What is bronchitis?
Bronchitis is a condition in which the airways in the lungs, called bronchial tubes, become inflamed and cause coughing, often with mucus. Bronchitis can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).
Acute bronchitis is very common. Viral infections, such as the cold or flu, are usually the cause, and most people recover after a few days or weeks. Occasionally, acute bronchitis can be caused by a bacterial infection.
Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing cough that lasts for several months and comes back 2 or more years in a row. The cough is productive, meaning it brings up mucus. In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the airways is constantly inflamed. This causes the lining to swell and make more mucus, which can make it hard to breathe. Chronic bronchitis is often part of a serious lung disease called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Both chronic bronchitis and COPD are most often caused by cigarette smoking.
Those who are older, have been exposed to fumes or secondhand smoke, have a family history of lung disease, have a history of childhood respiratory diseases, or have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), are also at higher risk of getting chronic bronchitis.
You may be able to prevent bronchitis or lower your chances of getting it again by doing the following:
- Quit smoking if you smoke.
- Avoid fumes, air pollution, or secondhand smoke (cigarette smoke from someone else).
- Get the flu shot every year.
The symptoms are the same for both acute and chronic bronchitis and include:
- Cough with mucus is the most common symptom
- Chest pain
- Low fever
- Shortness of breath
When to see a doctor
Usually, acute bronchitis goes away on its own, without treatment.
See your doctor if your cough does not go away after 2 or 3 weeks, gets worse, or if you have trouble breathing.
To diagnose bronchitis, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your medical history and symptoms. The doctor may also order a blood test to look for signs of infection or a chest X-ray to see if your lungs and bronchial tubes look normal and rule out pneumonia.
Acute bronchitis often goes away on its own without treatment by your doctor. However, you can take steps at home to feel better:
- Use over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that loosen mucus.
- Take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen.
- Drink tea or water with a couple of teaspoons of honey.
- Keep a humidifier nearby.
Doctors typically prescribe antibiotics only if they find that you have a bacterial infection, which is more common in young children. If you are taking any prescribed medicines, or have other diseases, talk to your doctor before taking any OTC medicines.
The goal of the treatment for chronic bronchitis is to help you breathe better and control your symptoms. Your doctor may talk to you about: