Bronchitis is an infection of the main airways of the lungs. It causes these airways, also known as bronchi, to become inflamed and irritated. There are two different types of bronchitis: acute and chronic.
You may have read about this condition in our in-depth guide to the medical conditions which affect older people. Today’s we’ll be taking a look at the specific 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 on 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.
In cases of bronchitis, the infection irritates the bronchi, which prompts them to produce more mucus than normal. Your body will then try to move this mucus through coughing.
Types of Bronchitis
As we have discussed, there are two types of bronchitis:
- Acute – This is a temporary inflammation of your airways which will cause the production of mucus and a cough. This form of the condition commonly lasts around three weeks and usually clears up without the need for treatment. It can affect people of all ages. Acute bronchitis is common during the winter and can develop following a common cold or flu.
- Chronic – If symptoms last three months or more, then it is classed as chronic bronchitis. This form of the condition is a member of the ‘chronic obstructive pulmonary disease‘ category.
Symptoms of Bronchitis
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:
- Sore throat.
- Runny and blocked nose.
- Aches and pains.
You may experience pain in your chest and stomach muscles as a result of continuous coughing. If you have chronic bronchitis you might also suffer from a shortness of breath due to your inflamed airways. In acute cases, your cough could last for several weeks after the rest of your symptoms have cleared up.
However, if your cough lasts longer than three weeks or you cough up mucus containing blood, you should consult a GP without delay.
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 comes into contact with these surfaces then they could 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 at 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.
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. The smoke and harmful chemicals in cigarettes 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 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.
Breathing through pursed lips (like you’re about to kiss someone) can be helpful when you’re having difficulty breathing.
How To Prevent Bronchitis
One of the main ways to help reduce the risk of bronchitis 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.
Ultimately, hygiene is crucial. As we already 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.
A Risk of Pneumonia
Around one 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.
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Staying safe at home
A personal alarm can help protect people if they 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.
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 2 June 2020 to reflect current information.
Originally published on 27 October 2016.