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What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is a type of infection that affects your lungs. It causes inflammation in the lining of your bronchial tubes - these are the large airway tubes that carry air from your trachea (windpipe) into your lungs. Bronchitis is most often caused by viruses, usually the same ones that cause a cold or the flu, although sometimes bacteria are to blame.

Some people are more prone to getting bronchitis than others.

People at higher risk include those who:

  • Smoke
  • Have a weak immune system
  • Have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Work around airborne irritants such as chemical fumes or dust
  • Live in cities or areas with high amounts of air pollution
  • Are not vaccinated against the flu (the flu can lead to bronchitis).

What are the symptoms of bronchitis?

Symptoms of bronchitis can vary from mild to severe but usually include:

  • A nagging productive cough that persists for several days to weeks
  • Increased mucus production from the lungs. This is thicker than normal and may be discolored (yellowish-grey, green, rarely blood-streaked)
  • Fatigue
  • Chest tightness or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath.

Bronchitis is not usually accompanied by a fever. If you have a fever, you may have pneumonia or the flu instead. Bronchitis can develop into pneumonia in some people.

Bronchitis may be described as acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis usually follows a cold or the flu and symptoms usually get better within a week although you may be left with a cough that lingers for several weeks. If your cough lasts for at least three months and you get recurring bouts of bronchitis over a period of two years it is referred to as chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is often due to smoking and is one of the conditions included in the diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

How is bronchitis diagnosed?

See a doctor if your cough lasts more than three weeks, is accompanied by a fever, is blood-tinged, or associated with wheezing or shortness of breath.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and listen to your lungs as you breathe with a stethoscope. A chest X-ray, sputum tests, or pulmonary function tests may also be conducted to help with the diagnosis.

How is bronchitis treated?

Bronchitis is most often caused by viruses, so antibiotics will not help treat the condition. Most cases of acute bronchitis get better by themselves without treatment within a couple of weeks.

Cough medications may help with sleep at night and people with other conditions (such as asthma or COPD) may benefit from bronchodilators and corticosteroids to open up their airways and reduce inflammation.

People with chronic bronchitis may benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation – this is where a respiratory therapist teaches you exercises to help you breathe more easily and increase your ability to partake in physical activity.

Nonpharmacological treatments can also help you feel better, such as:

  • Warm lemon and honey drinks
  • Humidifiers – these produce warm moist air which loosens mucus in the airway allowing you to cough it up easier
  • Wearing a mask or a buff over your mouth outside if you are exposed to cold air, smoke, fumes, or other pollutants.