Is My Cough Serious?
Know the Signs of Bronchitis
Bronchitis is a condition in which the bronchial tubes become inflamed. People with bronchitis often have a cough that brings up mucus. Bronchitis also may cause wheezing, chest pain or discomfort, a low fever and shortness of breath.
The two main types of bronchitis are acute (short term) and chronic (ongoing). The same viruses that cause colds and the flu are the most common cause of acute bronchitis. They are spread through the air when people cough. They also are spread through physical contact (for example, on hands that have not been washed). Sometimes bacteria cause acute bronchitis. Acute bronchitis lasts from a few days to 10 days. However, coughing may last for several weeks after the infection is gone.
Several factors increase your risk. Examples include exposure to tobacco smoke (including secondhand smoke), dust, fumes, vapors and air pollution. Most cases of acute bronchitis go away within a few days. If you think you have acute bronchitis, see your doctor.
Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing, serious condition. It occurs if the lining of the bronchial tubes is constantly irritated and inflamed, causing a long-term cough with mucus. Smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis. Viruses or bacteria can easily infect the irritated bronchial tubes.
Early diagnosis and treatment, combined with quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke, can improve quality of life.
Elderly people, infants and young children are at higher risk for acute bronchitis than are people in other age groups. People of all ages can develop chronic bronchitis, but it occurs more often in people over age 45. Your doctor will use a stethoscope to listen for wheezing or other abnormal sounds in your lungs. She may also:
- Look at your mucus to see whether you have a bacterial infection
- Test the oxygen levels in your blood using a sensor attached to your fingertip or toe
- Recommend a chest X-ray, lung-function tests or blood tests
Your doctor may recommend rest, plenty of fluids and medication to treat fever. Antibiotics usually aren’t prescribed for acute bronchitis. This is because they don’t work against viruses — the most common cause of acute bronchitis. However, if your doctor thinks you have a bacterial infection, she may prescribe antibiotics. A humidifier or steam can help loosen mucus and relieve wheezing. Other medications may also be prescribed as needed.