Bronchitis is an inflammation or swelling of the bronchial tubes (bronchi), the air passages between the nose and the lungs.
More specifically, bronchitis describes a condition where the lining of the bronchial tubes becomes inflamed or infected. People with bronchitis have a reduced ability to breathe in air and oxygen into their lungs; they also have heavy mucus or phlegm forming in their airways.
What is bronchitis?
Bronchitis may be acute or chronic:
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 is a serious, ongoing illness characterized by a persistent, mucus-producing cough that lasts longer than three months. 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).
What causes 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.
Chronic bronchitis is caused by repeated irritation and damage of the lung and airway tissue. Smoking is the most common causes 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.
Signs and symptoms of bronchitis
- Persistent cough, which may produce mucus
- Low fever and chills
- Chest tightening
- Sore throat
- Body aches
- Blocked nose and sinuses
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 fully heal.
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.
Treatment and prevention of bronchitis
People suffering from bronchitis are usually instructed to rest, drink fluids, breath warm and moist air and take over-the-counter cough suppressants and pain relievers in order to manage symptoms and ease breathing. Many cases of acute bronchitis may go away without any specific treatment, but there is no cure for chronic bronchitis.
To keep bronchitis symptoms under control and relieve symptoms, doctors may prescribe:
- Antibiotics – these are effective for bacterial infections, but not for viral infections. They may also prevent secondary infections
- 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.
Additional behavioral remedies include:
- Removing the source of irritation to the lungs – for example, by stopping smoking
- Using a humidifier – this can loosen mucus and relieve limited airflow and wheezing
- Exercise – this will strengthen the muscles involved in breathing
- Breathing exercises – for example, pursed-lip breathing that helps to slow breathing down.
Although you cannot always prevent acute bronchitis or chronic bronchitis there are several measures that can be taken to reduce your risk of both conditions:
- Do not start smoking; quit smoking if you already smoke
- Avoid lung irritants, such as smoke, dust, fumes, vapors and air pollution. If you cannot avoid exposure to these, wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth
- Wash your hands often, to limit your exposure to germs and bacteria
- Get a yearly flu vaccine
- Get a pneumonia vaccine