Bronchitis is a chest infection that causes the main airways of the lungs (bronchi) to become irritated and inflamed.
The main airways branch off on either side of your windpipe (trachea). They lead to smaller and smaller airways inside your lungs called bronchioles. The walls of the main airways produce mucus to trap dust and other particles that could otherwise cause irritation.
Most cases of bronchitis happen when an infection irritates and inflames the airways, causing them to produce more mucus than usual. Your body tries to shift this extra mucus through coughing. Bronchitis can be described as being either acute bronchitis or chronic bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis is temporary inflammation of the airways that causes a cough and mucus. It lasts up to 3 weeks. It can affect people of all ages, but mostly happens in children under the age of 5.
It’s more common in winter and often comes on after a common cold, sore throat or the flu.
Chronic bronchitis is a daily productive cough that lasts for 3 months of the year and for at least 2 years in a row. It’s 1 of a number of lung conditions, including emphysema, that are collectively known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It mostly affects adults over the age of 40.
It’s important that you stop smoking if you have bronchitis. Cigarette smoke and the chemicals in cigarettes make bronchitis worse and increase your risk of developing chronic bronchitis and COPD.
- a sore throat
- a headache
- a runny or blocked nose
- aches and pains
If you have acute bronchitis, your cough may last for several weeks after other symptoms have gone. You may also find that the continual coughing makes your chest and stomach muscles sore. Some people may have shortness of breath or wheezing as a result of inflamed airways, but this is more common with long-term (chronic) bronchitis.
When to see a healthcare practitioner
- your cough is severe or lasts longer than 3 weeks
- you have a high temperature for more than 3 days – this may be a sign of flu or a more serious condition, such as pneumonia
- you cough up mucus streaked with blood
- you have an underlying heart or lung condition, such as asthma, heart failure or emphysema
- you’re becoming more breathless
- you have had repeated episodes of bronchitis
Causes of bronchitis
Viral and bacterial infections
Bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. Less often, it’s caused by a bacteria. In most cases, bronchitis is caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold or flu. The virus is contained in the millions of tiny droplets that come out of the nose and mouth when someone coughs or sneezes. These droplets typically spread about 1m. They hang suspended in the air for a while, then land on surfaces, where the virus can survive for up to 24 hours. Anyone who touches these surfaces can spread the virus further by touching something else.
Breathing in irritant substances
You may also be at risk of chronic bronchitis and other types of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) if you’re often exposed to materials that can damage your lungs, such as:
- grain dust
- textiles (fabric fibres)
- strong acids
This is sometimes known as occupational bronchitis. It usually eases once you’re no longer exposed to the irritant substance.
- eating a healthy diet
- regular moderate exercise
- avoiding smoking
Medicines called bronchodilators and steroids “open up” the airways and can be prescribed as an inhaler or as tablets. Mucolytic medicines thin the mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough up.
Managing bronchitis symptoms at home
If you have acute bronchitis:
- get plenty of rest
- drink lots of fluid – this helps prevent dehydration and thins the mucus in your lungs, making it easier to cough up
- treat headaches, a high temperature, and aches and pains with paracetamol or ibuprofen – although ibuprofen is not recommended if you have asthma
- premature babies
- elderly people over the age of 80
- people with a history of heart, lung, kidney or liver disease
- people with a weakened immune system, which could be the result of an underlying condition or a side effect of a treatment like steroids
- people with cystic fibrosis
If you’re prescribed antibiotics for bronchitis, it’s likely to be a 5-day course of amoxicillin or doxycycline.
Complications of bronchitis
- elderly people
- people who smoke
- people with other health conditions, such as heart, liver or kidney disease
- people with a weakened immune system
Mild pneumonia can usually be treated with antibiotics at home. More severe cases may require admission to hospital.
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