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Need to know if your cough is something more serious than the symptom of a common cold?
If you’re coughing and feeling lousy, it may be something more serious like bronchitis.
Bronchitis is a fairly common condition that often develops from a cold or respiratory infection, but can also develop from long-term smoking. Here is what to look for and how to tell if you have bronchitis:
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What is Bronchitis?
Bronchitis is an inflammation and infection of the bronchial tubes, which are part of the respiratory system. These tubes branch out from either side of the trachea and carry air to the lungs. Bronchial tubes are the part of the body affected by asthma symptoms, and their position at the base of the trachea leaves them open to infection. Once infected, they can fill with mucus, which causes the symptoms of chest congestion and coughing. If left untreated, the infection can travel deeper into the respiratory system and develop into pneumonia.
There are two primary types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis sets in quickly and usually lasts for two to three weeks. Chronic bronchitis causes recurring symptoms that can last for several weeks or months. Chronic bronchitis is most common in people with other respiratory conditions and smokers. The majority of people who suffer from bronchitis symptoms are experiencing an acute bronchitis attack.
Bronchial infections are usually viral, but long-lasting acute bronchitis can be caused by a bacteria. In either case, medical care and pharmaceuticals may be required to manage symptoms and destroy pathogens. By understanding how bronchitis occurs and what symptoms to look for, patients can find relief from this respiratory disease before it worsens.
What causes Bronchitis?
Bronchitis often occurs when pathogens enter the bronchial tubes, causing mucus production and inflammation. In many cases, bronchitis develops as a secondary infection after the respiratory system is already weakened by an existing illness, allergy or condition. Bronchitis may start as a head cold that migrates down into the chest.
The defining characteristic of bronchitis is the presence of mucus in the bronchial tubes. It’s possible for other disorders to mimic the symptoms of bronchitis, and a patient may have bronchitis while harboring an infection in another area, like the ears or sinuses.
It’s important to realize that bronchitis itself is not a specific disease. Rather, it is a general term for a cluster of symptoms that can be caused by multiple different pathogens. As such, bronchitis itself is not contagious. However, the disease that caused the bronchitis symptoms may be transmitted from one patient to the next. Moreover, not all patients with a particular disease will exhibit bronchitis symptom.
Common Pathogens causing Bronchitis
The most common pathogens responsible for bronchitis are cold and flu viruses. These are the same viruses that can be responsible for sinus infections, ear infections and various upper respiratory complaints. Depending on a patient’s risk factors and immune system, an individual with a old or flu virus may or may not develop bronchitis symptoms during the course of an infection.
Less commonly, a particular bacteria called Mycoplasma pneumoniae can infect the bronchial tubes and cause bronchitis symptoms. This condition is also referred to as “walking pneumonia” and can worsen if not treated promptly with antibiotics. If the bacterial infection travels into the lungs themselves, the resulting pneumonia can be more difficult to treat. There are other bacterial agents that cause acute bronchitis as well.
Finally, some types of bronchitis are not caused by pathogens at all. Bronchitis symptoms can be triggered by allergens or irritants. People suffering from chronic bronchitis may continue to experience symptoms for a long time until the underlying cause is removed. This can become especially complicated as the bronchitis can be initially triggered by an allergen, but worsened by a secondary viral or bacterial infection.
Risk Factors for Bronchitis
Although anyone can get bronchitis, some individuals are at a higher risk of contracting the disease than others. This is especially true of chronic bronchitis, which is much more common in people who have the following risk factors:
Smoking: Smokers are at a high risk of contracting both acute and chronic bronchitis. The smoke irritates the respiratory tract and weakens the immune system. Additionally, smokers tend to produce more mucus in response to the irritants in cigarette smoke. This mucus can in turn harbor infections.
Compromised immunity: People whose immune systems are compromised by age, disease or disability have a higher likelihood of contracting bronchitis and other infections. This is one reason why it’s important for the elderly and infirm to receive annual flu vaccinations; they can help prevent the development of bronchitis.
Allergies: People who suffer from severe allergies may have a higher incidence of respiratory infections, including bronchitis. The allergens themselves will not cause bronchitis to form. However, they will compromise the patient’s immune system and cause an increase in mucus production, which can promote infection. Bronchitis commonly develops as a secondary complaint for allergy sufferers.
Exposure to Irritants: People who work around chemicals and other irritants on a frequent basis may develop bronchitis. Chemical irritants can weaken the immune system and create allergy-like symptoms in individuals. Some common irritants include aerosols, dust, mold and industrial chemicals.
Other Chronic Respiratory Conditions: People who frequently experience upper respiratory conditions may be at higher risk of contracting bronchitis. This is because mucus can carry pathogens through the respiratory tract, allowing the infection to spread. Patients with chronic sinus infections or other respiratory issues may find that they contract bronchitis frequently.
In general, anything that may irritate the respiratory tract can be considered a risk factor for bronchitis. For some patients, these risks may be more severe than others. Other individuals may suffer from chronic bronchitis without the presence of obvious risk factors.
In addition to avoiding the above risk factors whenever possible, patients can reduce their chances of contracting bronchitis by following a few simple tips:
Treat allergies quickly. Allergies can often trigger bronchitis symptoms and leave patients open to infection. Individuals suffering from seasonal allergies should make every effort to treat those allergies quickly rather than allowing symptoms to worsen.
Get vaccinated. Several valuable vaccinations are available to reduce the risk of respiratory disease in adults and children. In addition to an annual flu vaccine, there are also vaccinations available for whooping cough and pneumonia. Being immunized against these diseases can reduce the chances of contracting a serious respiratory infection.
Boost immunity. People can improve their overall immunity by leading a healthy lifestyle. Getting enough sleep, exercising frequently and eating a healthy diet can all help prevent disease by boosting the body’s immune system.
Avoid sick people. Whenever possible, it helps to avoid contact with people who are ill. Cold and flu viruses can cause bronchitis in patients even when the patient is not around others with bronchitis.
Signs and Symptoms of Bronchitis
Bronchitis is defined by congestion in the bronchial tubes and a persistent cough. The cough may be dry, but it is more often wet and productive. This is one way to distinguish bronchitis from other types of respiratory diseases, which often exhibit with a dry cough. Excessive amounts of thick, pus-filled or bloody phlegm can be a sign that the infection has worsened or spread deeper into the lungs.
Chest congestion can cause a feeling of tightness or pressure in the upper part of the patient’s chest. The severe coughing caused by bronchitis can also cause a patient to develop pain in the chest and abdominal muscles. Some patients may also experience light-headedness or fainting as a result of poor oxygenation during coughing fits. The tightness in the patient’s chest can make it difficult to breathe deeply, and some patients may report difficulty with catching their breath.
Patients may also exhibit any or all of the following symptoms:
Chest pain and congestion
As bronchitis often develops in individuals who are already sick with a cold or flu virus, many of these symptoms may be present before bronchitis sets in. If the bronchitis is caused by another source, such as a chemical irritant, many of the symptoms listed above may not be present.
Bronchitis and Asthma
People with asthma may have an increased risk of contracting bronchitis due to a weakness in their respiratory tracts. Asthma targets the bronchial tubes, and frequent asthma attacks an weaken the tissue in the area. Additionally, some patients who do not normally exhibit asthma symptoms may develop them while sick with bronchitis. This is referred to as asthmatic bronchitis.
Symptoms of asthmatic bronchitis include tightness in the chest, inability to breathe deeply and occasional or persistent wheezing. Instead of experiencing severe asthma attacks, most patients with asthmatic bronchitis will have more chronic asthma-like symptoms that may last for the duration of the bronchitis. People with asthmatic bronchitis can get relief from a rescue inhaler or oral steroids.
The symptoms generally resolve themselves after successful bronchitis treatment. In some rare cases, bronchitis may trigger more long-term or chronic asthma that must be treated after the bronchitis has been resolved.
Other Diseases with Similar Symptoms
Because bronchitis is a collection of symptoms, not a specific disease, many other conditions can present with similar symptoms. Identifying whether a respiratory infection can be treated as pneumonia or requires specific treatment is an important step to recovery. Here are some common conditions that may be confused for bronchitis:
Pneumonia is a bacterial infection of the lungs that causes inflammation and fluid build-up. Bronchitis can be caused by the same bacteria that causes pneumonia. Pneumonia can also develop secondary to severe bronchitis if a compromised immune system allows pathogens to travel into the lungs.
Asthma is a chronic condition that causes the bronchial tubes to constrict. Asthma attacks usually come on quickly and may be triggered by stress or allergens. Bronchitis can cause asthma-like symptoms for the duration of the infection and sometimes for several weeks afterwards.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a chronic condition that causes shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing. People with COPD may be at a greater risk of contracting bronchitis and other respiratory diseases due to a weakened immune system. People with chronic bronchitis may be treated for COPD.
Whooping cough is a bacterial infection of the airways that causes persistent and severe coughing. In some cases, the cough may be so severe that patients lose consciousness due to lack of air intake.
Gastroesophogeal reflux disease, also called GERD or acid reflux, is a digestive problem that can mimic the symptoms of a respiratory ailment. In GERD, acid travels up the esophagus. This can cause burning, chest pain or pressure and shortness of breath. Some patients may also cough due to throat irritation. A night cough or cough when lying flat can be hints that you have GERD.
Heart disease can also mimic the symptoms of respiratory illness. Because coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain can be caused by so many things, it’s important for a patient to pay attention to his or her symptoms and seek medical attention when necessary. Having a doctor rule out the above conditions is an important step to properly treating bronchitis.
Diagnosis of Bronchitis
When a patient visits the doctor with complaints of coughing and chest pain, the doctor will assess you to determine the location and severity of the infection. Questions about your work and home environment and habits may be discussed as well. If a health care providers listens to your chest, they will hear congestion in the bronchial tubes and sometimes wheezing. Depending on the situation, the doctor may also recommend a chest x-rays to rule out the possibility of pneumonia. If no fluid is detected in the lungs, bronchitis treatment will be recommended; if fluid is detected, the doctor may prescribe additional treatment for pneumonia.
In the case of chronic bronchitis, pulmonary tests may also be recommended in the future to see whether the patient’s lungs are working properly and assess any risk factors that may be causing the chronic bronchitis. This is especially common in cases where a doctor wishes to rule out COPD as a cause for symptoms. Advanced testing may be in order if the symptoms are unusual or more chronic, such as allergy testing or testing for Cystic Fibrosis.
Treatment for Bronchitis
The treatment for bronchitis will depend on the cause of the infection or irritation. A bacterial infection will require antibiotics to treat effectively. As most cases of bronchitis are viral, however, antibiotics are usually neither necessary nor helpful. A patient will be expected to rest and drink plenty of fluids to allow the body’s natural defenses to combat the virus in the airways.
Individuals suffering from bronchitis should alleviate as many risk factors as possible to expedite the healing process. Smokers are encouraged to quit smoking, and any allergens or chemical irritants should be avoided. Taking steps to alleviate these irritants permanently will often prevent chronic bronchitis from developing or worsening.
Medication for Bronchitis
Aside from antibiotics for bacterial infections, there are few prescription drugs associated with the treatment of bronchitis. Prescription cough medicines can sometimes be administered. Depending on the situation, an expectorant can be prescribed to help produce more phlegm and help the body expunge infected mucus. In other cases, a doctor may prescribe a cough suppressant to help the patient sleep at night or get through the day without coughing. Some patients are given both in tandem to take at different times during the day. Patients experiencing tightness in the chest or symptoms of asthmatic bronchitis may also be prescribed an inhaler. This inhaler will deliver broncho-dilator drugs into the airway and help open up constricted bronchial tubes. A nebulizer may be recommended instead of or in addition to an inhaler. The patient may use the nebulizer to take prescription drugs or simply use saline to help open the airways.
People with chronic or severe bronchitis may be prescribed a steroid that will reduce inflammation in the airways and allow freer breathing. Due to the side effects of steroids, these are not always the preferred treatment for all patients. A patient must discuss the potential risks and benefits with his or her doctor before beginning this type of treatment.
Home Remedies for Bronchitis
As bronchitis is usually caused by a virus, the only cure is time and rest to allow the body to heal itself. Some prescription medications can help manage symptoms. In addition, are a few home remedies that can help reduce the severity of bronchitis symptoms:
Painkillers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen will reduce fever and muscle aches caused by the infection and constant coughing.
A humidifier or cool mist vaporizer can help open up a patient’s airways and allow him or her to breathe more freely, especially while sleeping.
Hot tea can soothe throat irritation from coughing and provide much-needed liquid to the patient.
Honey, lemon, ginger and almonds are all reported to have medicinal properties against bronchitis; consider adding them to tea or otherwise increasing their consumption.
One common home remedy for bronchitis sufferers is to sit in a steam-filled room or take a long hot shower. The steam can help open the patient’s airways and provide some relief from respiratory irritation. The extra moisture can also help loosen up phlegm and make coughing more productive. This treatment can be used instead of or in conjunction with a vaporizer.
Should I take Cough Medicine?
Coughing is a necessary part of the recovery process. Coughing allows the body to expel the infected phlegm that is causing the chest congestion. For this reason, patients are encouraged to cough freely whenever they feel the need. Expectorant may be prescribed to help loosen the phlegm and encourage a productive cough.
In most causes, a cough suppressant is not recommended for bronchitis sufferers. Suppressing the urge to cough can create an excess amount of infected phlegm in the airways, which in turn will cause the symptoms to last longer. Temporarily suppressing the cough may cause bronchitis to last much longer than it otherwise would. In some cases, a doctor may prescribe a cough medicine for use at night so the patient can sleep uninterrupted. It’s important to check with a doctor before using any over-the-counter cough suppressants as they may make bronchitis symptoms worse.
When should I call a Doctor for Bronchitis?
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