The human respiratory tract starts at the nose and mouth and extends down to the lungs. Air that we breathe in passes through the nasal passages, down the trachea, into some branched tubes called bronchial tubes or bronchi and then into the alveoli or air sacs in the lungs. The respiratory tract is divided into the upper respiratory tract and lower respiratory tract. The upper respiratory tract consists of the nose, mouth, and down to the larynx just above the vocal cords. Everything below that down to the lungs comprises the lower respiratory tract. Bronchitis is a disease of the lower respiratory tract.
Bronchitis is an inflammation caused in the lining of the bronchial tubes, through which air passes and reaches lungs. Bronchitis can be classified into two groups such as acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis. A cough, production of mucus, fatigue, slight fever, and chest discomfort are the common symptoms of both types of bronchitis.
In acute bronchitis, there is inflammation of the bronchial tubes. This inflammation is usually caused by bacteria or viruses. In about ninety percent of cases, the infection is caused by the same kind of virus that causes the common cold or flu. A cough may be continuous, with the production of sputum that may last for at least 3 months, followed by frequent recurrences in the next 2 years. The usual symptoms are:
- Watery eyes
- Body aches
- Nasal congestion
- Sore throat
- Unexpected weight loss
A cough in acute bronchitis is often described as a nagging cough that persists for several days or weeks even after the condition has been treated.
The major signs and symptoms of acute bronchitis include:
- A cough that produces either clear or yellowish mucus and continues even after 10 days
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness, pain, and discomfort while breathing
- Sore throat
- Low-grade fever or a high fever
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
In chronic bronchitis, cough is often continuous and persists for at least three months to two years. People with recurrent acute bronchitis are more likely to develop chronic bronchitis. The noticeable signs of chronic bronchitis include wheeze, chest tightness, and coughing. Coughing may produce a large amount of rusty or green colored sputum sometimes blood-tinged. This type of bronchitis is generally called a smoker's cough. Below is a list of symptoms for chronic bronchitis:
- A cough that is so severe it causes soreness of the abdominal and chest muscles
- Increased shortness of breath
- Coughing up blood in sputum or more green phlegm
If the patient is suffering from acute bronchitis and begins experiencing the following symptoms, it could indicate the progression to chronic bronchitis. The symptoms are:
- Recurrences of a persistent cough
- Shortness of breath
- Mucus that is tinged with blood
Usually, children do not get bronchitis. However, they may develop bronchiolitis. Bronchiolitis is caused by a virus called Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). In this condition, the small air passages within a child's lungs, called bronchioles, get filled with mucus and become swollen. During the early stages of bronchiolitis, it is often a mild illness. Over time, bronchiolitis becomes severe, especially if the child was born prematurely with a heart disease or a weakened immune system. Initially, the child may have the symptoms of a cold:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Slight fever
- Feeling short of breath
At later stages, the cough may produce greenish or yellowish mucus. If your child is struggling to breathe or is short of breath, it may be due to bronchiolitis or asthma. Kids who have bronchiolitis may develop asthma later on. However, it is not yet clearly identified whether bronchiolitis in children develops into asthma at later stages, or asthma develops into bronchiolitis. Experts are still studying this aspect. Some children may get attacks of bronchitis frequently or develop chronic bronchitis due to allergies.
You need to consult a doctor if:
- Your cough lasts for more than 3 weeks
- You are unable to sleep
- You have a fever higher than 100.4 F (38° C)
- You have blood-tinged or discolored mucus
- There is wheezing or shortness of breath
Bronchitis is a disease of the lower respiratory tract which occurs when the bronchial tubes get irritated and inflamed. This results in heavy mucus production of the inner bronchial lining and a narrowing of the bronchi, making breathing difficult. There are two types of bronchitis, acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection and in some cases can be caused by bacterial infection. Chronic bronchitis is caused due to damage in the inner lining of the bronchi. Damage is often a result of long-term exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke, second-hand cigarette smoke, industrial pollutants, dust, allergens, etc. Symptoms of bronchitis might be similar to those of other respiratory disorders, most notably the common cold. However, bronchitis can be identified by certain telltale signs which include: bringing up sputum when coughing or sneezing, recurrences in a cough over longer periods of time, shortness of breath, wheezing, and low-grade fever.
If you have recently had an attack of the flu, common cold, frequently been exposed to irritants, or had contact with an individual suffering from bronchitis and have begun to display similar symptoms. There is a good chance that you might be developing acute or chronic bronchitis. If any of the signs of bronchitis become apparent, make sure to visit your doctor for a proper diagnosis and course of action to help combat the disease. In the case of acute bronchitis caused by a viral infection, rest and adequate intake of fluids are recommended. The doctor might also prescribe something to control the fever or provide relief from a cough. If brought on by a bacterial infection, a course of antibiotic might be prescribed. Chronic bronchitis can be kept under control by a few lifestyle modifications like giving up smoking, changing jobs to avoid inhalation of toxic fumes, moving to a less polluted area, or wearing an air filter mask when going outdoors. Symptoms might also be treated in consultation with a doctor.
Do not ignore the signs of bronchitis. Early intervention could prove to be life-saving.