Whether or not you can believe it, cold and flu season already are in full swing – even though cold season typically peaks in January, while flu season is not until February.
Bronchitis is an infection that becomes more widespread in colder weather and often develops from a cold, sore throat or the flu.
If you’re suffering with a severe cough, don’t automatically write it off as flu or a winter cold. It could be bronchitis.
“Bronchitis is a condition where you have inflammation of the lining of your breathing tubes that carry air to and from the lungs,” said Corpus Christi Medical Center pulmonary disease specialist Dr. Chinthaka P. Bulathsinghala.
The symptoms of bronchitis may be similar to the flu.
“Cough is very common. With the cough you bring up phlegm, and the color of the phlegm can range from white to yellow, even to green or gray. You can have fever, usually low grade fever, fatigue, muscle aches, joint pain, mild headaches, sometimes short breath, but it is very rare,” said Bulathsinghala.
Unfortunately, some cold and flu illnesses can develop into more severe (not to mention prolonged) conditions.
“Acute bronchitis which is usually caused by a viral infection, can have a secondary bacterial infection leading to the inflammation of lung tissue, is what we call pneumonia,” Bulathsinghala said. “Pneumonia can lead to a lot of problems like infectious lining of the lungs or pulmonary abscess.”
Acute bronchitis can last up to three weeks. However, if you have repeated bouts of bronchitis, you may have chronic bronchitis, which requires medical attention.
“It is a very common condition. As a matter of fact, about 10 percent of all outpatient visits and about 100 million outpatient visits every year in the United States are because of acute bronchitis,” said Bulathsinghala.
Acute bronchitis, also called a chest cold, usually improves within a week to 10 days without lasting effects, although the cough may linger for weeks.
However, if you have repeated bouts of bronchitis, you may have chronic bronchitis, which requires medical attention. Chronic bronchitis is one of the conditions included in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
For either acute bronchitis or chronic bronchitis, signs and symptoms may include:
- Production of mucus (sputum), which can be clear, white, yellowish-gray or green in color — rarely, it may be streaked with blood
- Shortness of breath
- Slight fever and chills
- Chest discomfort
Chronic bronchitis is defined as a productive cough that lasts at least three months, with recurring bouts occurring for at least two consecutive years.
If you have acute bronchitis, you might have cold symptoms, such as a mild headache or body aches. While these symptoms usually improve in about a week, you may have a nagging cough that lingers for several weeks.
If you have chronic bronchitis, you’re likely to have periods when your cough or other symptoms worsen. At those times, you may have an acute infection on top of chronic bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis is usually caused by viruses, typically the same viruses that cause colds and flu (influenza). Antibiotics don’t kill viruses, so this type of medication isn’t useful in most cases of bronchitis.
The most common cause of chronic bronchitis is cigarette smoking. Air pollution and dust or toxic gases in the environment or workplace also can contribute to the condition.
Most cases of acute bronchitis get better without treatment, usually within a couple of weeks.
Because most cases of bronchitis are caused by viral infections, antibiotics aren’t effective. However, if your doctor suspects that you have a bacterial infection, he or she may prescribe an antibiotic.
In some circumstances, your doctor may recommend other medications, including:
- Cough medicine. If your cough keeps you from sleeping, you might try cough suppressants at bedtime.
- Other medications. If you have allergies, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your doctor may recommend an inhaler and other medications to reduce inflammation and open narrowed passages in your lungs.
If you have chronic bronchitis, you may benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation — a breathing exercise program in which a respiratory therapist teaches you how to breathe more easily and increase your ability to exercise.
Although a single episode of bronchitis usually isn’t cause for concern, it can lead to pneumonia in some people. Repeated bouts of bronchitis, however, may mean that you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
To reduce your risk of bronchitis, follow these tips:
- Avoid cigarette smoke.
- Get vaccinated.
- Wash your hands.
- Wear a surgical mask. If you have COPD, you might consider wearing a face mask at work if you’re exposed to dust or fumes, and when you’re going to be among crowds, such as while traveling.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if your cough:
- Lasts more than three weeks
- Prevents you from sleeping
- Is accompanied by fever higher than 100.4 F (38 C)
- Produces discolored mucus
- Produces blood
- Is associated with wheezing or shortness of breath