Before we see what bronchitis is, let us understand our respiratory system.
The respiratory system is divided into two major parts, namely the upper and lower respiratory tract. The upper respiratory tract comprises of nose, mouth, sinuses, throat (pharynx) and larynx (voice box), while the lower respiratory tract consists of bronchi, bronchioles, alveoli (air sacs) and lungs.
Bronchitis is an inflammatory condition in a part of the airways called the bronchi. These are the largest airways located below the larynx (voice box). These bronchi supply air to the right and left lungs and are divided into right and left bronchi.
The right bronchi supply air to the right lung, while the left bronchi supply air to the left lung.
In bronchitis, the lining of these bronchial tubes gets inflamed, which makes it difficult for the air to pass to and from the lungs. When the lining of the bronchial tubes is inflamed, it causes swelling, narrowing and excess mucus production in the bronchial tubes.
Types of bronchitis
- Acute bronchitis: Acute bronchitis, also called chest cold, is the inflammation of the bronchi, which generally lasts a few days to a week. It is commonly caused due to viral infections like a cold or other respiratory infections.
- Chronic bronchitis: Chronic bronchitis is the inflammation of the bronchi (airways), which lasts for more than 3 months. The most common cause of this is smoking.
Causes of bronchitis
Smoking is the major cause of bronchitis. Cigarette smoking can cause inflammation in the airway, which can ultimately lead to chronic bronchitis. Apart from cigarette smoking, even common viruses, like those which cause the common cold and flu, can be the reason for acute bronchitis. Allergies, exposure to dust, toxic chemicals, pollution and workplace (where exposure to chemicals and allergens is more) can play a role in causing bronchitis.
Some factors can increase the risk of bronchitis. Some of these factors include-
- Low immunity
- Known allergies
- Frequent cold and flu infections
- Age, especially older adults, infants and children
- Exposure to toxins and pollutants at the workplace
Symptoms of bronchitis
- Cough with phlegm (wet cough) – The colour of the mucus can be clear, white, yellow, yellowish-green or green. Rarely brownish-red colour (due to the presence of blood) can be seen.
- Shortness of breath
- Breathing difficulty
- Chest tightness
- Fever with chills
- Body ache
In acute bronchitis, these symptoms may last for a few days to weeks, while in the chronic stage, the symptoms may last longer (more than 3 months). Generally, a person may experience a long-standing cough even if the condition improves.
Your doctor may initially ask you about your symptoms. A physical examination can then be performed to check your breathing sounds. Your doctor may use a stethoscope to do this.
Apart from the physical examination, your doctor may also ask for a few diagnostic tests, such as a chest X-ray, to examine your lungs and nearby structures. It will help to find out if there is any inflammation or fluid accumulation (pneumonia) in your lungs.
A pulmonary function test can also be performed to see how well your lungs are performing.
Your doctor may also ask for a sputum examination. Sputum is nothing, but the mucus that we cough from our lower respiratory tract. This sputum can be checked for the presence of viruses and bacteria and any allergens that can contribute to your cough.
The treatment of bronchitis mainly focuses on symptomatic relief.
In most cases of acute bronchitis, the symptoms may resolve on their own, without requiring any medication. Also, most cases of bronchitis are due to viral infections, wherein no antibiotics will be given, as antibiotics are only preferred for bacterial infection and have no role to play in viral infections.
Antibiotics can be prescribed if the bronchitis is caused due to bacterial infection.
To reduce the cough, your doctor may prescribe you mucolytics. These medicines help to break the thick mucus so it can be easily removed through a cough. In some cases, even cough suppressants can be given.
For people with chronic bronchitis, inhalers can be prescribed to keep the symptoms under control. Generally, inhalers containing steroids will be prescribed to reduce and prevent inflammation in the airways.
Depending on your situation, your doctor may prescribe you other medicines as well, which are not specified here. It is always good to talk to your doctor before taking any medicine and when the symptoms worsen or remain for more than a few days.