Bronchitis is a condition when the bronchi, the passages that carry air from the windpipe to and from the lungs, become inflamed.

Bronchitis is a common lower respiratory tract condition, often following a common cold and appearing in children less than five years of age. In many cases, bronchitis is acute, or short-lasting (less than three weeks) and self-limiting. Sometimes it can be chronic, persisting for a longer period of time especially in smokers, the elderly, those with chronic diseases, or those with a compromised or weakened immune system.

What Are the Symptoms of Bronchitis?

Symptoms of bronchitis may include:

  • Cough with excessive mucus and phlegm (which may be colored)
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches and generalized aches
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Mild fever
  • Shortness of breath and wheezing

Symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:

  • Cough
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath and chest tightness
  • Recurrent, acute chest infection

More serious symptoms requiring immediate attention include:

  • Severe, prolonged cough
  • High fever lasting more than three days
  • Mucus that is streaked with blood
  • Rapid breathing or chest pain
  • Drowsiness or confusion

What Causes Bronchitis?

In acute bronchitis, inflammation is usually due to an infection by viruses or bacteria. The same viruses that cause the common cold and upper respiratory tract infection are usually responsible. Infection is transmitted by inhaling the virus suspended in airborne droplets or by direct contact with infected surfaces and placing the hands near the mouth or nose. Irritation and inflammation of the bronchial passage then creates excessive production of mucous. Bronchitis can become chronic due to exposure to environmental irritants, such as smoke, chemical fumes, dust, and pollution.

What Are the Treatment Options?

For acute or short-lasting bronchitis, typical treatment recommendations include resting in bed, drinking plenty of fluids and staying hydrated, and symptomatic treatment for fever using acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Bronchodilators, a type of medication that make breathing easier by relaxing the muscles in the lungs and widening the airways, and cough suppressants may sometimes be needed, although this is not recommended for children younger than six years of age. Antibiotics are not needed except in high-risk groups. If you smoke, you should stop.

For chronic or long-lasting bronchitis, certain lifestyle changes may help improve your condition, such as quitting smoking, using air purifiers at home, wearing protective gear in risky work environments, and avoiding pollution when possible. Medications, such as bronchodilators or mucolytics that make the mucus less thick and sticky and easier to cough up, may also be recommended. Antibiotics may be prescribed in cases with recurrent infections, or oxygen therapy.

Your physician may also want you to get a seasonal vaccination against the flu virus, and/or suggest chest physiotherapy and respiratory rehabilitation from a specialist.

What Questions Should I Ask My Doctor?

  1. Will you need to perform any diagnostic tests?
  2. Is it normal for my bronchitis to continue more than one week?
  3. Can I infect my family or coworkers with bronchitis?
  4. Are there medicines or antibiotics that might help my condition?
  5. What if I am a smoker, should I quit?