Published January 19, 2012
Bronchitis affects millions of people each year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Bronchitis is characterized by inflammation in the respiratory system’s main passageways to the lungs. This inflammation can create a great impediment to breathing and leads to coughing and chest pain. For some people, bronchitis is a passing illness. For others, it is a lifelong impediment to breathing. To help you understand the symptoms and implications of this condition, here is a guide to the basics of bronchitis:
Your bronchial tubes make up a tree-shaped series of passageways that carry air into the lungs. Bronchitis occurs when the tubes become inflamed and mucus builds along the walls. Acute bronchitis — a temporary condition — usually develops after a viral respiratory infection. The infection typically begins in your nose, sinuses and throat, then spreads to your lungs. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition, marked by excessive mucus production. While the symptoms for acute and chronic bronchitis are generally the same, acute bronchitis usually resolves within a matter of weeks. Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, can last for a lifetime.
An ongoing cough is the cardinal sign for bronchitis. The cough may produce green, yellow or clear mucus. Breathing troubles can lead to wheezing and chest pain. People with bronchitis may experience fatigue, fever and chills. Individuals might also feel discomfort due to a sore throat or body aches and pains. Additional symptoms include swelling in your ankles, feet or legs or blue-tinged lips due to a lack of oxygen. Bronchitis is considered chronic if you have been experiencing symptoms for at least three months.
Acute bronchitis typically develops due to a virus, usually the flu or cold viruses. Chronic bronchitis is most often caused by smoking cigarettes. Bronchitis can be exacerbated by irritants in the air, such as air pollution, allergens or gases from the workplace. Some people are more susceptible to serious bronchitis. The elderly, young children and infants are more vulnerable to viral infections like acute bronchitis. Individuals with lung disease and smokers are also at a high risk for developing acute or chronic bronchitis.
When to see a doctor
The CDC recommends consulting a doctor if you have a fever over 100.4 degrees. You should also contact a health care professional if your cough appears with very thick or bloody mucus. Symptoms that last for over three weeks are a possible warning sign. A persistent cough may signal another underlying health program such as asthma or pneumonia. People with chronic heart and lung problems or weakened immune systems should also seek medical care.
Because bronchitis is often caused by a virus, antibiotics are ineffective in treating the illness. Acute bronchitis will usually resolve within a few weeks, during which time home care remedies can help alleviate symptoms and expedite recovery. Individuals with bronchitis should get plenty of rest and drink fluids continuously. A humidifier may moisten the air and ease a dry cough. Body aches may be relieved with over-the-counter pain medications. Chronic bronchitis may need a more comprehensive treatment program, aided by health care professionals. Medications including inhalers and respiratory exercise programs may aid breathing. For both chronic and acute bronchitis, smoking cessation is the first step to better breathing.