Bronchitis is a respiratory condition that causes inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the airways that carry air to and from the lungs. There are two main types of bronchitis: acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis. Acute bronchitis develops suddenly and usually goes away within a few weeks with proper treatment. Chronic bronchitis is a persistent, long-term condition that recurs frequently. Both types of bronchitis share a major common symptom – coughing. Coughing is the most predominant and distinguishing symptom of bronchitis.
What causes bronchitis?
Bronchitis is often caused by viral or bacterial infections. Viruses such as influenza, adenovirus, or rhinovirus are frequent causes of acute bronchitis. Bacterial infections from Streptococcus pneumoniae, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, and Chlamydophila pneumoniae can also lead to acute bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is usually caused by prolonged exposure to lung irritants, most commonly cigarette smoking. Air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust can also contribute to chronic bronchitis. In some cases, chronic bronchitis may be caused by underlying conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, or immunodeficiency disorders.
Acute Bronchitis Symptoms
The most common acute bronchitis symptoms include:
– Cough – Productive cough with mucus or sputum production is the primary symptom of acute bronchitis. Coughing may start out dry but typically becomes productive within a few days. The cough can persist for up to 3 weeks.
– Fatigue and weakness – Feeling worn out and tired is common with acute bronchitis.
– Chest discomfort – Chest tightness or soreness may occur from frequent coughing.
– Low-grade fever – About half of people with acute bronchitis develop a mild fever around 100-101°F (37.7-38.3°C).
– Chills – Some people report chills along with the fever.
– Sore throat – A sore or scratchy throat can accompany the cough, especially at the onset.
– Runny nose – Acute bronchitis may begin with typical cold symptoms like a runny, stuffy nose.
– Shortness of breath – Difficulty breathing deeply may happen but is usually mild.
– Wheezing – Audible wheezing or whistling sounds when breathing may be present in some cases.
When to See a Doctor
Most cases of acute bronchitis can be treated at home with rest, fluids, and over-the-counter cough medicine. See a doctor if any of the following occur:
– Cough lasts more than 3 weeks
– Cough is not improving
– Shortness of breath worsens
– Fever above 101°F (38.3°C)
– Chest pain with coughing or breathing
– Recurring bouts of bronchitis
Chronic Bronchitis Symptoms
The primary symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:
– Cough – Daily cough that produces mucus is the most common sign of chronic bronchitis. The amount of mucus cough varies from person to person.
– Shortness of breath – Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath tend to get worse over time as the condition progresses.
– Fatigue – Decreased energy and tiring easily are common complaints.
– Chest discomfort – Tightness or pain in the chest may happen with frequent coughing.
– Wheezing or rattling sound – Wheezing and rattling noises when breathing are indication of narrowed airways.
– Frequent respiratory infections – People with chronic bronchitis are prone to recurrent colds, the flu, pneumonia, and other lung infections due to damage to the airways.
When to See a Doctor
See your doctor if you experience any of the following warning signs:
– Cough lasts longer than 3 months
– Increasing shortness of breath
– Ongoing wheezing or rattling sound
– Coughing up blood
– Weight loss
– Frequent lung infections
Prompt medical care is recommended to prevent permanent lung damage.
What Makes Coughing Worse in Bronchitis?
Certain triggers can exacerbate coughing for people with bronchitis:
– Airborne irritants – Cigarette smoke, air pollution, chemical fumes, dust, and strong odors can worsen coughing.
– Extreme temperatures – Cold, dry air and sudden temperature changes tend to irritate the airways.
– Exercise – Vigorous activity and exercise may spark coughing.
– Allergies – Allergic reactions to pollen, pet dander, mold, or dust mites can worsen coughs.
– Respiratory infections – Colds, the flu, and other viral or bacterial lung infections often exacerbate bronchitis coughs.
– Stress and emotions – Anxiety, stress, and strong emotions may trigger coughing.
Avoiding these triggers as much as possible helps minimize coughing episodes. Using cough suppressants, expectorants, bronchodilators, and inhaled steroids can also help control chronic bronchitis coughs under medical supervision.
How is bronchitis diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose bronchitis based on a medical history, physical exam, and tests:
– Medical history – Information about symptoms, underlying conditions, and exposure to irritants guides diagnosis.
– Physical exam – Listening to the lungs with a stethoscope can detect abnormal breathing sounds indicating bronchitis. Examining the throat, sinuses, and skin also provides clues.
– Chest X-ray – An X-ray of the chest allows the doctor to see inflammation in the lungs and rule out pneumonia or other disorders.
– Sputum test – A sputum sample may be analyzed for bacteria, viruses, and cells to pinpoint the cause.
– Pulmonary function tests – Breathing tests can confirm obstruction in the bronchial tubes.
– Pulse oximetry – This simple test measures oxygen saturation in the blood to check for impaired lung function.
– CT scan – A chest CT scan gives detailed images of the lungs and airways. It may be done for chronic bronchitis to evaluate damage.
Treatment for bronchitis
Treatment for bronchitis focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing complications:
– Cough suppressants – Over-the-counter cough syrups with dextromethorphan or codeine quiet coughs.
– Expectorants – Guaifenesin thins mucus so it is easier to cough up.
– Bronchodilators – Albuterol opens airways by relaxing bronchial muscle spasms and is often used in inhalers.
– Anti-inflammatories – Ibuprofen or naproxen reduces inflammation in the bronchial tubes.
– Antibiotics – For bacterial bronchitis, antibiotics like amoxicillin combat infection.
– Inhaled steroids – Medications like beclomethasone help improve air flow in chronic bronchitis.
– Fluids – Drinking lots of water keeps mucus thin and easy to clear.
– Steam – Inhaling steam from a vaporizer or hot shower can soothe airways.
– Rest – Getting extra rest allows the body to fight infection.
– Honey – Honey has natural cough-suppressing effects.
– Gargling salt water – Salt water can ease sore throat pain that worsens coughs.
– Diet changes – Eating small, healthy meals to avoid fullness pressing on the diaphragm and limiting air flow.
Steering clear of irritants like cigarette smoke and preventing respiratory infections are key to controlling bronchitis symptoms long-term. Getting an annual flu shot and pneumonia vaccine provides added protection.
For chronic bronchitis, pulmonary rehab including breathing exercises, activity counseling, and nutritional guidance can improve quality of life. Quitting smoking is essential.
What are the complications of untreated bronchitis?
Leaving acute bronchitis untreated raises the risks of complications like:
– Pneumonia – Bronchial inflammation impairs the body’s ability to keep pneumonia-causing bacteria from infecting the lungs.
– Lung damage – Without proper treatment, acute infection can progress to chronic bronchitis with permanent airway damage.
– Respiratory failure – In rare cases, acute respiratory infection spreads systemically and impairs oxygen exchange, leading to respiratory failure.
For chronic bronchitis, lack of treatment can result in:
– COPD exacerbations – Sudden worsening of COPD symptoms, which requires prompt medical care.
– Respiratory infections – Weakened immune defenses make people with chronic bronchitis prone to frequent pneumonia, flu, and other lung infections.
– Heart problems – Overworked heart muscle from chronically impaired lung function can lead to pulmonary hypertension, arrhythmias, and heart failure.
– Lung cancer – The lung tissue damage caused by chronic bronchitis is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer.
– Disability – Severe chronic bronchitis may eventually produce disabling limitations on daily physical activity.
That’s why following doctor’s treatment recommendations is vital for keeping acute bronchitis from becoming chronic and minimizing the progression of chronic bronchitis.
When to see a pulmonary specialist for bronchitis?
Consulting a pulmonologist is advisable in these situations:
– Recurrent acute bronchitis – Having acute bronchitis more than twice a year could indicate an underlying lung problem requiring specialty care.
– Chronic bronchitis diagnosis – Pulmonary specialists have expertise in confirming chronic bronchitis diagnosis and developing an effective management plan.
– Other lung disease – Presence of COPD, asthma, cystic fibrosis, or other respiratory disorders in conjunction with bronchitis symptoms warrants referral to a lung expert.
– Severe symptoms – Worsening cough, shortness of breath, or low oxygen levels despite treatment indicate a need for lung specialist evaluation.
– Lung damage concerns – Evidence of lung damage or scarring on chest imaging would necessitate a pulmonology consult.
– At-risk patient – Older patients and those with heart disease, diabetes, or a weakened immune system should see a lung specialist to reduce bronchitis risks.
– Prior to surgery – Assessment by a pulmonologist may be requested if a patient has chronic bronchitis symptoms prior to undergoing anesthesia for surgery.
– Second opinion – Getting a second opinion from a pulmonologist regarding diagnosis or treatment can provide helpful perspective in some cases.
Seeing a pulmonary specialist ensures thorough evaluation and access to specialized diagnostic tests and therapies to optimize bronchitis management.
In summary, the hallmark symptom of both acute and chronic bronchitis is cough. Cough tends to be more productive with mucus in acute bronchitis and more prolonged lasting over 3 months in chronic bronchitis. While acute bronchitis often improves on its own, the cough of chronic bronchitis signifies progressive lung damage requiring medical treatment. Leaving bronchitis untreated raises complications like pneumonia, respiratory failure, COPD exacerbations, and heart problems in susceptible individuals. Consulting a pulmonary specialist is recommended for recurring bronchitis, severe symptoms, or high-risk patients to prevent permanent lung injury. With proper care and avoiding triggers, the coughing and discomfort of bronchitis can be relieved.