Whether or not you can believe it, cold and flu season are already in full swing – even though cold season typically peaks in January, while flu season is not until February.

This year, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting that this is the earliest start to flu season since 2003.  Other medical websites mapping cold and flu activity are showing moderate to severe activity in most states.

Unfortunately, some cold and flu illnesses can develop into more severe (not to mention prolonged) conditions including bronchitis, pneumonia or sinus/ear infections.  Bronchitis is of particular concern as it can develop into pneumonia or the increasingly common Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from your lungs.  Bronchitis may be either acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis is more common, of shorter duration and often results from a cold (90 percent of cases are viral in origin), while chronic bronchitis lasts at least 3 months and is often due to smoking.

The symptoms of bronchitis may be similar to the flu: cough, fatigue, fever or chills – but may also include chest discomfort and the production of mucus.  If your cough lasts more than three weeks, produces discolored mucus or blood, or causes wheezing or shortness of breath, be sure to see your physician.

Fortunately, there are some relatively simple steps you can take to help reduce both your risk for developing bronchitis and the duration of the illness.

First, if you are a smoker, stop immediately.  Try to avoid lung irritants of any type, including air pollution, paint, household cleaners or dust from things like coal or concrete.

Use a humidifier whenever possible, because warm, moist air can help relieve coughs and loosen mucus in your airways.

Being that many cases of bronchitis result from flu virus, make sure to get your annual flu vaccination.

Finally, be vigilant about washing your hands or using a hand sanitizer during cold and flu season.

If you suffer from multiple bouts of bronchitis, this may indicate an underlying condition like chronic bronchitis, asthma, cystic fibrosis or tuberculosis, just to name a few.  And again, if your symptoms – especially cough – last more than three weeks or cause wheezing or shortness of breath, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Dr. David B. Samadi is the Vice Chairman of the Department of Urology and Chief of Robotics and Minimally Invasive Surgery at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. He is a board-certified urologist, specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of urological disease, with a focus on robotic prostate cancer treatments. To learn more, visit his websites RoboticOncology.com.