Every year, thousands of people wake up with what seems like cold symptoms and go about their day treating it as such. These individuals, however, do not have a cold, but rather have a disease called Bronchitis. While many of the symptoms of Bronchitis are similar to those of a cold or the flu, they are two very distinct illnesses that must be treated uniquely lest the symptoms worsen.
Many cases of Bronchitis actually occur during the course of a cold or flu, but once they present themselves, they become unique cases. While there are two different types of Bronchitis (acute and chronic), for the purposes of this article, we will only focus on the acute type as the chronic variant is easily diagnosable and rarely mistaken for a cold.
Bronchitis is defined as an inflammation of the airways that carry airflow from the trachea down to the lungs. It is most often characterized by a deep cough that may or may not present mucous that is expelled from the respiratory tract.
Acute Bronchitis is generally caused by viruses (90%) although some cases (approximately 10%) are caused by bacterial infections. Symptoms other than cough include a sore throat, nasal congestion, light fever, runny nose, painful inhalation, malaise, and the constant need to expel mucous. Because most are caused by viral infections, the disease is self-limiting and will usually resolve itself within two weeks.
Chronic Bronchitis, on the other hand, usually means that the symptoms last for a few months and are recurring either every year or every few years. As such, it is rarely mistaken for an acute infection such as the cold or a flu. Surprisingly, it is estimated that as many as 5% of Americans suffer from Chronic Bronchitis.
Bronchitis is usually treated based on the symptoms. As most cases are viral, there is no known cure but rather only a way to manage the symptoms and wait for it to pass. NSAID’s such as aspirin, Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen can be used to treat the fever and reduce pain. Decongestants can help with nasal congestion and expectorants are useful in loosening the mucous and making it easier to expel.
If the cough is severe or is particularly bothersome (I.E. the patient cannot sleep), a cough suppressant may be used. Even with no treatment, bronchitis is often resolved on its own rather quickly. Many cases may last as long as a few weeks, but most last much less.
If you have Bronchitis, do not perform any activity that will irritate your airways. Smoking or vigorous exercise should be absolutely out of the question and you should stay away from environmental irritants. You should ideally be in an area with good air circulation and minimal air pollution.
Finally, unless you can determine with absolute certainty that your Bronchitis is caused by a bacterial infection, do NOT take antibiotics. Many physicians dealing with high volumes of patients may prescribe antibiotics without determining whether or not they are necessary, but taking them when you do not need them will lead to antibiotic resistance and various other ill health effects. It is often best to manage the symptoms and let the case resolve itself.