Bronchitis is a condition that falls in between the common cold and pneumonia in severity.
What is bronchitis:
It is the inflammation of the lower respiratory system that stretches from the trachea (windpipe) to the bronchial tubes (or bronchi) and into the depths of the lung tissue.
It is an inflammation of the airways found in the lungs. The bronchi or the main tubes that allow air to flow through in the lungs and the smaller, branching tubes called bronchioles get the most affected. These tubes get inflamed and cause narrowing, constriction and blockage of the airways. This then leads to symptoms of bronchitis to manifest themselves.
Irritation and inflammation of the tubes cause overproduction of mucus. The mucus and swelling then make it harder for the lungs to move oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of the body.
Bronchitis can arise from several factors. The most common being infections caused by virus or bacteria.
Environmental factors also play a big role in causing bronchitis. Irritation of the airways can be caused by exposure to cigarette smoke, various pollutants, and other occupational hazards.
A genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can also play a role in causing chronic bronchitis. However, this is a rare occurrence.
- Long-term exposure to lung irritants (second-hand smoke, chemical fumes, pollution)
Acute bronchitis is a form of the illness that starts suddenly and resolves itself after just a few weeks.
It is sometimes referred to as a chest cold and is typically caused by a virus. Bacterial infections are not common with acute bronchitis.
Around 95% of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses that has travelled from the upper respiratory tract, the nose and throat, into the rest of the lungs.
Rhinovirus, adenovirus, influenza A and B, and the parainfluenza virus are the most common viruses linked with bronchitis. These viruses are the same ones that give rise to the common colds or the flu.
Acute bronchitis begins when normal cold or flu infections linger and spreads to the lower parts of the respiratory tract. This causes more inflammation. It is then tagged as a secondary infection or complication.
On the other hand, chronic bronchitis is a recurrent condition where there is chronic (persisting) inflammation, swelling and narrowing in the airways. It is further defined as a cough with mucus produced for at least a 3-month period for two years in a row.
Chronic bronchitis is the result of lung damage caused by other chronic medical disorders or by smoking.
It is a type of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). COPD is a group of lung diseases that make it hard to breathe and get worse over time.
Chronic bronchitis is not reversible. The goal of treatment is to improve the quality of life and prevent complications.
Acute bronchitis is difficult to distinguish from a common cold or flu during the first few days. There are no specific tests for it.
Doctors will rely on medical history, like determining if there was a recent bout of the common cold or flu. Other factors shall also be considered in the diagnosis like smoking or exposure to any other lung irritants.
Other symptoms and their length plus physical exams shall also be considered in coming up with a definitive diagnosis. A stethoscope will be used to listen for any abnormal sounds coming from the lungs. Any sound may be an indication that there is a lung inflammation present.
In more severe cases of bronchitis, or in cases of chronic bronchitis, a chest X-ray, blood tests, or pulmonary function testing may be needed.
It is important to note that there is no cure for chronic bronchitis. However, there are treatments available that can help with the symptoms. These can help and improve a person’s quality of life.
- Lifestyle changes – quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke
- Medicines – bronchodilators can help open airways and make breathing easier. Vaccines for the flu and pneumococcal pneumonia. Antibiotics if you get a bacterial or viral lung infection.
- Oxygen therapy- for severe cases of chronic bronchitis.
- Pulmonary rehabilitation – programs that help improve the well-being of people who have chronic breathing problems
- Lung transplant – a last resort for chronic bronchitis with severe symptoms that have not gotten better with medicines
The first symptoms of acute bronchitis are similar to those of a cold or flu.
Coughs are reflex actions that helps keep the throat and airways clear. Coughing helps the body to heal and protect itself.
A persistent cough, which may initially be dry and hacking, but can develop into a productive cough is the most common symptom of bronchitis.
This indicates that the bronchial tubes that carry air into the lungs have become inflamed. The inflammation causes the inner lining to swell and grow thicker hence narrowing the breathing passages.
Extra mucus is secreted by the irritated membranes which then coats and can sometimes clog the small airways. As a result, the body will have coughing spells to try and clear these secretions for it to breathe easier.
Coughs related to bronchitis may last for several weeks or more. This is because the bronchial tubes take a while to heal.
Any cough that lasts more than that may indicate other health problems like asthma and pneumonia and would require further examination by a doctor.
2. Mucus production
Inflammation in the bronchial tubes causes excess mucus to be produced. Bringing up thickened and discolored mucus is another symptom of bronchitis.
Mucus, also called phlegm, maybe yellowish-gray in color. The body tries to shift this extra mucus through coughing.
Viral bronchitis may produce small amounts of white mucus. This mucus often changes from white to yellow or green. The color change, however, does not mean that there is a bacterial infection. The changing of mucus color means that cells associated with inflammation have moved into the airway and are therefore coloring the sputum.
A trip to the doctor may be needed if there are streaks of blood with the coughed-up mucus.
The body works to fight off the infection, resulting in feelings of extremely tiredness at different points in the day.
Fatigue becomes a symptom of bronchitis for two reasons:
Firstly, the persistent coughing can disturb sleep. It makes a sick person feel very tired and exhausted.
Secondly, if the bronchitis is being caused by an infection, which it most commonly is, it causes tiredness as the body uses its energy to fight off the infection and recover.
Together, these two problems create a vicious cycle of fatigue. Not getting enough sleep because of the cough can hinder the immune function, which in turn slows down recovery.
In addition, it can make the cough and other symptoms to linger for longer and disrupt sleep more.
Fatigue only usually lasts while the body recovers, which can be from a few days to several weeks at the most.
4. Shortness of breath
The excess mucus causes the airways to narrow and this makes breathing more difficult.
Shortness of breath happens because the inflamed bronchi narrow for short periods of time, therefore, cutting down the amount of air that gets into the lungs.
It can occur either at rest or while performing any type of activity. This may include walking to the door, or climbing stairs.
Adding to that, shortness of breath may also rouse a person from their sleep. It can also cause troubles lying flat on the bed, and may require the use of 2 or more pillows to sleep.
This symptom is usually only present in severe cases of acute bronchitis and should subside once the inflammation and mucus-restricting airflow have eased, which is usually after only a few days or weeks at the most.
5. Mild fever and chills
Acute bronchitis is commonly caused by an infection and often comes after upper respiratory infections like the common cold. Due to this, a mild fever and other cold-like symptoms can also occur.
Fever is the body’s natural response to an infection. It activates the immune system.
A mild fever occurs during the early stages of the infection. A fever is deemed mild if it ranges from 38°C (101°F) or below. It is usually nothing to worry about.
Mild fevers are typically only associated with acute (short-term) bronchitis, which is caused by a viral or bacterial infection. A fever is not usually present in bronchitis caused by airborne irritants such as fumes and pollution or chronic (long-term) bronchitis, which is commonly caused by smoking.
6. Chest discomfort
This symptom is often caused by persistent coughing and mucus congestion which are two other very common bronchitis symptoms.
When the irritated and inflamed bronchial tubes start to produce excess mucus, it will start to clog and congest the air passages. Airflow can become restricted. This then leads to a feeling of tightness, heaviness or pressure in the chest. It can become uncomfortable.
Bronchitis also makes the chest feel not just heavy but also achy especially if there is hard coughing over long periods of time involved.
The constant coughing particularly dry and hacking coughs can leave the chest and throat feeling sore. Abdominal muscle pain may also occur.
While it is common to feel some chest discomfort in bronchitis, chest pains are a different matter and must be checked by a doctor immediately.
Wheezing is a raspy, whistle-like sound that can occur when there is swelling in the airways, making it more difficult to breathe.
It is typically heard when breathing out. wheezing can occur when air tries to squeeze through mucus clogged or inflamed airways.
As bronchitis makes the bronchial tubes inflamed, swollen and excess mucus is produced, the airways become narrowed and clogged. Wheezing then occurs as air squeezes through these narrowed passages.
It is often accompanied by shortness of breath.
In general, wheezing only occurs in severe cases of acute bronchitis. It should subside once the inflammation that has been restricting the airflow has eased after a few days or weeks at the most.
8. Back and muscle pain
Body pain is another common symptom of bronchitis.
Coughing is the primary source for the pain. It may become painful and cause the chest and abdominal muscles to become sore.
Soreness in the back area can also occur.
Myalgia is the medical term for the soreness or aches in the muscles of the body.
Another cause for muscle pain is brought by the body’s immune system itself. When there is an infection occurring anywhere within the body, the immune system’s response is to send white blood cells to fight it off.
This can then result in inflammation which can leave the muscles in the body to feel stiff and achy.
9. Sore throat
Acute bronchitis, which is caused by a viral infection, often starts with symptoms of a common cold like a sore throat.
A painful sore throat could be a symptom of bronchitis if accompanied by a cough.
A sore throat can be described as having a scratchy and raw feeling in the throat. It can also cause pain that may worsen when eating or swallowing.
In bronchitis, coughing will likely be dry at first and then become productive as mucus production increases. Due the frequent coughing and excess mucus, the throat can become very irritated.
Severe sore throat can sometimes exacerbate breathing difficulties.
10. Runny or stuffy nose
At the onset of bronchitis, cold-like symptoms are first noticeable and one of those symptoms is a runny or congested nose.
Both of these symptoms are caused by excess mucus in the nose, which is produced in an attempt to flush out bacteria.
Nasal passages may be similarly inflamed or irritated as the lungs, which results in a runny nose.
When the nasal passages become inflamed, this can make it difficult to drain the extra mucus from the nose. This causes congestion or a blocked nose. It can often get worse at night, since lying down makes the mucus unable and take longer to drain out of either the nose or down the throat, so it gets stuck in the nose.
When to seek further medical help:
Acute bronchitis will clear up within a few days or weeks without any complications. However, if symptoms still persist for an extended period of time, it is best to consult a doctor. Seek further help if:
- Coughing lasts longer than 3 weeks
- Fever goes higher than 38°C
- Wheezing becomes heavy or if breathing becomes a problem
- Chest pains
- Coughed up phlegm has blood in it