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All about Bronchitis: Types, Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Diagnosis

All about Bronchitis: Types, Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Diagnosis

What is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis is a pulmonary disorder that occurs due to inflammation of airway lining of the lungs, resulting in respiratory distress. Bronchitis is often characterized by cough that produces thick mucus (phlegm) often yellowish-green in color, indicating an underlying infection.  Bronchitis can be either Acute or Chronic.

Acute BronchitisAcute Bronchitis is the more common form of Bronchitis.  It occurs due to short term inflammation of the airways arising from a common cold or flu.  In most cases, Acute Bronchitis starts from a viral infection that can spread through air or by direct contact with the infected. While it takes nearly 8 to 10 days for the infection to get treated, the cough and discomfort can continue up to three weeks.  Acute Bronchitis affects around 5% adults and 6% of children every year.  It is seasonal to a large extent and hence is a common occurrence during the winters.

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Chronic Bronchitis: Chronic Bronchitis is a more serious condition wherein there is constant inflammation of airways resulting in persistent cough.  In the case of Chronic Bronchitis, the airways produce more mucus than normal.  The inflammation and excess mucus secretion together block the airways reducing airflow and thereby causing cough.  Prolonged and untreated Chronic Bronchitis can lead to progressive and permanent lung damage.

Causes of Bronchitis

Acute Bronchitis is primarily caused due to viruses that infect the upper respiratory tract.  These infections can also be caused by bacteria.  Viruses that trigger Acute Bronchitis are generally the ones that cause influenza or the common cold.  The most common viruses causing Acute Bronchitis include:

  • Influenza A and B
  • Para influenza
  • Rhinovirus
  • Adenovirus
  • Respiratory syncytial virus
  • Corona virus

Inhalation of dust, fumes or smoke can also result in Acute Bronchitis.  Bronchitis arising out of these reasons is categorized as acute irritative bronchitis.

Chronic Bronchitis on the other hand is largely caused by habits like smoking or prolonged exposure to smoke from tobacco and other pollutants.  Persons working in industries like coal mining, welding, asbestos work and grain handling are highly susceptible to this disease.

Symptoms of Bronchitis

Cough:  Persistent cough is the most obvious symptom of Bronchitis.  This cough is accompanied by large amounts of thick mucus and phlegm. 

Lung congestion: Heavy Lung congestion and wheezing are also strong indicators of Bronchitis. 

Acute Bronchitis starts as a dry cough and within a short span of time progresses to cough producing thick mucus.  This phlegm is generally yellowish-green in color.  Along with the cough there exist symptoms like wheezing, chest pain, fatigue, body ache, headache, fever and sore throat

Chronic Bronchitis on the other hand features persistent cough for a prolonged period of time.  Along with cough there is a large amount of mucus secreted.  Chronic Bronchitis often turns serious when left untreated or dismissed as just another cough.  It can cause serious damage to the lungs resulting in chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) which can lead to lack of oxygen.  There are physical signs such as blue lips and nails that indicate lack of oxygen in the blood stream.  The excess mucus that is secreted during this condition creates an environment for the viruses and bacteria to breed, which can result in infections like pneumonia.

When is the right time to see the doctor?

Most often, Bronchitis worsens due to unattended care at the onset.  A cold or flu can get complicated and lead to bronchitis especially for young children and older adults with lesser body immunity.  Apart from the symptoms mentioned above, one should see a doctor if any one or more of the below mentioned occur:

  • Persistent cough even after the bout of cold and flu subsides
  • Prolonged Fever over 101 F
  • The mucus remaining greenish in color even after the infection is gone
  • There being traces of blood in the cough
  • Wheezing
  • Experiencing night sweats.

These are some symptoms that can tell that the body has not completely recovered from the cold or flu and there could be an underlying infection that can resurface and cause distress.  In such a case patients should seek immediate medical attention to rule out potential complications.

Diagnosing Bronchitis

Once the patient notices the early symptoms, it is advisable to see a doctor as soon as possible.  One may initially consult a family doctor or a general practitioner to confirm Bronchitis.  After evaluation, the patient could be recommended to a pulmonologist (lung specialist) depending on the severity of the condition.

In case of a Chronic Bronchitis diagnosis, the doctor is likely to conduct a thorough physical examination and make a note of the health history of the patient.  Pulmonologists may conduct a lung function test as well to note the capacity of the lung functioning.  Along with these tests, doctors may also seek chest x-rays and sputum sample analysis to know the organisms that have infected the airways and magnitude of damage caused.

Treatment of bronchitis

Clinical line of treatment

Acute Bronchitis:  This is generally treated by putting the patient on an antibiotic course that takes care of the infection.  Antibiotics are largely prescribed in case of bronchitis caused by bacteria.  Cough medication usually prescribed consist of suppressants (that control cough) or expectorants (that make the secretions thinner and easy to throw out).  Bronchodilators are given through inhalers and nebulizers which help in opening up the airways.

Chronic Bronchitis:  In case of Chronic Bronchitis, bronchodilators and corticosteroids are dispensed regularly through inhalers.  These help in opening up the airways, decreasing inflammation and easing off the condition for patients by helping them breathe better.  Corticosteroid pills such as prednisone are given in situations where the patient’s condition worsens suddenly.  These immediately act to reduce the inflammation and swelling in the airways.  Anticholinergic medications are administered to reduce the coughing. 

Doctors may advise patients of this infection to use some over-the-counter medication like Paracetamol or Ibuprofen to reduce symptoms like headache, fever and muscle pains.

Treating Bronchitis through natural and home remedies

Here are some of the home remedies recommended in dealing with persistent cough due to bronchitis, particularly in children:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids:  As soon as there is an episode of cold, cough or flu, patients must be given plenty of fluids to drink.  Fluids help to thin out the mucus, making it easier for the body to throw out the same.
  • Warm and cool air humidifiers:  Using a warm and cool air humidifier is often recommended to loosen the mucus secretions thereby clearing up the air blockages.  However, care should be taken to clean the humidifiers periodically to prevent bacteria build-up inside the machine.
  • Salt water mist:  Saline inhalation treatment or salt water mist treatment at home is particularly helpful in easing off the cough and naturally opening the airways helping patients breathe better.
  • Chest rubs:  All over the world, chest rubs containing natural ingredients like eucalyptus and camphor are applied on the back and the chest of the patient.  These compounds generate warmth on the skin and are proven to help with persistent cough. 
  • Natural oils and ingredient based drinks:  There are a number of natural herbs that are known to soothe cough and provide natural healing from cold and flu.  Herbs like Thyme, Licorice, Elderberry, Cranberry, Rose hip and Green Tea have natural enzymes and are used as remedies to treat cough and loosen the mucus secretions.

Treating bronchitis through rehabilitation and therapy

Exercising regularly is a way of building stamina and lung capacity which in turn helps in managing bronchitis.

Oxygen Therapy is recommended in many cases for patients with severe bronchitis.

Quitting smoking is the best way of managing bronchitis.  Quitting the habit reduces the risk of further damaging the lungs thereby increasing the chances of a better life for the patient.  One can seek rehabilitation or join support groups to get rid of the habit.

Breathing exercises:  Breathing exercises using devices like incentive spirometer can help patients practice deep breaths that can help open up the airways and prevent mucus build-up in the lungs. 

Lifestyle alterations go a long way in preventing bronchitis

Healthy habits and lifestyle modifications can help in a big way to prevent bronchitis.

  • Quit smoking:  Since tobacco smoke is a proven cause of Chronic Bronchitis, quitting the habit can reduce the risk of its occurrence. 
  • Hygiene:  Washing hands properly and using a disinfectant sanitizer can reduce the risk of catching a viral infection.
  • Using surgical masks:  If one is prone to frequent bouts of cough and flu, it is advisable to wear surgical masks at work and when going out so as to prevent contracting the disease.
  • Physical activity:  Incorporate regular exercise and physical activity in your everyday routine to stay fit and improve body immunity.
  • Healthy diet:  A healthy diet is the foundation of a healthy body.  Stick to a healthy diet to provide your body the necessary nutrients to stay healthy and fight infections.