If you’ve ever had the coughing, aching and chest tightness of bronchitis, you know just how miserable this infection can be!  Bronchitis is a very common condition and nearly everyone will get at least one case of acute bronchitis at some point in their lives.  Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, is less common and largely caused by smoking.  Read on to find out more about it.

What is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis happens when the lining (called the mucous membrane) of the bronchioles (the part of your airway which connects the windpipe to the lungs) gets infected or irritated and become inflamed.  This inflammation makes it harder to get air into and out of the lungs and causes a variety of respiratory signs and symptoms.  Bronchitis can be acute (which can last 1-3 weeks) or chronic (which lasts for at least 3 months out of the year for at least 3 years).

How Do You Know if You Have Bronchitis?

Whether it is acute or chronic, bronchitis can have similar symptoms. The most common symptoms include:

  • Productive cough with phlegm that can be white, gray, green, yellow or clear
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Feeling generally bad (a symptoms called malaise)
  • Low-grade fever (sometimes with chills)
  • Trouble breathing or getting winded easily
  • Discomfort or tightness in the chest

What Causes Bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis are caused when a virus is breathed in and makes it past the body’s natural defenses (include nasal hairs and cilia, which are tiny projections along the airway that filter out dust, germs and other bad stuff) and enters into the lungs. It is estimated that over 90% of acute bronchitis cases are caused by viruses, usually the same kind that cause colds and flus.  However, in a small number of cases, bronchitis can be caused by bacterial infection as well.

On the other hand, nearly 80% of all cases of chronic bronchitis are caused when adults smoke cigarettes or other tobacco products. This is because when someone smokes — especially when they do it heavily — it destroys the cilia that are in the respiratory tract, making it easier for viruses and bacteria to get in. It also causes the mucous membranes become irritated and then inflamed, like it does during an infection.

It is also important to note that bronchitis can also be caused by exposure to air pollution such as sulfur dioxide, which can also can irritate the respiratory lining.

How Does a Doctor Diagnose Bronchitis?

A doctor will diagnose bronchitis based on many things, including:

  • Signs and symptoms
  • A physical exam, where the doctor will look you over and especially listen to your lungs and look at your throat
  • Questions about your medical history and if you have been exposed to cigarettes or secondhand smoke
  • Sputum tests, where a doctor will take a sample of your phlegm and have it tested in the laboratory
  • Chest x-rays to visualize the lungs and airways
  • Pulmonary function tests, to measure how well you are breathing

How is Bronchitis Treated?

There are several different ways to treat bronchitis, based upon what is causing it to begin with.

These treatment methods can include:

  • The passage of time if it is a viral infection
  • Antibiotics if it is a bacterial infection
  • Cough medicine to suppress coughing and to make mucous easier to expel
  • Over the counter medications such as ibuprofen to break fevers or reduce pain.
  • Inhalers to help open the airways and make it easier to breathe
  • Pulmonary rehab, a special kind of treatment program lead by a respiratory therapist which is designed to help you breathe better

Lifestyle/Home Remedies for Bronchitis

There are a number of things which you can do to help treat both acute and chronic bronchitis right at home. These include:

  • Washing hands regularly and thoroughly with warm water and soap to help prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses.
  • Resting and pushing fluids.
  • Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly to keep the immune system strong.
  • Using a humidifier in the house.
  • Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke if you are a kid; if an adult has bronchitis, quitting smoking can help the problem, too!
  • Avoiding other irritants such as smog, air pollution or even some household chemicals

Can Bronchitis Cause Complications?

Although it is unusual, bronchitis can cause complications, the most common of which are other respiratory infections like pneumonia.  If the bronchitis becomes chronic, it can also lead to another long-term respiratory complaint called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

To sum up, bronchitis in its acute form is something that nearly everyone will experience at least once in their lives and often the passage of time and medications to relieve symptoms like coughing are the best ways to treat it.  If the bronchitis is chronic, then the best treatment is to quit smoking, which is the main culprit for this condition to begin with. Either way, the good news is that it is fairly easily treated.