What is bronchitis?
Acute bronchitis, sometimes called a chest cold, often occurs following an upper respiratory infection. The viruses that cause the initial infection that leads to bronchitis are contagious. You can get bronchitis through kissing and other direct contact with people who have it, such as through shaking hands or by touching a surface that has the virus on it.
Bronchitis occurs when the bronchi, the main tubes that take air to your lungs, become inflamed and start producing mucus. This excess mucus causes the coughing that is characteristic of bronchitis. Acute bronchitis will usually improve without any medication, but occasionally it will progress into pneumonia.
While bronchitis affects the airways that carry air to the lungs, pneumonia involves the air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli. Pneumonia symptoms are similar to bronchitis symptoms but are generally much worse. Pneumonia needs to be treated by a doctor and can be life-threatening for vulnerable people.
Chronic bronchitis is caused by irritation of the airways, usually from smoking. However, toxic gases, air pollution, and other irritants may also cause chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is one of the conditions that is classified as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD has no cure, and the symptoms need to be managed by a doctor.
Signs of acute bronchitis
Acute bronchitis usually starts with a cold. The symptoms of acute bronchitis include:
- Coughing up mucus
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Low-grade fever
Types of bronchitis
Acute bronchitis lasts less than three weeks and will generally improve on its own with no treatment. This type of bronchitis leaves no lasting effects. It is contagious.
Chronic bronchitis is a type of COPD. It is a productive cough, which is when you cough up mucus, and it lasts for 3 months or more. Episodes occur for at least two years in a row. It is not contagious.
Causes of bronchitis
A viral infection, such as the one that causes the common cold or the flu (influenza), is the most frequent cause of bronchitis. Sometimes bronchitis is caused by a bacterial infection. Regardless of the cause, bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes become inflamed and start producing mucus.
Acute bronchitis is contagious because it’s caused by a viral or bacterial infection. You should take precautions to avoid spreading it by not kissing others, covering your cough, washing your hands frequently, and avoiding other close contact with people.
Chronic bronchitis is constant irritation of the bronchial tubes that is usually caused by smoking. Air pollution, toxic gases, and dust can also cause chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is not contagious, by kissing or any other means, since it’s not caused by a virus or bacteria.
When to see the doctor for bronchitis
Most cases of acute bronchitis can be treated at home without antibiotics. Antibiotics are generally not helpful in treating bronchitis.
You should see your doctor if you experience any of the following issues:
- Cough that lasts longer than three weeks
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing up blood
- Fever over 100.4 degrees
- Repeated episodes of acute bronchitis
To diagnose bronchitis, your doctor will listen to your symptoms and do a physical exam. You will not need a blood test to diagnose bronchitis, although your doctor may order one to rule out another type of infection.
If you have a fever, your doctor may order a chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia.
To diagnose chronic bronchitis, your doctor may do a pulmonary function test to measure your lung function. You will have to blow into a spirometer, which is a device that measures how much air your lungs can hold and how quickly you can blow air out of your lungs.
Treatments for bronchitis
Acute bronchitis will likely improve without medication, so treatment mostly focuses on relieving your symptoms. You can feel better by:
- Getting lots of rest
- Drinking plenty of fluids, especially hot fluids such as tea
- Taking honey to help with your cough, but do not give honey to a child under the age of one
- Taking over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- Using sinus rinses or saline nasal spray
- Using lozenges to help with a sore throat, but do not give lozenges to children under four
- Using a humidifier or inhaling steam from a hot shower
Chronic bronchitis cannot be cured, but your doctor may manage your symptoms with the following methods:
- Oxygen therapy
- Pulmonary rehabilitation
- Mucus-clearing medication
- Anti-inflammatory medication such as corticosteroids
- Bronchodilators to help your airways stay open
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Acute Bronchitis (Chest Cold)."
Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Acute Bronchitis."
Medline Plus: "Acute Bronchitis."
Merck Manual: "Acute Bronchitis."
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Pneumonia."
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