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What is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes. The bronchial tubes are responsible for carrying air to and from the lungs. This condition can occur due to irritation from the cold, flu or another virus. Bacteria are also a common cause of bronchitis. Irritants like cigarette smoke can trigger bronchitis or make it worse.

If you have bronchitis, it may be difficult to breathe. Your chest becomes congested with thick mucus, which is hard to cough up. People with bronchitis may need medication to help it clear up or to manage symptoms. Talk to a doctor if you think you may have bronchitis.

Defining differences between acute and chronic bronchitis

There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Both conditions involve bronchial tube inflammation, chest soreness, and a non-productive cough. However, there are differences between the two.

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is the most common and less serious of the two types. Its onset often occurs after a bout of the flu, cold, or another virus. Bacterial infections and inhaled irritants like dust or smoke can also cause acute bronchitis. When the condition is the result of a viral or bacterial infection, the patient is contagious.

Acute bronchitis usually clears up within 7-10 days. However, the cough can linger for a few weeks. Patients or doctors may refer to chronic bronchitis as a chest cold.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a type of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). It reoccurs frequently or never completely goes away. Smoking cigarettes is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis, although prolonged exposure to fumes, air pollution, or dust can also cause it.

Because chronic bronchitis is not viral or bacterial, people with the condition are not typically contagious. However, some reoccurring cases of acute bronchitis can develop into chronic bronchitis.

Understanding what causes bronchitis

In addition to viruses, bacteria, and irritants, certain factors increase your risk of developing acute or chronic bronchitis. Some of the following risk factors are treatable or preventable

Weakened immune system

Older adults, babies, and people with chronic diseases are at higher risk of developing bronchitis. However, even healthy adults and children may develop bronchitis due to fighting off a cold or the flu. Follow good disease prevention techniques by washing your hands frequently and avoiding contact with sick people when possible.


If you smoke or live with a smoker, you are more likely to develop bronchitis. Quitting smoking is the best preventative measure to take. If you live with a smoker but do not use tobacco yourself, ask your friends or family members to smoke outside, away from you.

Acid reflux disease

Prolonged and frequent heartburn can be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In this condition, the ring of muscle between the esophagus and stomach does not close completely. This allows stomach acids to enter your throat. Acid reflux can cause bronchitis when you inhale stomach acids into your bronchial tubes. Seeking medical treatment for this condition can help prevent bronchitis episodes.

Prolonged exposure to irritants

People who work in certain industries are more prone to bronchitis. This includes painters or factory workers who constantly inhale fumes, farmers who care for animals, and coal miners. Use appropriately rated face masks to screen or reduce harmful fumes and particles.

Identifying acute and chronic bronchitis symptoms

Symptoms are the same for both acute and chronic bronchitis. The primary difference is that acute bronchitis frequently follows another illness and chronic bronchitis is less likely to follow sickness. Chronic cases also last longer and reoccur frequently. Bronchitis includes both respiratory and general physical symptoms.

Respiratory symptoms

The main respiratory symptom of bronchitis is a prolonged cough and chest congestion. Your cough may produce clear, white, yellow, or green mucus. Shortness of breath and wheezing are also common. Your chest may be sore from coughing so much.

Physical symptoms

You may also feel exhausted all the time while your body fights off inflammation and infection. Low-grade fevers often accompany bronchitis. You may also have a stuffy, runny nose and a sore throat.

When to talk to a doctor

Make an appointment when your cough

  • Produces mucus that gets thicker or darker over time
  • Produces blood
  • Has a barking sound and makes it difficult to talk
  • Lasts longer than three weeks

You should also contact a doctor when your cough is accompanied by unexplained weight loss, wheezing or shortness of breath, or a fever above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, talk to your doctor if you have a bad taste in your mouth when you cough. This foul taste can be a sign of acid reflux.

Diagnosing Bronchitis

At your appointment, the doctor will conduct a physical examination and ask you about your symptoms. He or she will likely listen to your lungs to detect wheezing or blockages. Many times, no other tests are necessary.

In other cases, the doctor may order a few additional tests. They include

  • Lung function tests – You will breathe into a device that tests whether your lungs are functioning at full capacity. This test detects asthma and emphysema; bronchitis can cause complications with both conditions.
  • Chest x-rays – An x-ray gives the doctor a better picture of any blockages in your lungs or bronchial tubes. It can also detect pneumonia, a rare but serious complication of bronchitis.
  • Mucus tests – A laboratory can test your mucus to determine whether bacteria are causing your condition. Mucus tests can also indicate whether you show signs of allergies.

Treating bronchitis

Most cases of acute bronchitis resolve on their own with no additional treatment. However, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics if there is evidence that bacteria are causing your bronchitis. If your condition is viral, antibiotics will not help you get well.

If you have allergies, asthma, or COPD, the doctor may prescribe an inhaler or other medications. These treatments help open your airways and make it easier to breathe normally.

If you have trouble sleeping at night due to your cough, the doctor may prescribe cough medicine. However, coughing up mucus is good since it helps clear your lungs and bronchial tubes. Talk to a doctor about when and how often you should use the medication.

Therapy for chronic bronchitis

Pulmonary rehabilitation may help patients with chronic bronchitis breathe easier. This program uses breathing exercises to teach patients breathing techniques and increases their ability to exercise.

At-home treatments

There are plenty of things you can do to manage bronchitis symptoms at home. First, get plenty of rest. Your body needs extra rest to recover during this time. Second, drink at least 8-12 glasses of water each day. The water hydrates your body and helps thin out mucus, making it easier to cough up.

You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications to help with symptoms. Ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin are pain relievers. However, do not give aspirin to children. Acetaminophen helps manage both fevers and pain.

Finally, using a humidifier or steam can help loosen mucus and relieve congested airways. Try taking a hot shower or purchase a humidifier to keep the air moist in your room.

Preventing bronchitis

You can reduce your risk of bronchitis by following these tips.

  • Practice good hygiene and handwashing techniques to reduce the risk of acquiring illnesses that can lead to bronchitis
  • Avoid irritants like cigarette smoke, dust, and chemical fumes
  • Consider getting the flu vaccine, especially if you are in an at-risk group for respiratory diseases
  • Consider getting the pneumonia vaccine if you are age 60 or older
  • If you must be around inhaled irritants like dust or paint fumes, wear a protective mask.

Most cases of acute bronchitis resolve on their own. However, multiple episodes of acute bronchitis can develop into chronic bronchitis. If home treatment does not alleviate your symptoms, talk to a doctor to determine whether you need an appointment.   

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