Bronchitis Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention, Home Remedies

Bronchitis Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention, Home Remedies


What is bronchitis?


Bronchitis occurs when the bronchioles (air tubes in the lungs) are inflamed and make too much mucus. There are two basic types of bronchitis:

  • Chronic bronchitis is a cough that persists for two to three months each year for at least two years. The cough and inflammation may be caused by infection, illness, or exposure to tobacco smoke or other irritating substances in the air.
  • Acute or short-term bronchitis is more common and usually is caused by a viral infection. Episodes of acute bronchitis can be related to and worsened by smoking.
If you are a smoker and come down with acute bronchitis, it will be much harder for you to recover. Every cigarette damages the tiny hair-like structures in your lungs, called cilia, that are responsible for brushing out debris, irritants, and excess mucus.

Bronchitis Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention, Home Remedies


If you continue smoking, the damage to these cilia prevent them from functioning properly, thus increasing your chances of developing chronic bronchitis. In some heavy smokers, the mucus membrane lining the airways 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. WebMD has many resources to help you to successfully quit smoking.

Chronic bronchitis is one of two main types of a COPD. The other main form of COPD is emphysema.  Both forms of COPD make it difficult to breathe.

Acute bronchitis is very common. The disorder often can be treated effectively without professional medical assistance. However, if you have severe or persistent symptoms, high fever, or if you cough up blood, you should see your doctor. Seek emergency medical help if you have trouble breathing or have chest pain. If you suffer from chronic bronchitis, you are at risk for developing heart problems, as well as more serious lung diseases and infections, so you should be monitored by a doctor.

Read more:

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What Causes Bronchitis?


Acute bronchitis is usually caused by viruses, and it may occur together with or following a cold or other respiratory infection. Germs such as viruses can be spread from person to person by coughing. They can also be spread if you touch your mouth, nose, or eyes after coming into contact with respiratory fluids from an infected person.

Smoking (even for a brief time) and being around tobacco smoke, chemical fumes, and other air pollutants for long periods of time puts a person at risk for developing chronic bronchitis.

Some people who seem to have repeated bouts of bronchitis — with coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath — may actually have asthma.

Smoking and Bronchitis


Tobacco smoke is the cause of more than 80% of all cases of chronic bronchitis. People who smoke also have a much harder time recovering from acute bronchitis and other respiratory infections.

Smoking causes lung damage in many ways. For example, it can cause temporary paralysis of the cilia and, over time, can kill the ciliated cells in the lining of the airways completely. Eventually, the airway lining stops clearing smoking-related debris, irritants, and excess mucus from the lungs altogether. When this happens, a smoker's lungs become even more vulnerable to infection.

Over time, harmful substances in tobacco smoke permanently damage the airways, increasing the risk for emphysema, cancer, and other serious lung diseases. Smoking also causes the mucus-producing glands to enlarge and make more mucus. Along with the toxic particles and chemicals in smoke, this causes a smoker to have a chronic cough.

Bronchitis Symptoms


Acute bronchitis most commonly occurs after an upper respiratory infection such as the common cold or a sinus infection. The affected person may have symptoms such as fever, chills, muscle aches, nasal congestion, and sore throat.

  • Cough is the most common symptom of bronchitis. The cough may be dry or may produce phlegm. Significant phlegm production suggests that the lower respiratory tract and the lung itself may be infected, and these symptoms suggest pneumonia.
  • The cough may last for more than 2 weeks. Continued forceful coughing may be painful, and can make your chest and abdominal muscles sore. Coughing can be severe enough at times to injure the chest, break ribs,  wall or even cause a person to pass out (faint).
  • Wheezing may occur because of the muscular tightness and inflammation of the airways. This may leave the affected individual short of breath.
  • Asthmatic bronchitis symptoms include a combination of wheezing and shortness of breath, in addition to the other symptoms of bronchitis.

When should I see my health care provider?


See your health care provider if you have:

  • A cold that lasts more than two to three weeks
  • A fever greater than 102° F
  • A fever that lasts more than five days
  • A cough that produces blood
  • Any shortness of breath or wheezing
  • A change in the color of mucus

Who Is at Risk for Bronchitis?


Bronchitis is a very common condition. Millions of cases occur every year.

Elderly people, infants, and young children are at higher risk for acute bronchitis than people in other age groups.

People of all ages can develop chronic bronchitis, but it occurs more often in people who are older than 45. Also, many adults who develop chronic bronchitis are smokers. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis.

Smoking and having an existing lung disease greatly increase your risk for bronchitis. Contact with dust, chemical fumes, and vapors from certain jobs also increases your risk for the condition. Examples include jobs in coal mining, textile manufacturing, grain handling, and livestock farming.

Air pollution, infections, and allergies can worsen the symptoms of chronic bronchitis, especially if you smoke.

How Is Bronchitis Diagnosed?


Your doctor usually will diagnose bronchitis based on your signs and symptoms. He or she may ask questions about your cough, such as how long you've had it, what you're coughing up, and how much you cough.

Your doctor also will likely ask:

  • About your medical history
  • Whether you've recently had a cold or the flu
  • Whether you smoke or spend time around others who smoke
  • Whether you've been exposed to dust, fumes, vapors, or air pollution
Your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen for wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe) or other abnormal sounds in your lungs. He or she also may:

  • Look at your mucus to see whether you have a bacterial infection
  • Test the oxygen levels in your blood using a sensor attached to your fingertip or toe
  • Recommend a chest x ray, lung function tests, or blood tests

What Are the Treatments for Bronchitis?


Conventional treatment for acute bronchitis may consist of simple measures such as getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, avoiding smoke and fumes, and possibly getting a prescription for an inhaled bronchodilator and/or cough syrup. In some cases of chronic bronchitis, oral steroids to reduce inflammation and/or supplemental oxygen may be necessary.

In healthy people with bronchitis who have normal lungs and no chronic health problems, antibiotics are usually not necessary. In most cases, the cause is a virus and antibiotics will not help. A productive (phlegm-producing) cough may come with acute bronchitis. This is your body's way of getting rid of excess mucus. However, if your cough is truly disruptive -- it keeps you from sleeping, is so forceful it becomes painful, or it persists for two or three weeks -- then your doctor may prescribe a cough suppressant. In most cases, you should simply do all the things you usually would do for a cold: Take aspirin or acetaminophen for discomfort and drink lots of liquids. Do not give aspirin to a child aged 18 years of age or younger because of the increased risk of Reye’s Syndrome.


If you have chronic bronchitis, your lungs are vulnerable to infections. Unless your doctor advises against it, get a yearly flu shot as well as a vaccination against pneumonia.  One dose of pneumonia vaccine will protect you until the age of 65 unless you have certain other medical problems. After age 65, you will likely need a booster.

Do not take an over-the-counter cough suppressant to treat chronic bronchitis, unless your doctor advises it. As with acute bronchitis, the productive coughing associated with chronic bronchitis is helpful in ridding the lungs of excess mucus. In fact, your doctor may even prescribe an expectorant if you have mucus that you cannot easily cough up. However, if you notice any increase in the thickness or amount of the phlegm, you may be coming down with a bacterial infection. In that case, your doctor may prescribe a 5- to10-day course of broad-spectrum antibiotics, which fight a range of bacteria. If you are overweight, your doctor may suggest that you diet to avoid putting excessive strain on your heart. 

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your doctor may add an anticholinergic bronchodilator, medication that temporarily dilates the lungs' constricted airways, or steroids to reduce inflammation in the airways. Quitting smoking is the most important and most successful treatment for chronic bronchitis and COPD.

In severe cases of chronic bronchitis with COPD, your body's ability to transfer oxygen from your lungs into the bloodstream is significantly reduced. Your doctor may prescribe oxygen therapy, either on a continuous or on an as-needed basis. Oxygen-delivering devices are widely available. If you use an oxygen tank at home, be sure to take special care not to expose the apparatus to open flames, flammable materials (alcohol and aerosol sprays, for example), or to sources of direct heat, such as hair dryers or radiators.

If you smoke, your doctor will urge you to quit. Studies show that people who kick the habit even in the advanced stages of chronic bronchitis and COPD not only can reduce the severity of their symptoms but also increase their life expectancy.

Pulmonary rehabilitation is sometimes prescribed for chronic bronchitis. In rehabilitation, you are taught how to improve your symptoms and exercises and ways to breathe that can help ease your symptoms.

How Can Bronchitis Be Prevented?


You can't always prevent acute or chronic bronchitis. However, you can take steps to lower your risk for both conditions. The most important step is to quit smoking or not start smoking.

Get vaccinated. Many cases of acute bronchitis result from influenza, a virus. Getting a yearly flu vaccine can help protect you from getting the flu. You may also want to consider vaccination that protects against some types of pneumonia.

Also, try to avoid other lung irritants, such as secondhand smoke, dust, fumes, vapors, and air pollution. For example, wear a mask over your mouth and nose when you use paint, paint remover, varnish, or other substances with strong fumes. This will help protect your lungs.

Wash your hands often to limit your exposure to germs and bacteria. Your doctor also may advise you to get a yearly flu shot and a pneumonia vaccine.

Lifestyle and home remedies for Bronchitis


Avoid lung irritants. Don't smoke. Wear a mask when the air is polluted or if you're exposed to irritants, such as paint or household cleaners with strong fumes.

Use a humidifier. Warm, moist air helps relieve coughs and loosens mucus in your airways. But be sure to clean the humidifier according to the manufacturer's recommendations to avoid the growth of bacteria and fungi in the water container.

Consider a face mask outside. If cold air aggravates your cough and causes shortness of breath, put on a cold-air face mask before you go outside.

Follow a healthy diet and be as physically active as you can. A healthy diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It also includes lean meats, poultry, fish, and fat-free or low-fat milk or milk products. A healthy diet also is low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium (salt), and added sugar.

Natural treatments and home remedies for bronchitis include honey, lemon, ginger, bay leaf, and almonds. Each of these foods has properties that reportedly reduce symptoms of bronchitis. Consult your health care professional  before taking or using any natural remedies.

Ongoing Care


See your doctor regularly and take all of your medicines as prescribed. Also, talk with your doctor about getting a yearly flu shot and a pneumonia vaccine.

If you have chronic bronchitis, you may benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation (PR). PR is a broad program that helps improve the well-being of people who have chronic (ongoing) breathing problems.

People who have chronic bronchitis often breathe fast. Talk with your doctor about a breathing method called pursed-lip breathing. This method decreases how often you take breaths, and it helps keep your airways open longer. This allows more air to flow in and out of your lungs so you can be more physically active.

To do pursed-lip breathing, you breathe in through your nostrils. Then you slowly breathe out through slightly pursed lips, as if you're blowing out a candle. You exhale two to three times longer than you inhale. Some people find it helpful to count to two while inhaling and to four or six while exhaling.