What Is Bronchitis?

A cold or the flu runs its course in a couple weeks, if you’re lucky. After that, you’re back to normal. But sometimes you may get bronchitis, too.

That’s when your bronchial tubes, which carry air to your lungs, get infected and swollen. You end up with a nagging cough and a lot more mucus.

You can get bronchitis in other ways, too, and there are actually two types of it:

  • Acute bronchitis: This is the more common one. Symptoms last for a few weeks, but it doesn’t usually cause any problems past that.
  • Chronic bronchitis: This one is more serious, in that it keeps coming back or doesn’t go away at all. It’s one of the conditions that makes up what's called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

This article focuses on acute bronchitis.

What Causes It?

Most often, the same viruses that give you a cold or the flu also cause bronchitis. Sometimes, though, bacteria are to blame.

In both cases, as your body fights off the germs, your bronchial tubes swell and make more mucus. That means you have smaller openings for air to flow, which can make it harder to breathe.

If any of these things describe your situation, you have a bigger chance of getting bronchitis:

  • You have a weaker immune system. This is sometimes the case for older adults and people with ongoing diseases, as well as for babies and young children. Even a cold can make it more likely since your body’s already busy fighting off those germs.
  • You smoke or live with a smoker.
  • You have heartburn (also called gastric reflux or GERD), which can cause stomach acids to get into your bronchial tubes.
  • You work around substances that bother your lungs, such as chemical fumes or dust. (Examples: coal mining, working around farm animals).

What Are the Symptoms?

You may have various problems with breathing, such as:

  • Chest congestion, where your chest feels full or clogged
  • A cough that may bring up a lot of mucus that’s clear, white, yellow, or green
  • Shortness of breath
  • A wheezing or a whistling sound when you breathe

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You may also have some of the typical cold or flu symptoms such as body aches and chills. You might also:

Even after the other symptoms are gone, the cough can last for a few weeks while your bronchial tubes heal and the swelling goes down. If it goes on much longer than that, the problem might be something else.

When Should I Call My Doctor?

Call your doctor if your cough:

  • Brings up blood or mucus that thickens or darkens
  • Keeps you awake at night
  • Lasts more than 3 weeks
  • Has a barking sound and makes it hard to speak
  • Comes along with unexplained weight loss

You’ll also want to call your doctor if you have a cough and you have:

  • A foul-tasting fluid in your mouth (could be reflux)
  • Fever over 100.4 F
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath

If you are 75 or older and you have an ongoing cough, you should call your doctor to figure out whether a visit is needed.

Bronchitis can lead to pneumonia, though this is rare. Usually, it doesn’t cause any other problems.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your doctor usually can tell whether you have bronchitis based on a physical exam and your symptoms.She’ll ask questions about your cough, such as how long you’ve had it and what kind of mucus comes up with it. She’ll also listen to your lungs to see whether anything sounds wrong, like wheezing.

That’s usually it, but in some cases, your doctor may:

  • Check the oxygen levels in your blood. This is done with a sensor that goes on your toe or finger.
  • Do a lung function test. You’ll breathe into a device called a spirometer to test for emphysema (a type of COPD in which air sacs in your lungs thin out and are destroyed) and asthma.
  • Give you a chest X-ray. This is to check for pneumonia or another illness that could cause your cough
  • Order blood tests.
  • Test your mucus to rule out diseases caused by bacteria. One of these is whooping cough, which is also called pertussis. It causes violent coughing that makes it hard to breathe.

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What Are the Treatments?

Most of the time, bronchitis goes away on its own within a couple of weeks.

If yours is caused by bacteria (which is rare), your doctor may give you antibiotics.

If you have asthma, allergies, or you’re wheezing, she might suggest an inhaler. This helps open up your airways and makes it easier to breathe.

It’s best to avoid cough medicine unless your cough keeps you awake at night. Bringing up mucus is a good thing; you're clearing the gunk out of your lungs. Avoid giving cough medicine to kids younger than 4 years. For children 4 and older, check with your doctor first.

To ease your symptoms, you can:

  • Drink a lot of water. Eight to 12 glasses a day helps thin out your mucus and makes it easier to cough it up.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers. Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin help with pain. But avoid giving aspirin to children. You can use acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help with both pain and fever.
  • Use a humidifier or try steam. A hot shower can be great for loosening up the mucus.

Can It Be Prevented?

Here are some ways to lower your chances of getting bronchitis:

  • Avoid cigarette smoke.
  • Get the flu vaccine, since you might get bronchitis from the flu virus.
  • Get the pneumonia vaccine, especially if you’re 60 or older.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Wear a mask when you’re around things that bother your lungs, such as paint fumes.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 16, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Bronchitis.”

FamilyDoctor.org: “Acute Bronchitis.”

American Lung Association: “What Is COPD?,” “Acute Bronchitis Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors,” “Diagnosing and Treating Acute Bronchitis,” “Managing and Preventing Acute Bronchitis,” “Emphysema.”

Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School: “Acute Bronchitis.”

CDC: “Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work.”

NHS: “Bronchitis.”

PubMed: “Bronchitis.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Pertussis.”

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