mucus, which is a slimy substance made by the bronchial tubes. The main symptom of bronchitis is persistent coughing – the body's attempt to get rid of excess mucus. Forceful coughing can be painful, and excess mucus can make it difficult to breathe. Other bronchitis symptoms include a low-grade fever, shortness of breath and wheezing.

There are two types of bronchitis: acute (short term) and chronic (long term). In both types, irritated membranes swell and grow thicker. This swelling shuts off the tiny airways in the lungs. Acute bronchitis is often the result of infections or exposure to irritants. Cigarette smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis, which is sometimes called a "smoker's cough."

[See: Pharmacists' Top Recommended Cough Suppressants]

A single acute episode is not a cause for concern. However, repeated episodes may lead to chronic bronchitis. A person with chronic bronchitis has scarred lungs, and this scarring cannot be reversed. Lung damage makes it difficult to breath and increases the risk for infections. Elderly and those with weakened immune systems have the greatest risk for developing bronchitis.

Signs and Symptoms of Acute Bronchitis

Approximately 90 percent of cases are caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold and the flu. The main symptom is a persistent cough, which often makes it difficult to sleep.

Lung irritants can also cause acute bronchitis. Common lung irritants include tobacco smoke, air pollution, dust and fumes.

Most cases improve within 10 days, but coughing may linger for several weeks.

Acute bronchitis is contagious.

Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis doesn't appear suddenly. It usually begins with a simple cough. Over time, symptoms worsen until the person has difficulty breathing.

Airways are constantly inflamed and irritated.

Excess mucus is produced constantly. A person may cough up more than an ounce of mucus each day.

The cough is often worse in the morning and in damp, cold weather. Persistent coughing makes it difficult to sleep.

[See: Pharmacists' Top Recommended Sleep Aids.]

Left untreated, chronic bronchitis can be life-threatening.

Chronic bronchitis is not contagious.

How Is bronchitis treated?

The main treatment goal is to relieve symptoms. Along with standard treatment, some patients use natural and home remedies. Certain foods seem to reduce symptoms. These include honey, lemon, ginger, bay leaf and almonds. Patients should discuss natural remedies with their doctor before using them.

[See: Pharmacists' Top Recommended Herbal Supplement Brands.]

Treatment for acute bronchitis includes rest and fluids. Aspirin or a similar agent is used to treat fever. A humidifier or steam can also help. Your doctor may prescribe medications to open your airways and reduce wheezing and inflammation. A cough syrup may also be prescribed. Antibiotics are not used to treat acute bronchitis, since they don't work against viruses. If your doctor thinks you have a bacterial infection, he or she may order an X-ray and other tests. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections.

Treatment for chronic bronchitis is to eliminate sources of irritation. Because the lungs have been damaged, chronic bronchitis never completely goes away, and flare-ups may occur. Medications are generally needed. These include inhaled agents that open your airways. Steroids are used to reduce inflammation, and in severe cases, oxygen therapy may be needed. Oxygen is supplied in a metal cylinder and flows through a tube and into the nose. Pulmonary rehabilitation may also be prescribed. Rehabilitation teaches patients to breathe more easily.

Can I do anything to lessen my symptoms?

Chronic bronchitis can be prevented by not smoking. Patients should avoid secondhand smoke and other lung irritants. People with shortness of breath should breathe using the technique of pursed-lip breathing. Pursed-lip breathing helps reduce shortness of breath. These are the five steps for pursed-lip breathing: