Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs during respiration. There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis is a common ailment, occurring frequently as a complication of a cold or other respiratory infection. Chronic bronchitis, however, is less common and more serious. An individual is considered to have chronic bronchitis when the illness lasts longer, up to several months, and occurs more frequently, two or more bouts a year. Chronic bronchitis may be a precursor of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Causes of Bronchitis

Most cases of bronchitis are caused by a virus. While the illness may originate from a viral infection like a cold or flu, it may then be complicated by a bacterial infection. If bronchitis remains viral, antibiotic treatment does not help to cure the ailment. However, if bacteria invade the bronchial tubes, antibiotics may be necessary and helpful.

Pollutants often make the respiratory system susceptible to bronchial infection. The most common pollutant is cigarette (or cigar or pipe) smoke. Many people who suffer chronic bronchitis are smokers or live in a smoke-filled environment. Air pollution, dust or any airborne toxins, whether at home or in the workplace, make bronchitis more likely.

Risk Factors for Bronchitis

Some people are at much greater risk of developing bronchitis than others. The following factors make an individual more likely to contract the illness:

  • Being a smoker or being exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Living or working in an environment polluted by chemical fumes
  • Having severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Being asthmatic

Babies or young children, elderly individuals or those with underlying disease conditions that compromise their immune systems are also more likely to develop bronchitis.

Symptoms of Bronchitis

Symptoms of acute or chronic bronchitis may include:

  • Tightness in the chest
  • Cough with clear or colored mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Low grade fever and chills
  • General malaise and fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

If symptoms last more than a few days, or if they include the following, a doctor should be consulted:

  • Fever
  • Inability to sleep due to coughing or wheezing
  • Shortness or breath or difficulty breathing
  • Sputum that is yellow, greenish or streaked with blood

Patients who have asthma, a disorder in which there is muscle tightening and swelling around the airways, tend to be prone to a form of bronchitis called asthmatic bronchitis. They often have more severe symptoms and should seek medical care.

Diagnosis of Bronchitis

In order to diagnose bronchitis, the doctor will take a medical history and do a physical examination. Listening to the patient's breathing through a stethoscope is important because the doctor can detect wheezing and, to a certain extent, congestion in this way. A mucous sample may be obtained to check for bacterial infection. Usually, the patient's oxygen level is measured with an oximeter. Other diagnostic tests may be used, particularly if pneumonia, or some other complication, is suspected. These tests include chest X-rays, lung function tests, and blood tests.

Treatment of Bronchitis

If the bronchitis is viral, it will usually resolve on its own in a few days. Rest and drinking fluids can decrease discomfort and speed healing. If symptoms are severe or persist, a physician should be consulted. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics or administer further tests. Patients who have chronic asthmatic bronchitis may be treated with corticosteroid inhalers or other medications, sometimes administered through a nebulizer, to keep their airways open. Patients with any chronic respiratory ailments should be vaccinated for the influenza and pneumonia.

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