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Woman with bronchitis symptoms coughing into her hand. An illustrated plant is in the left corner.

February 21, 2023 • read

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Bronchitis: types, treatment, symptoms, and prevention

No matter how healthy you are, it’s hard to escape fall or winter without a cold. But if your chest cold feels like it’s lingered since forever, chances are you’ve entered bronchitis territory. Here’s what you should know about the condition to help you recover from it as quickly as possible.

What’s bronchitis?

Your bronchi are two thin tubes that branch out from your trachea, or windpipe. As part of your lower respiratory tract, they ferry oxygenated air from your windpipe into your lungs.

Bronchitis happens when these bronchial tubes become inflamed and swollen. About 5% of Canadian adults experience bronchitis each year, and many seek medical attention. It’s no wonder, though, since bronchitis symptoms can take up to three weeks — and sometimes longer — to resolve.

Can a cold turn into bronchitis?

Yes. Bronchitis involves inflammation and irritation in your bronchi, and a cold or another virus can often be the catalyst. If most of your cold symptoms have resolved, but you have a cough lingering longer than usual — with or without phlegm — there’s a good chance it’s turned into bronchitis.

How long does bronchitis last?

Symptoms of acute bronchitis can last anywhere from 10 to 20 days, although having them for up to four weeks isn’t unheard of. However, if you’re still coughing after six weeks, you should speak to a healthcare provider to confirm your diagnosis.

What causes bronchitis? Are there any risk factors?

Multiple factors can cause bronchitis. Because it most often stems from the same viruses that cause the flu or a cold, everyone’s susceptible to the condition. Beyond that, allergies and exposure to cigarette smoke, fumes, dust, vapours, and air pollution can precipitate it. Rarely, bacterial infections can be the cause of it.

Chronic bronchitis is a slightly different beast, with smoking as its number one cause. Besides being a smoker, the factors that may increase your risk of contracting bronchitis include:

  • Having an underlying health condition like bronchiectasis, asthma, or GERD
  • Having a family history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (this increases your risk of chronic bronchitis)
  • Being over 65
  • Being very young
  • Having regular exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Living in a congregate setting
  • Being exposed to dust or pollutants

Are there different types of bronchitis?

Bronchitis can be either acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis is sometimes caused by a bacterial infection or exposure to environmental irritants. However, it’s more likely to result from a viral infection like the flu or a cold. As a result, its onset is relatively fast, and symptoms usually resolve within a few weeks to a month.

In contrast, the cause of chronic bronchitis (CB) is usually smoking, so it typically builds gradually over time. To meet the diagnostic threshold for chronic bronchitis, you must experience coughing and mucus on most days over a three-month period, for two consecutive years.

Although you can have periods of symptom remission, chronic bronchitis is recurrent and never fully goes away. This makes it one of the group of diseases that makes up chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

How contagious is bronchitis?

Bronchitis isn’t contagious, but whatever causes it can be. If your bronchitis is the result of a virus or bacteria, you can spread that illness. But, while you may share your cold with others, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll automatically get bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis, by comparison, is usually triggered by smoking. While smoking obviously isn’t contagious, smoking inside your home exposes the people you live with to second-hand smoke. This, in turn, increases their risk of developing bronchitis.

What are the symptoms of bronchitis?

Bronchitis symptoms can easily be confused with other conditions. If you have it, you’re likely to experience some or all of the following:

  • Coughing, especially a hacking cough or “smoker’s cough”
  • Coughing up mucus or sputum — this can be green, yellow, clear, or white
  • Chest pain
  • Slight shortness of breath
  • Painful coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Muscles aches
  • Wheezing with bronchitis is common, especially in chronic cases

Can you treat bronchitis symptoms at home?

Bronchitis takes some time to run its course, so if you’re wondering how to cure bronchitis fast, you’re probably out of luck. You can, however, help shorten the duration of your illness.

Sleep and rest are paramount for treating bronchitis — the more you get, the better. Additionally, you’ll want to make hydration a priority. This helps to keep your mucus loose and flowing, so you’ll be able to breathe more easily. Using a clean humidifier, cool mist vaporizer, or sitting in a steamy shower can also help ease some of your congestion.

If you’re experiencing aches and pains, ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help. Provided you dose by weight, these are safe to give to babies and children over six months old. However, you’ll need to check with a pediatrician before giving these to children under six months.

But, while over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications are ok, don’t bother with OTC cough medicines. Not only are these medicines unsafe for anyone under the age of six, but studies show they don’t really work better than placebos.

Additionally, unless it’s causing vomiting or preventing rest, coughing can be useful. It helps to clear the lungs of mucus and other foreign substances. Instead, try soothing your throat with a spoonful of honey, a throat lozenge, or drinking hot tea.

How’s bronchitis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider can usually diagnose bronchitis based on your symptom history. They may also want to listen to your lungs to rule out other conditions like pneumonia.

If your bronchitis has been around for a while and isn’t improving, your provider may suggest a sputum culture to test any mucus you’re coughing up. This can determine if your bronchitis is viral or bacterial and whether or not you might require antibiotics.

Finally, if your symptoms are severe or you fall into a higher-risk category, your healthcare provider may recommend an x-ray as an added precaution. This can help assess your condition’s severity and ensure it hasn’t turned into pneumonia.

What treatments do doctors use to treat bronchitis?

Healthcare providers rarely use antibiotics for bronchitis as they don’t work on viral infections. In the rare case that your bronchitis results from a bacterial infection, however, your provider will prescribe you an antibiotic to help clear it up.

While antibiotics won’t resolve viral bronchitis, a prescription inhaler can help if you’re experiencing wheezing or difficulty breathing. Inhalers contain medications known as bronchodilators that help to calm inflammation so you can breathe more easily.

In individuals with asthma and bronchitis, or with chronic bronchitis, an inhaler and an oral steroid may be needed to help with symptom relief.

Oxygen therapy, also known as supplemental oxygen, is another option. A healthcare provider may prescribe oxygen for severe chronic bronchitis if there aren’t any improvements after other treatments. Oxygen therapy comes from either tanks of liquid or gas oxygen and is released through a mask or tube.

Can bronchitis go away without treatment?

There’s no cure for chronic bronchitis, but treatment is often needed to help manage symptoms. Most cases of acute bronchitis, however, don’t require treatment beyond rest, fluids, and OTC medications. Symptoms usually subside within a couple of weeks.

Can you die from bronchitis?

Most acute bronchitis cases are complication-free. Rarely, however, the condition can progress to something more serious. Sometimes, this can result from severely swollen bronchi impacting your ability to breathe.

In other instances, bronchitis can spread into your lungs. This gives rise to pneumonia which causes inflammation and mucus in the lungs. While pneumonia is treatable, it can sometimes interfere with breathing and cause respiratory distress. In severe cases, it can also turn into sepsis — a life-threatening emergency.

If you’re concerned that you’re having trouble breathing or think that you may have developed pneumonia, speak with your healthcare provider right away.

How can you prevent bronchitis from getting worse?

While it’s hard to step back and take a break, if you have bronchitis and don’t take the time to rest, you’re likely to prolong your illness. This makes rest a must for a timely recovery.

Besides rest, the best thing you can do to stop your bronchitis from getting worse is to not smoke and avoid second-hand smoke. Your lungs and airways are lined with cilia — tiny hair-like structures that help to sweep things out of your respiratory system. Smoking damages these cilia, making smokers more likely to experience respiratory illnesses for longer.

How can you prevent bronchitis?

There’s no foolproof way to prevent bronchitis, but you can take steps to lower your chances of getting it. For starters, don’t smoke. Because cigarette smoke irritates your respiratory system, more than 40% of smokers develop chronic bronchitis at some point, and many more deal with acute cases.

It’s not uncommon to get bronchitis after COVID-19 and other respiratory infections like the flu. So if you don’t smoke, you can reduce your risk of getting bronchitis by avoiding getting sick in the first place.

To do this, make sure you’re up to date on your yearly vaccines, like your flu shot. Additionally, wash your hands regularly to prevent the spread of germs. Prevent the spread of illness by covering your mouth with your elbow when you cough or sneeze.

When do I need to see a doctor for bronchitis?

If you’re having difficulty breathing or your cough keeps you from sleeping, it’s time to see a healthcare provider. Likewise, if you’re coughing up blood. While this can sometimes happen with respiratory illnesses, it can also indicate a more serious condition.

Moreover, if you’ve been dealing with bronchitis symptoms for more than three weeks and aren’t getting better, speaking to a healthcare provider should be your next step. It’s possible your bronchitis results from a bacterial infection and requires treatment with antibiotics. Alternatively, you might be experiencing a different condition instead.

How Maple can help with bronchitis

Bronchitis can linger for what feels like forever, zapping your energy and leaving your throat raw. If you’re dealing with symptoms of bronchitis, we can help. Maple’s a telehealth platform that connects you with Canadian-licensed doctors and specialists from your phone, tablet, or computer.

An online doctor can diagnose your condition to ensure what you’re dealing with is in fact bronchitis. They can also provide you with a treatment plan and prescription medication, if deemed necessary.

If you’re having no luck getting over bronchitis, reach out to speak with a doctor today. With a little help, you can start feeling better, sooner.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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