Bronchitis describes the inflammation of the linings of the bronchi which are the tubes that carry air to the lungs. Bronchitis is one of the most common ailments in the world. Similar to a common cold, gastroenteritis, or flu, bronchitis is usually caused by a virus and passed via airborne contact from an infected person, although there are also some bacteria that can cause bronchitis.
Definition & Facts
When people have bronchitis, they tend to cough often, bringing up generous quantities of thickened mucus. The name bronchitis comes from the main air passages leading to the lungs called bronchial tubes plus the suffix "itis", a medical term that indicates an inflammation or irritation.
Doctors refer to "acute" bronchitis as a case that lasts a few days to a week with some residual coughing that can last up to a month. If the bronchitis lasts three months or more, it then becomes classified as "chronic" bronchitis which can be a symptom of a more serious illness like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Symptoms & Complaints
Some people with bronchitis, due to the underlying infection, may also find themselves overly fatigued, run a low grade fever or feel momentary bouts of the chills, have some minor muscle ache, sore throat, and/or feel some chest tightness. Even after the bronchitis has been treated, it is common to have a persistent cough that lasts for several weeks before tailing off.
While mild symptoms of bronchitis can usually be treated at home without the need to visit the doctor, anyone experiencing the following should seek medical attention right away:
- The symptoms of bronchitis last more than three weeks
- Coughing or breathing with difficulty to the point that they can't sleep
- Coming down with a high grade fever (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 degrees Celsius or higher)
- Coughing blood
The vast majority of cases of bronchitis are due to viral infections. Less than 10% of cases of bronchitis are due to bacterial infections that infect the bronchial tubes and result in the same symptoms and complaints as viral bronchitis.
Other contributing issues to bronchitis include smoking cigarettes and exposure to industrial pollution, especially sulfur dioxide. Cigarette smoke and pollution enter the lungs and inflame the bronchial tubes, causing the bronchial tubes to become irritated and produce an excess of mucus.
Smoking damages the cilia, tiny hairs inside the lungs that sweep out mucus and debris, thus making the coughing worse in cases of bronchitis. When mucus remains obstructed in the lungs, the lungs can then be more susceptible to both viral and bacterial infections, potentially leading to a permanent condition called COPD.
Diagnosis & Tests
In most cases of acute bronchitis, people can self-diagnose at home. A hacking cough that brings up a lot of mucus or phlegm without any other symptoms like a high fever can usually be confidently diagnosed as a case of bronchitis. In cases of severe difficulty in breathing or substantial chest pain, people should seek medical attention to get treatment and discover whether they have an advanced form of bronchitis.
Bronchitis can be diagnosed by a doctor using a stethoscope to listen to the lungs. Should further tests be necessary, an X-ray of the chest can show inflammation in the bronchial tubes that indicates a case of bronchitis. To rule out other diseases that cause a lot of coughing like whooping cough, doctors can perform a sputum culture, an analysis of the coughed up phlegm.
For severe cases of breathing difficulty, doctors can better identify bronchitis through the use of a pulmonary (lung) function test. Patients blow into a special device that measures how much air a person can currently hold in their lungs and how fast they can evacuate that air.
Treatment & Therapy
For minor cases of bronchitis, most people can follow a course of treatment at home without needing to consult with a doctor. Bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and allowing the body's immune system to fight the infection is the standard treatment for minor cases of bronchitis.
In more severe cases of bronchitis, people are counseled to seek medical attention. A doctor can recommend a course of action that includes antibiotics if the bronchitis is bacterial in nature. Although coughing up the infected mucus is the best way to clean out the lungs, it may be necessary at times to take cough medicine at bedtime to help bronchitis sufferers sleep. In rare cases, it may be necessary to use an inhaler to help open up the lungs and soothe the irritated bronchial tubes.
Prevention & Prophylaxis
Doctors recommend getting a yearly flu vaccine as many people develop bronchitis as a secondary effect of contracting the flu. Regular and thorough sanitary habits to keep the hands clean such as hand washing is an excellent first-line defense against contracting bronchitis and other viral infections.