What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is one of a number of lung and respiratory conditions along with Emphysema that are collectively known as COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

Bronchitis is a very common lung condition that can affect anyone of any age, especially following a cold or flu virus.

The respiratory system consists of two airways, called bronchi, which branch out from the windpipe, or trachea, into each of the two lungs. Each bronchus branches out even further into smaller airways or air sacs, known as bronchioles. Gas exchange takes place here, where we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.

Normally, this respiratory process happens without us thinking about it. To keep things working smoothly, mucus is produced in the airways to trap any particles or dust that may come into contact with the lungs.

When the lungs become irritated or inflamed, usually due to an infection, this is known as bronchitis. Extra mucus is then produced by the airways in response to the irritation, which results in a number of symptoms, most notably coughing up thick mucus.

Bronchitis is more common in the winter months and is usually brought on by a common cold.

If you're diagnosed with bronchitis, it will be classed as either acute or chronic bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis

Short-term inflammation of the airways that lasts up to three weeks is known as acute bronchitis, or simply a chest cold. It tends to affect children below five years of age, although anyone can suffer from it. You're more likely to get a bout of acute bronchitis after the flu, a cold or sore throat, especially during winter.

Acute bronchitis is more common than the chronic form and doesn't usually cause any lasting problems. Acute bronchitis typically lasts up to 3 weeks and usually clears by itself without the need of medication.

Chronic bronchitis

As the name suggests, chronic bronchitis is a much longer-term infliction that endures for around three months of the year, over a period of two consecutive years. It's more serious than acute bronchitis and is characterised by a productive cough. It tends to affect those over 40, with smokers more likely at risk. Chronic bronchitis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD.

What causes bronchitis?

Viral and Bacterial Infections

Bronchitis is mostly caused by the same virus that gives us the flu or common cold. In fact, 95% of cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses. Occasionally, it may also be the result of a bacterial infection.

Workplace (Occupational Exposure)

Breathing in substances that irritate the lungs can also trigger bronchitis. Typically, this can include:

  • Chemicals
  • Acids
  • Dust
  • Toxic gases,
  • Pollutants,
  • Textile fibres and, most commonly, tobacco smoke.

Indeed, tobacco smoke is the biggest risk factor for developing both acute and chronic bronchitis, with passive smokers equally at risk.

You're also more likely to contract bronchitis if you have a weakened immune system, are elderly or very young, already suffer from asthma or allergies, and work in an environment where you're exposed to lung irritants or if you suffer from gastric reflux.

Signs and symptoms of bronchitis

The most common symptoms of bronchitis are a persistent cough with the expulsion of clear, green or grey-yellow coloured thick mucus. Symptoms typical of a common cold are also a feature and may include a runny or blocked nose, blocked sinuses, headache, sore throat, general fatigue and possibly a low-grade fever. In some cases, you might also experience wheezing and shortness of breath, particularly if you suffer from chronic bronchitis.

Symptoms last for around three weeks in those with acute bronchitis, but they'll drag on for much longer if you have the chronic form and will be more persistent.

In some cases, the infection that causes bronchitis can spread further into the lungs, causing fluid to collect in the bronchioles or air sacs. This affects around 5% of people who develop bronchitis and is called pneumonia.

When to see a Doctor

The majority of individuals with bronchitis will find that it can be easily treated with some over the counter NSAID’s (non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory drugs) such as naproxen. However if your symptoms worsen or persist over a prolonged period of time you may need to book an appointment to see your GP.

You will also need to see a GP if you experience the following:

  • Persistent cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks
  • You develop a temperature; this may be a sign of a common cold or flu. However extra needs to be taken to ensure that Pneumonia does not develop
  • Coughing up mucus and blood
  • You have other respiratory conditions such as Asthma, Emphysema, and underlying heart or lung conditions.
  • Breathlessness
  • You have suffered from Bronchitis before

What treatments are available?

Most cases of acute bronchitis respond to rest at home and plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medicines can be taken to relieve cold symptoms. You should start to feel better within a week to 10 days, although your cough might linger for a few weeks.

More severe symptoms may warrant a visit to your GP. For example, if you cough up blood, experience chest pain, can't sleep, have a persistently high temperature, are increasingly breathless or if your cough doesn't ease after three weeks.

It's also a good idea to get checked out by your doctor if you have an existing heart or lung condition, or you've had several bouts of bronchitis previously. Bronchitis symptoms can be similar to other lung conditions, like pneumonia, so a correct diagnosis is important.

Your doctor will be able to diagnose bronchitis based on your symptoms and an examination of your chest. Sometimes, a chest X-ray, blood tests and other tests may be carried out to rule out other lung conditions, or if you suffer from chronic bronchitis or other forms of COPD.

Bronchodilators in the form of an inhaler or tablets may be prescribed by your doctor if you experience shortness of breath and wheezing. These can help to open up the airways and thin the mucus so it's easier to expel.

Bronchodilators are often used to treat Asthma and COPD and contain the active ingredient Salbutamol which is used to relieve symptoms of asthma and COPD. Although a Salbutamol inhaler is likely to only be prescribed in individuals that are suffering from chronic Bronchitis.

Since most cases of bronchitis are caused by a viral infection, your GP won't generally prescribe antibiotics as they'll make no difference. Antibiotics will only be prescribed if bronchitis turns into pneumonia, or you might be at risk of developing pneumonia or other complications.

Chronic bronchitis can't be cured, but you can improve symptoms and reduce the incidence of infection by avoiding irritants such as tobacco smoke.

Getting vaccinated against the flu may also prevent contracting viruses that might increase the risk of bronchitis occurring.