Bronchitis is an infection of the lungs that often occurs after a bout of cold or flu. It causes the main airways, also known as bronchi, to become inflamed and irritated. There are two different types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis usually lasts a couple of weeks and, if you're otherwise in good health, your lungs will most likely be back to normal soon. Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, is more serious. It's usually the result of smoking cigarettes or breathing in polluted air. Chronic bronchitis symptoms can keep recurring for months or even years without proper treatment.
Our in-depth guide to the medical conditions affecting older people covers bronchitis in brief. Today, however, we'll be taking a detailed look at the symptoms, causes, and treatments of both acute and chronic bronchitis.
What is Bronchitis?
Bronchitis is an infection in the airways of the lungs. The medical term for these airways is 'bronchi'.
The bronchi branch off either side of the windpipe and lead to smaller airways inside your lungs. In addition, the walls of the bronchi produce mucus to trap dust and other particles that could otherwise cause irritation.
Bronchitis happens when an infection irritates the bronchi, causing them to produce more mucus than normal. As a result, you'll feel the need to cough. This is your body's way of trying to clear the mucus.
Types of Bronchitis
As we have discussed, there are two types of bronchitis:
- Acute - This is a temporary inflammation that usually comes after a bout of the flu or a cold. Symptoms tend to last a few weeks and usually clear up without the need for treatment. Acute bronchitis is especially common in winter and can affect people of all ages.
- Chronic - If you are coughing most days for 3 months of the year for 2 years in a row, you'll probably be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. This is one of the most common forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It mostly affects adults over 40, especially those who smoke.
The main symptom of bronchitis is a 'hacking' cough, which may bring up clear, yellow, grey, or greenish mucus. You should also be on the lookout for other symptoms which may resemble a common cold. These symptoms include:
- Tiredness or fatigue.
- Sore throat.
- Runny and blocked nose.
- Aches and pains, particularly in the chest.
You may experience pain in your chest and stomach muscles as a result of continuous coughing. If you have chronic bronchitis, you might also feel breathless or hear wheezing sounds when you breathe. In acute cases, your cough could last for several weeks after the rest of your symptoms have cleared up.
Do you need to go to the doctor for bronchitis?
If your cough lasts longer than three weeks or you cough up mucus containing blood, you should consult a GP without delay. If you also have a fever, you may have pneumonia or flu. However, it could also be COVID-19.
If you have a high temperature, a new cough, and/or a change to your sense of smell/taste, you should arrange a test as soon as possible.
There are several other reasons why you might need to seek medical help. See the NHS guide to bronchitis for a complete list of these reasons.
Initially, your doctor will try to rule out any other lung infections which have similar symptoms. If your doctor believes that you may have pneumonia, they may send you for a chest X-ray. You might also have to blow into a spirometer, which is a device to test the volume of air in your lungs.
Causes of Bronchitis
Bronchitis is commonly caused by a virus - usually the same viruses that cause common colds and flu. However, bacteria can be the cause in some cases.
Similarly to colds and flu, bronchitis can be spread via coughs and sneezes. When someone with the infection coughs, millions of tiny droplets containing the virus come out of their nose and mouth. These droplets can spread up to one metre and settle on nearby surfaces. If anybody else breathes in these droplets or comes into contact with these surfaces, they will be at risk of infection.
Other causes of bronchitis include contact with harmful substances like smog and tobacco smoke. Smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis, which can then trigger another smoking-related condition known as emphysema.
Furthermore, you could be at risk of chronic bronchitis if your work exposes you to grain dust, fabric fibres, or chemical substances like chlorine, ammonia, and strong acids. If you work with any of these substances, you should make sure you take the right safety precautions. You should wear dust masks where necessary and take short breaks whenever you can, ideally in the fresh air. Make sure your employer is providing you with the safety equipment you need.
Certain occupations can put you at a higher risk of developing chronic bronchitis and/or COPD. These professions include:
- Petroleum workers.
For more information about hazardous occupations, go to the HSE website.
Treatment for Bronchitis
Most cases of acute bronchitis do not need medical treatment. Usually, they will clear up by themselves within a few weeks. Instead, you should simply drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest to help control your symptoms and ease any pain.
Drinking plenty of fluids will help to prevent dehydration, whilst also thinning the mucus in your lungs. You can also treat any headaches, temperatures, or aches with paracetamol or ibuprofen. However, ibuprofen is not recommended for those with asthma.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for chronic bronchitis. However, some simple lifestyle changes can be very effective when it comes to easing your symptoms. If you are a smoker, it is absolutely essential that you quit smoking without delay. Continuing to smoke will make your symptoms worse and can make them last much, much longer.
Next, we'll discuss some simple lifestyle changes which can ease your bronchitis symptoms.
Firstly, exercising regularly can strengthen all your muscles, including the ones that help you breathe. It can also help you maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight can make it harder to breathe, worsening the symptoms of bronchitis. Similarly, eating a healthy diet can help you maintain a healthy weight, thereby relieving bronchitis symptoms.
Breathing through pursed lips (like you're about to kiss someone) can be helpful when you're having difficulty breathing. Your doctor can recommend more breathing techniques and relaxation tips.
How To Prevent Bronchitis
One of the main ways to help reduce your risk is to quit smoking and to limit the time you spend around smokers. The chemicals in tobacco smoke are the main cause of chronic bronchitis, which can also lead to emphysema.
Hygiene is crucial. As we know, the common cold and flu viruses can trigger bronchitis. With this in mind, it is important to wash your hands frequently, especially before eating or touching your face. Be aware of those around you. If you notice somebody has cold-like symptoms, you should avoid physical interactions with them, especially if you've been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis.
A Risk of Pneumonia
Around 1 in 20 cases of bronchitis will lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is when the tissue in one or both of your lungs begins to swell, due to a bacterial infection. Therefore, bacterial cases of bronchitis are more likely to develop into pneumonia than viral cases. Those most at risk of developing pneumonia are:
- The elderly.
- Those with other conditions such as heart, liver, or kidney disease.
- Those with weakened immune systems.
Some mild cases of pneumonia can be treated at home with antibiotics. In more severe cases you may need to receive treatment in hospital.
Living With Chronic Bronchitis
Chronic bronchitis can cause breathing difficulties, which can be very frightening and potentially life-threatening. For this reason, it's important to have a plan in place for emergencies. If you live alone, how will you call for help? What if you can't reach a telephone? Thankfully, personal alarms are a simple, affordable solution.
Lifeline24 offers life-saving personal alarm systems. Our Emergency Response Team is based right here in the UK and operates 24/7, 365 days a year. All customers receive a pendant button, which can be worn around the wrist or neck. Simply press the button to call for assistance. Our Response Team will answer the call and arrange for your chosen emergency contacts to come and help you. If it's a medical emergency, we'll also call for an ambulance on your behalf.
Chronic bronchitis is a long-term medical condition. If you have chronic bronchitis, you are eligible for VAT Exemption when you order a personal alarm system from Lifeline24. HMRC states that a product that has been “designed or adapted for a disability” qualifies for VAT exemption. This means you will not pay any VAT on your new alarm.
For a person to qualify, they must meet certain criteria set by HMRC. These criteria state that the customer must have a long-term illness, a terminal illness, or a disability to qualify.
Staying Safe at Home
A personal alarm can help protect people who suffer from medical conditions such as bronchitis. If one of our alarm users feels unwell or suffers a fall, they can press their pendant button. They will immediately be connected to our 24/7 Emergency Response Team, who will assess the situation and arrange the appropriate help. We offer a range of different alarms to suit all needs and lifestyles.
For more information on our life-saving personal alarms, please speak to one of our friendly advisors on 0800 999 0400. Alternatively, complete our Contact Us form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on 6th April 2022 to reflect the latest information.