When a Cold Becomes Bronchitis

When you catch a cold, does it often turn into bronchitis, which is sometimes called a chest cold? It's important to recognize what's normal and to know when something more serious is going on. Here's what you must know when that nasty cold turns into bronchitis.

Should I Call the Doctor About a Cough?

A cough is a common cold symptom. It's the body's way of getting rid of phlegm or mucus. But if a cough persists after the cold is gone, contact your doctor.

It is helpful to tell your doctor how long you've had the cough. You also should tell the doctor whether any activities or exposures seem to make it worse, if you notice any other different or unusual feelings, and if you cough up mucus.

If you are coughing up thick green or yellow phlegm, or if you are wheezing, running a fever higher than 101 F, having night sweats, or coughing up blood, you need to see a doctor. These may be signs of a more serious illness that needs to be diagnosed and treated.

A persistent cough may be a sign of asthma. Sometimes this condition is called "cough-variant asthma." Triggers for cough-variant asthma include respiratory infections like a cold or flu, dust, cold air, exercise or allergens. Asthma may be responsible for up to 25% of all chronic coughs. Until an asthma attack occurs, you may not realize that your lungs are involved.

What Is Bronchitis or Chest Cold?

Bronchitis -- sometimes referred to as a chest cold -- occurs when the airways in your lungs are inflamed and make too much mucus. There are two basic types of bronchitis:

  • Acute bronchitis is more common and usually is caused by a viral infection. Acute bronchitis may also be called a chest cold. Episodes of acute bronchitis can be related to and made worse by smoking. This type of bronchitis is often described as being worse than a regular cold but not as bad as pneumonia.
  • Chronic bronchitis is a cough that persists for two to three months each year for at least two years. Smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis.

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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
  • A fever

Should I Call the Doctor About Bronchitis?

See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

  • A cough that lasts more than two to three weeks
  • A fever
  • A cough that produces blood or thick or colored mucous
  • Any shortness of breath or wheezing

Can I Treat Bronchitis at Home?

If you have bronchitis you should:

  • Drink fluids every one to two hours unless your doctor has restricted your fluid intake
  • Rest
  • Don't smoke
  • Relieve body aches by taking aspirin or acetaminophen. (If you are taking any other drugs, talk to your doctor to make sure aspirin or acetaminophen doesn't interfere with them. Children should NOT take aspirin. Also, the consumer healthcare products association (CHPA) manufacturers has stated that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be given to children under 4.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions on ways to help clear your mucus.
  • If you are coughing up mucus, note how often you cough as well as the color and amount of the mucus. Report this to your doctor.

If you have a dry cough and cough up little to no mucus, your doctor may prescribe a cough medicine to suppress your cough. He or she may also prescribe an expectorant to help loosen mucus so it can be more easily coughed up.

Because viruses cause most cases of bronchitis, antibiotics will not usually be useful or necessary. Exceptions would be bronchitis caused by a bacterial infection or bronchitis in a person who has impaired lung function.

How Can I Avoid Getting Bronchitis?

  • Don't smoke.
  • Don't allow others to smoke in your home.
  • Stay away from or reduce your time around things that irritate your nose, throat, and lungs, such as dust or pets.
  • If you catch a cold, get plenty of rest.
  • Take your medicine exactly the way your doctor tells you.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Do not share food, cups, glasses, or eating utensils.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 18, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:
American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP): "Chronic Cough: Causes and Cures."
CDC: "Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work."

CDC: "Revised Product Labels for Pediatric Over-the-Counter Cough and Cold Medicines"
AAFP: "Acute Bronchitis."
WebMD: "Kids' Cold Medicines: New Guidelines."

Mayo Clinic: Diseases and Conditions: Bronchitis 

Harvard Medical School: "That Nagging Cough," Sept 2010

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