What Is Bronchitis?
Bronchitis is a respiratory disease in which the mucous membrane in the lungs' bronchial passages becomes inflamed. As the irritated membrane swells and grows thicker, it narrows or shuts off the tiny airways in the lungs, resulting in coughing spells accompanied by thick phlegm and breathlessness. The disease comes in two forms: acute (lasting less than 6 weeks) and chronic (reoccurring frequently for more than two years). In addition, people with asthma also experience an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes called asthmatic bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis is responsible for the hacking cough and phlegm production that sometimes accompany an upper respiratory infection. In most cases the infection is viral in origin, but sometimes it's caused by bacteria. If you are otherwise in good health, the mucous membrane will return to normal after you've recovered from the initial lung infection, which usually lasts for several days.
Chronic bronchitis is a serious long-term disorder that often requires regular medical treatment.
If you are a smoker and come down with acute bronchitis, it will be much harder for you to recover. Even one puff on a cigarette is enough to cause temporary paralysis of the tiny hair like structures in your lungs, called cilia, that are responsible for brushing out debris, irritants, and excess mucus.
If you continue smoking, you may do sufficient damage to these cilia to prevent them from functioning properly, thus increasing your chances of developing chronic bronchitis. In some heavy smokers, the membrane stays inflamed and the cilia eventually stop functioning altogether. Clogged with mucus, the lungs are then vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections, which over time distort and permanently damage the lungs' airways. This permanent condition is called COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Your doctor can perform a breathing test, called spirometry, to see if you have developed COPD.
Acute bronchitis is very common among both children and adults. The disorder often can be treated effectively without professional medical assistance. However, if you have severe or persistent symptoms or if you cough up blood, you should see your doctor. If you suffer from chronic bronchitis, you are at risk for developing cardiovascular problems as well as more serious lung diseases and infections, you should be monitored by a doctor.
What Causes It?
Acute bronchitis is generally caused by lung infections; approximately 90% of these infections are viral in origin, 10% bacterial. Chronic bronchitis may be caused by one or several factors. Repeated attacks of acute bronchitis, which weaken and irritate bronchial airways over time, can result in chronic bronchitis.
Industrial pollution is another culprit. Chronic bronchitis is found in higher-than-normal rates among coal miners, grain handlers, metal molders, and other people who are continually exposed to dust. But the chief cause is heavy, long-term cigarette smoking, which irritates the bronchial tubes and causes them to produce excess mucus. The symptoms of chronic bronchitis are also worsened by high concentrations of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants in the atmosphere.
When a Cold Becomes Bronchitis
When you catch a cold, does it often turn into bronchitis, which is sometimes called a chest cold? It's important to recognize what's normal and to know when something more serious is going on. Here's what you must know when that nasty cold turns into bronchitis.
Should I Call My Doctor About a Cough?