Bronchitis occurs when the air passages in your lungs become inflamed. Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis is usually due to a viral infection -- such as a cold -- that starts in your nose or sinuses and spreads to the airways. Acute bronchitis usually lasts a few days, although you may have a cough for weeks afterward. Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, occurs most often in people who smoke and, together with emphysema, is known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Chronic bronchitis is characterized by a productive (wet) cough that is persistent. The mucus that’s produced by the inflamed airways eventually causes scar tissue to form in the lungs, making breathing difficult.
See also: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Signs and Symptoms
- Cough that produces yellow or green mucus
- Burning sensation in the chest
- Sore throat
- Chronic cough that produces mucus
- Wheezing, shortness of breath
- Blue tinged lips
- Ankle, feet, and leg swelling
Acute bronchitis is usually caused by the same viruses that cause colds. But exposure to cigarette smoke or pollution, a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and bacterial infections can also cause bronchitis.
The main causes of chronic bronchitis are cigarette smoking and prolonged exposure to air pollution, dust, and environmental tobacco smoke. During their lifetimes, 40% of smokers develop chronic bronchitis. One study shows that snoring is also associated with chronic bronchitis.
Your doctor will listen to your chest and back, look at your throat, and may draw blood and take a culture of the sputum from your lungs. If your health care provider is concerned about possible pneumonia or COPD, your health care provider may order a chest X-ray or a lung function test (which measures the amount of air in your lungs).
The best way to prevent chronic bronchitis is to avoid smoking and to stay away from air pollutants. For acute bronchitis, take steps to avoid colds and respiratory infections, such as washing your hands frequently, getting an annual flu shot, and (if you are over 65 or have a chronic illness) asking your health care provider about the pneumococcal vaccine (Prevnar).
Acute bronchitis from a virus generally clears up on its own within 7 - 10 days. Using a humidifier, taking a cough medicine that contains an expectorant (something that helps you "bring up" mucus), and drinking plenty of fluids can help relieve symptoms. If a bacterial infection is the culprit, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
- Do not smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke.
- Use a humidifier or inhale steam from a bowl.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- If you have low oxygen levels from chronic bronchitis, you may need home oxygen therapy.
For chronic bronchitis:
Bronchodilators -- increase airflow by opening airways and help make it easier to breathe
Corticosteroids -- reduce inflammation; either inhaled with an inhaler or taken by mouth, they are usually used to treat moderate to severe COPD
For acute bronchitis:
Cough medicines -- Two types of cough medicines, cough suppressants (for a dry cough) or expectorants (for a wet, productive cough that brings up mucus), are available over the counter and by prescription. Usually doctors recommend not suppressing a cough in cases of acute bronchitis, unless your cough is keeping you from sleeping at night.
Antibiotics -- Studies show that antibiotics are not an effective treatment for acute bronchitis and may contribute to antibiotic resistance.
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
Because supplements may have side effects or interact with medications, you should take them only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider. Be sure to talk to your physician about any supplements you are taking or considering taking.
For chronic bronchitis:
N-acetylecysteine (NAC, 400 - 1,200 mg per day) -- NAC is a modified form of a dietary amino acid that works as an antioxidant in the body. Several studies indicate that it may help relieve symptoms of COPD by acting as an antioxidant to reduce oxidative stress on the lungs (damage caused by free radicals, particles that harm cells and DNA). Although not all the studies agree, some suggest that taking NAC can reduce the number of attacks of severe bronchitis.
For acute bronchitis:
Because bronchitis often follows a cold, some of the same supplements used to prevent or treat a cold may be helpful.
- Probiotics (Lactobacillus) -- So called “good” bacteria, probiotics help prevent infections in the intestines, and there is preliminary evidence that they might help prevent respiratory infections, too. One study found that children in daycare centers who drank milk fortified with Lactobacillus had fewer and less severe colds. Several studies that examined probiotics combined with vitamins and minerals also found a reduction in the number of colds caught by adults, although it’s not possible to say whether the vitamins, minerals, or probiotics were most responsible for the benefit.
- Chicken soup -- It’s about as traditional a remedy for a cold as you can find (at least in modern history). In fact, chicken soup and warm liquids (such as broth and tea) can help soothe a sore throat and loosen mucus, which in turn helps ease congestion from a cold.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider.
For acute bronchitis/Preventing respiratory infections:
- Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, 300 mg 3 times per day) -- Echinacea may help prevent colds, which can lead to bronchitis. An analysis of 14 scientific studies found that people who took echinacea reduced their risk of getting a cold by 58% and reduced the duration of a cold by an average of a day and a half. However, many of the studies used echinacea in combination with another herb or vitamin, so it’s impossible to say which one was responsible for the benefit. Echinacea should not be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or by anyone taking drugs that suppress the immune system (such as corticosteroids or methotrexate). Talk to your doctor before takign echinacea.
- Andrographis (Andrographic paniculata) -- Andrographis may also help lessen cold symptoms and possibly reduce your risk of getting bronchitis. One study found that andrographis, an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine, combined with eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) in a formula called Kan Jang, helped reduce cold symptoms.
- Garlic (Allium sativum) -- In one study, people who took garlic for 12 weeks between November and February had 63% fewer colds than people who took placebo. Those who did get a cold recovered about one day faster. Because garlic can increase the risk of bleeding, people who take anticoagulants (blood thinners, such as aspirin or warfarin) should not take garlic. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should talk to their doctor before taking garlic supplements.
- Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, 400 mg per day) -- At least two studies suggest that taking American ginseng may help prevent colds, as well as reduce the number of colds experienced and the severity of symptoms.
For acute and chronic bronchitis/Expectorants for cough:
- Essential oil monoterpenes -- A combination of essential oils, including eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), a citrus oil, and an extract from pine, has been suggested for several respiratory illnesses, including both acute and chronic bronchitis. One study found that people with acute bronchitis treated with essential oil monoterpenes did better than people who took placebo. Another study found that people who took the herbal treatment did as well as those who took antibiotics. More studies are needed. If someone is having an acute asthma attack, strong essential oils may be more irritating than helpful.
- Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) -- Also called Indian tobacco, lobelia has a long history of use as an herbal remedy for respiratory problems including bronchitis. It is an effective expectorant, meaning that it helps clear mucus from your lungs. However, lobelia can be toxic and should only be used under a doctor’s supervision.
- Mullein (Verbascum densiflorum, 3 g per day) -- Mullein is an expectorant, meaning it helps clear your lungs of mucus. Traditionally, it has been used to treat respiratory illnesses and coughs with lung congestion. However, it has not been studied for bronchitis.
- Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) -- Peppermint is widely used to treat cold symptoms. Its main active agent, menthol, is a good decongestant. Menthol also thins mucus and works as an expectorant, helping loosen and break up phlegm.
For acute bronchitis:
South African geranium (Pelargonium sidoides) -- Although scientific evidence is preliminary, a specific extract from South African geranium did show positive results in a few studies. In one study, people with acute bronchitis recovered faster when taking this extract than those who took placebo. In another study, people who took the extract did as well as those who took antibiotics, but without some side effects of the antibiotics. More studies are needed.
Although very few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following remedies for the treatment of bronchitis in addition to standard medical care. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. A constitutional type is defined as a person's physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual.
Aconitum -- for early stages of bronchitis or other respiratory disorders; this remedy is most appropriate for people with a hoarse, dry cough who complain of dry mouth, thirst, restlessness, and being awakened by their own coughing; symptoms tend to worsen in cold air or when when lying on one's side
Antimonium tartaricum -- for wet, rattling cough (that is usually too weak to bring up mucus material from the lungs) that is accompanied by extreme fatigue and difficulty breathing; symptoms usually worsen when lying on one's back; this remedy is particularly good for children and the elderly and is generally used during the later stages of bronchitis
Bryonia -- for dry, painful cough that tends to worsen with movement and deep inhalation; this remedy is most appropriate for individuals who are generally thirsty, chilly, and irritable
Hepar sulphuricum -- for later stages of bronchitis, accompanied by wheezing, scant mucus production, and coughing that occurs when any part of the body gets cold
Ipecacuanha -- for the earliest stages of bronchitis accompanied by a deep, wet cough, nausea and vomiting; this remedy is commonly prescribed for infants
Phosphorus -- for several different types of cough but usually a dry, harsh cough accompanied by a persistent tickle in the chest and significant chest pain; this remedy is most appropriate for individuals who are often worn out and exhausted, tend to be anxious and fear death, and require a lot of reassurance
Massage and Physical Therapy
Running a humidifier with an essential oil such as cedarwoord, bergamot, eucalyptus, myrrh, sweet fennel, jasmine, lavender, tea tree, or marjoram at night may help thin mucus and ease cough. Talk to an experienced aromatherapist to learn which oil, alone or in combination, is best for you.
Prognosis and Complications
For acute bronchitis, most symptoms usually resolve within 7 - 10 days, although a dry, hacking cough can linger for several weeks.
The chance for recovery is poor for advanced chronic bronchitis. Early treatment, combined with stopping smoking, can stop lung damage from progressing and improve quality of life.
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- Last reviewed on 12/2/2009
- Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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