Your bronchial tubes, which carry air to your lungs, can get infected and swollen. This is called bronchitis. When you've got it, you probably have a bad cough, lots of mucus, and maybe some general cold symptoms like body aches or chills.
In some cases, you might get medicine from your doctor. Since most bronchitis is caused by viruses that do not respond to antibiotics, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter medications to treat your symptoms. But more often you'll just have to ride it out. As you do that, some good old-fashioned self-care can help you feel better.
How to Ease Your Symptoms
There are two types of bronchitis -- “acute” and “chronic.” Acute bronchitis is more common and usually goes away on its own within a few weeks. Chronic bronchitis keeps coming back or doesn't go away at all. It is almost always caused by smoking.
With either type, the best approach is to avoid things that irritate your lungs:
- If you smoke, the most important thing you can do is stop. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about what might work best for you.
- Avoid dust, chemical fumes, smoke from other people, and anything else that can bother your lungs. If you can't avoid these things, try wearing a mask.
- Wear a mask if cold air triggers your cough or makes you short of breath.
- if you have seasonal allergies, take an antihistamine when your allergies are bad.
Steam is also helpful, since it can loosen up all that mucus. You also might want to:
- Breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water.
- Take a hot shower.
- Use Vicks VapoRub on your chest.
- Use a humidifier. (Make sure to clean it as directed so bacteria and fungi don't grow inside it.)
Relief for Acute Bronchitis
You can start with these basic steps:
- Drink lots of fluids, especially water. Try eight to 12 glasses a day to help thin out that mucus and make it easier to cough up. If you have kidney failure or heart failure, your doctor may be restricting your fluids. Talk to them first before drinking extra water.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Use over-the-counter pain relievers with ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin to help with pain. (Don't give aspirin to children.) Read warning labels and talk to your doctor before you take these if you have peptic ulcers or kidney disease. You can use acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help with pain and fever.
For your cough: It's best to stay away from cough medicine unless your cough keeps you awake at night. Your cough helps clear that gunk out of your lungs. When it comes to kids, avoid cough medicine for those under 4 years old and check with your doctor about giving it to older children.
Instead of cough medicine, you can:
- Take throat lozenges that don't have medicine in them. (Avoid these with young children as they could cause choking.)
- Try a mixture of honey and lemon or a spoonful of honey. (Don't give honey to children under 1 year old).
- Try guaifenesin over the counter (it comes as a pill or liquid) you are having trouble getting the phlegm out.
Relief for Chronic Bronchitis
Chronic bronchitis is long-term inflammation of the bronchi and is common among smokers. In addition to quitting smoking, you can get relief by making some lifestyle changes, focus on your breathing, and do your best not to get colds or the flu. Some things to think about and do:
- Diet: Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You can also eat meats low in fat, chicken, fish, and low-fat or nonfat dairy.
- Exercise: Along with a good diet, exercise will keep your weight in check. This is a big deal, because more weight makes it harder to breathe. Also, the muscles you use for breathing get stronger when you exercise. You can start with a slow, 15-minute walk three times a week, then do a little more at a time. Your doctor can help you come up with a plan that works for you.
- Pursed-lip breathing: This can help slow down the fast breathing that sometimes comes with chronic bronchitis. First, take a deep breath in. Then, purse your lips like you're about to kiss someone and breathe out slowly through your mouth. This type of breathing props your airways open and may make it easier for you to clear out thick mucus with a good cough.
- Try to avoid colds and flu: Do your best to keep your distance from people who have a cold or the flu, and wash your hands often. Get an annual flu shot.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call your doctor if your cough:
- Turns up mucus that's yellow or green
- Keeps you awake at night
- Lasts more than 3 weeks
- Produces blood
You'll also want to call your doctor if you have a cough and:
- A foul-tasting fluid in our mouth -- this could be reflux
- Fever over 100.4 F
- Wheezing or shortness of breath
If you have chronic bronchitis, your cough will go on for months. It's best to check in with your doctor regularly.
You may also have times where your symptoms get worse. If you have chronic bronchitis, you can still get acute bronchitis with worsening cough and mucus. You'll want to see your doctor then, too, to see if you need an antibiotic.