Bronchitis is a respiratory disease, it is one of the most common infections of the upper/large airways (the trachea and bronchi).

Bronchitis causes the mucous membrane in the lungs’ bronchial passages to become inflamed. As the irritated membrane swells, it narrows or shuts off the tiny airways in the lungs, resulting in coughing spells accompanied by phlegm (thick mucus) and breathlessness.

The bronchitis infection can be caused by either viruses or bacteria, although viral bronchitis is much more common. In most cases, bronchitis is caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold or flu.

Bronchitis can also be triggered by breathing in irritant substances, such as smog, chemicals in household products or tobacco smoke.

Bronchitis can be acute (lasting from one to three weeks) or chronic (lasting at least three months of the year for two years in a row).

The elderly are especially at risk of contracting bronchitis.

What are its symptoms?

The main symptom of bronchitis is a hacking cough. Your cough may bring up thick yellow-grey mucus (phlegm or sputum).The colour of the sputum could indicate its cause, for viral causes, the sputum is usually clear.

Other symptoms are similar to those of other infections, such as the common cold or sinusitis, and may include:

  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Runny or blocked nose
  • Aches and pains
  • Fever, chills
  • Fatigue

See a doctor if your symptoms:

  • Last more than three weeks
  • Prevent you from sleeping
  • Are accompanied by a high fever
  • Produce discoloured mucus
  • Produce blood

How is it diagnosed?

Tests are unnecessary in the case of acute bronchitis, as the disease is usually easy to detect through your description of symptoms and a physical examination. Your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen for the rattling sound in your lungs’ upper airways that typically accompanies the problem.

There are a number of different diagnostic tools for chronic bronchitis. These include:

  • Pulmonary function tests
  • Arterial blood gas
  • Chest X-ray
  • Pulse oximetry (oxygen saturation testing)
  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Exercise testing

What are your treatment options?

Most cases of bronchitis do not require you to visit your doctor, and the symptoms can be eased with home treatment.

It is unlikely your doctor will prescribe antibiotics, as bronchitis is mostly caused by a virus. Antibiotics will only be prescribed if you have an increased risk of developing complications like pneumonia.

There is no cure for chronic bronchitis, but healthy living will help. In particular, you should stop smoking, if you smoke.

If you have bronchitis:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink lots of fluids – this helps prevent dehydration and thins the mucous in your lungs, making it easier to cough up
  • Treat headaches, fever, and aches and pains with paracetamol or ibuprofen – although ibuprofen is not recommended if you have asthma

Can it be prevented?

To reduce your risk of bronchitis, follow these tips:

  • Avoid cigarette smoke
  • Get vaccinated. Many cases of acute bronchitis result from the flu virus.
  • Wash your hands. To reduce your risk of catching a viral infection, wash your hands frequently and get in the habit of using hand sanitizers.
The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2015