Updated 13 September 2021

What is Bronchitis?

Bronchitis diagram of lungs
The medical condition generally referred to as 'Bronchitis' occurs when a person is struck with a viral or bacterial infection that causes inflammation of the airways leading to their lungs. Bronchitis can also be caused by the accumulation of dust particles or smoke in the airways. The immediate resultant effect of the airways being narrowed due to inflammation is a cough. There are two basic types of bronchitis, the first is called 'Acute Bronchitis' while the second is 'Chronic Bronchitis'. Acute Bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways mainly due to one form of viral infection or another. The most common viral infections that cause Acute Bronchitis are the common cold virus and influenza. Acute Bronchitis is a medical condition that can linger for weeks, usually subsiding when the viral infection dissipates. On the other hand, Chronic Bronchitis is long-term and usually caused by the smoking of cigarettes. This medical condition lasts at least 3 months with repeated episodes common.

Typical Symptoms of Bronchitis

The typical symptoms of bronchitis include one or more of the following;
  • Coughing - this cough may be dry or may come with phlegm.
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath,
  • Wheezing,
  • Tightness in the chest,
  • Mild fever or a feverish feeling, and
  • Joint aches and pains.
Note: that there are also other symptoms not listed here, but these highlighted symptoms are quite common amongst sufferers of either Acute or Chronic bronchitis.

Transmission of Bronchitis

Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses, which are contagious. Someone suffering from acute bronchitis can transmit the virus causing the condition when those around him/her are exposed to oral or nasal droplets. These viruses may be transmitted either from coughing or when people come into contact with infected droplets, for example on the surface of furniture. If the infected droplets are then unknowingly handled by a person, who then fails to properly wash their hands with soap and running water, they place themselves at risk of being infected by the virus. If they place their unwashed hands anywhere near their mouth, eyes or nose, this can then cause acute bronchitis. If you know you have acute bronchitis, it is best that you stay at home for the duration of your condition. Also, covering your mouth with a handkerchief or the inside of your elbow when coughing is a good habit to adopt. Another good habit is the frequent washing of your hands with running water and soap. This way you will help to reduce the spread of the virus. There are people that are at a high risk of contracting acute bronchitis and these people include:
  • Those with a compromised or weak immune system,
  • Elderly people,
  • Asthma patients and others with respiratory-related health issues,
  • Cigarette smokers,
  • People that are frequently exposed to air pollutants or irritants,
  • Those that have not been given immunisation against whooping cough, pneumococcal disease, or influenza.
To reduce the risk of contracting chronic bronchitis, you should avoid or quit smoking cigarettes.

Bronchitis Tests & Diagnosis

When it comes to acute bronchitis, there is no particular form of testing involved. Your doctor may request an x-ray of your chest, especially where it is suspected that you may have pneumonia. Coughing caused by acute bronchitis may last for 1 to 3 weeks, but where a cough lasts for longer than 4 weeks, it may be as a result of other causes and your doctor will usually arrange further investigations such as blood tests, swabs, sputum tests, and x-rays. In the case of chronic bronchitis, the symptoms last for a period of more than 12 weeks. Normally your doctor will carry out a physical examination in addition to assessing your medical history. Your doctor will also ask pertinent questions relating to your cigarette smoking habits and/or your possible exposure to substances at home or at work such as dust, smoke, coal, air pollution, welding fumes, exhaust fumes, and other fumes. Your doctor may request a spirometry test, a sputum test, and an x-ray of your chest in order to diagnose chronic bronchitis. These tests are necessary in order to differentiate between chronic bronchitis and any other lung-related medical condition with similar symptoms such as bronchiectasis and chronic asthma.

Treatment of Bronchitis

With acute bronchitis, treatment is usually targeted at controlling the symptoms as the condition will normally clear on its own after a few weeks. Due to acute bronchitis being mainly caused by a viral infection, using antibiotics is unnecessary. Prescribed antibiotics should be used only when your doctor believes your bronchitis is caused by a bacterial infection. Treatments for acute bronchitis caused by a viral infection include:
  • Getting adequate rest and a minimum of 8 hours of sleep daily,
  • The use of over-the-counter pain relief medications (like paracetamol or ibuprofen),
  • The use of cough suppressants to relieve symptoms of dry cough,
If you are a habitual cigarette smoker, it is advisable that you quit smoking in order to avoid acute or chronic bronchitis as well as other more serious medical conditions. Staying clear of irritants and air pollutants can also help to prevent bronchitis. For chronic bronchitis, the main aim of treatment is to help control, manage and prevent the occurrence of symptoms. The idea behind treatment is to stop your airways from further narrowing or being damaged. Quitting cigarette smoking should naturally be the first step towards treatment. However, exercise and physiotherapy can help to free your lungs of phlegm and improve your breathing. Chronic bronchitis also responds well to certain medications, such as:
  • The use of bronchodilators, which will act as relievers as they free up blocked airways and encourage proper breathing.
  • Corticosteroids, which when inhaled will help to prevent an escalation of your chronic bronchitis symptoms by reducing the swelling that causes narrowing of your air passages.
  • Oral corticosteroids, which help control and manage any escalation of the symptoms of your chronic bronchitis by also reducing the swelling that causes narrowing of your air passages.
  • Antibiotics, which may be prescribed by your doctor if there is an infection caused by a bacteria which suddenly worsens your chronic bronchitis.

Complications of Bronchitis

Some of the key complications of bronchitis include:
  • Pneumonia,
  • Pneumothorax (where gas or air fills up the lungs and causing a collapse of the lungs),
  • Extreme breathing difficulty,
  • Respiratory failure,
  • Polycythemia (unusual high levels of oxygen carrying red blood cells in the body),
  • Weakness and enlargement of the right ventricle of the heart,
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder or COPD, and
  • Death