Bronchitis: Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors

When the bronchial tubes (the tubes that carry air to your lungs) get swollen and inflamed, bronchitis develops. The condition can also cause mucus and nagging coughs.

There are two types of bronchitis:

  • Acute bronchitis – this kind is considered more common. While symptoms can last for a few weeks, it often does not cause any issues past that time.
  • Chronic bronchitis – this type is more serious. It either keeps coming back or does not really go away.

Symptoms of acute and chronic bronchitis include:

  • Chest congestion (chest feels clogged or full)
  • Cough that may bring mucus (white, clear, yellow, or green)
  • Whistling or wheezing sound (when you breathe)
  • Shortness of breath

Acute bronchitis symptoms include:

  • Low fever
  • Chills and body aches
  • Stuffy and runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Feeling wiped out

Typically, even if the other symptoms of bronchitis are gone, the cough will often last for a few weeks while the bronchial tubes heal. If it lasts longer, the problem might be caused by something else.

With chronic bronchitis, cough can last for as long as 3 months. It is also possible for it to come back at least 2 years in a row.

In most cases, the same viruses that can cause flu or cold may cause acute bronchitis. In some instances, however, it is caused by bacteria. Either way, when the body fights the germs, the bronchial tubes make more mucus and swell. This causes the narrowing of the openings where the air can flow, making it hard for patients to breath.

Chronic bronchitis can also be attributed to the following:

  • Secondhand smoke or smoking
  • Breathing in polluted air (dust, chemical fumes, etc.)

Your chance of getting bronchitis is higher if:

  • You have allergies
  • You have asthma
  • You smoke
  • You have a weak immune system
  • You have a family history of lung disease
  • You are a female smoker (females that smoke are more at risk than males)

While a single episode of bronchitis is often not a cause of concern, it might lead to pneumonia in some people. Repeated bouts may mean the individual has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

During the first few days, it can be difficult to differentiate the signs and symptoms from the common cold. During the physical examination, the doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to the lungs as the patient breathes.

When needed, the following tests may be recommended:

  • Sputum tests. This is done to test if there are illnesses that can be remedied by antibiotics. The sputum test can also be used to check for signs of allergies.
  • Chest X-ray. A chest X-ray can determine if there is pneumonia or other conditions that can explain the cough. This is especially important for smokers.
  • Pulmonary function test. During a pulmonary function test, the patient will be asked to blow into a spirometer. It measures how much air the lung can hold and how it can quickly get out of the lungs. The test checks for signs of emphysema or asthma.

Pay your doctor a visit if your cough:

  • Brings up mucus or blood
  • Causes chest pain
  • Keeps you up at night
  • Lasts more than 3 weeks
  • Has a barking sound
  • Makes speaking difficult
  • Comes with unexplained weight loss
  • Fever over 100.4 F
  • Causes shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Leaves a foul-tasting fluid

For people 75 years old or older with ongoing cough, check with your doctor right away. Your doctor might need to check if you have a flare-up of chronic bronchitis or COPD.

In most cases, acute bronchitis will go away on its own in a couple of weeks. If the condition is caused by bacteria (although rare), antibiotics may be given. If the patient has allergies, asthma, or wheezing, an inhaler may be recommended to open up the airways.

To ease the symptoms of acute bronchitis, you can:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Take over-the-counter pain relieves
  • Use a steam or humidifier
  • Take over-the-counter cough medications

The following treatment options may be recommended to those with chronic bronchitis

  • Medications
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Mucus-clearing device
  • Exercise program
  • Pulmonary rehab

To lower your chances of chronic or acute bronchitis, keep in mind the following:

  • Stay away from cigarette smoke
  • Get the flu vaccine
  • Wash hands often
  • Wear a mask when around things that can irritate the lungs such as paint or perfumes

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