Health Conditions, Important Facts

Bronchitis 101: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments Explained

Bronchitis 101 Causes Symptoms

Bronchitis is a respiratory condition characterized by inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which are the airways responsible for carrying air to and from the lungs.

 There are two primary types of bronchitis:

  • Acute bronchitis – Acute bronchitis is often caused by a viral infection and usually resolves on its own within a few weeks, without requiring treatment.
  • Chronic bronchitis – Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition characterized by a persistent cough with mucus for most days of the month, lasting for at least 3 months a year, for 2 consecutive years. Chronic bronchitis is a type of COPD caused by repeated irritation and damage to the bronchial tubes and lungs from smoking or exposure to pollutants.

Bronchitis impacts the bronchial tubes, which are the air passages responsible for transporting air to and from the lungs. Inflammation in these airways results in coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Acute and chronic bronchitis share similar symptoms, but acute is temporary, while the chronic is persistent.

Symptoms of Bronchitis

The most common symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • Cough – Bronchitis causes coughing that brings up thickened mucus. The cough typically worsens in the morning and may last several weeks. Initially, the cough may be dry, but later it produces mucus or phlegm, which may change color as the infection progresses.
  • Mucus production – Excessive mucus production is a key characteristic. Initially, the mucus may be clear, but it eventually changes to yellow or green. Coughing helps to expel the mucus from the lungs. In acute bronchitis, a significant amount of mucus can be produced.
  • Wheezing – Common symptoms include wheezing and shortness of breath. Airways become narrowed due to inflammation and mucus, leading to wheezing as air struggles to pass through. Wheezing may exacerbate at night or following physical activity.
  • Chest tightness – It commonly causes discomfort and tightness in the chest. Breathing difficulties may be caused by inflammation and an overabundance of mucus in the bronchial tubes. The tightness in my chest gets worse when I cough.

Causes and Risk Factors:

Bronchitis can be caused by viral or bacterial infections, smoking, and air pollution.

  1. Viral Infections – Acute bronchitis is primarily caused by viruses, specifically those responsible for colds and flu. The most common culprit is the rhinovirus, with other viruses such as coronavirus, adenovirus, and parainfluenza also contributing to the condition.
  2. Bacterial Infections – Bacterial bronchitis, while less common, can be serious, particularly for older adults and individuals with weakened immune systems, often necessitating treatment with antibiotics.
  3. Smoking – Smoking cigarettes irritates the bronchial tubes and damages them over time. This increases smokers’ risk of developing chronic acute bronchitis from recurrent episodes. Exposure to passive smoke raises risk as well.
  4. Air Pollution – Breathing in fumes, dust, smoke, and other air pollutants will irritate and inflame the bronchial tubes, inevitably leading to acute bronchitis, particularly in areas with high levels of air pollution. Indoor irritants, like chemical fumes and dust mites, can also cause bronchial inflammation. This is sometimes called acute irritant bronchitis.

Diagnosis of Bronchitis:

Diagnosing bronchitis typically involves a medical history, physical exam, chest x-ray, and sputum test.

Medical History:

A doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. Important questions include:

  • How long have you had a cough?
  • Do you have any other symptoms, like fever, fatigue, or shortness of breath?
  • Have you been exposed to irritants like cigarette smoke or air pollution?
  • Do you have any chronic lung diseases like asthma or COPD?
  • What medications are you taking?

This information helps in determining whether bronchitis is the likely diagnosis and in ruling out other conditions.

  1. Physical Exam – During a physical exam, the doctor listens to your breathing and checks your vital signs. They may also examine your throat, ears, and sinuses.
  2. Chest X-ray – You can help rule out pneumonia or other lung issues using a chest x-ray. When someone has acute bronchitis, the X-ray usually looks normal. On an x-ray, chronic bronchitis may appear inflamed or infected.
  3. Sputum Test – Sputum is tested by coughing up mucus into a cup, which is then sent to a lab for examination. It helps identify whether your bronchitis symptoms are caused by a fungal, viral, or bacterial infection.

Treatment of Bronchitis:

The main treatments are cough medicine, bronchodilators, and sometimes antibiotics for bacterial infections.

  1. Cough Medicine – Cough medicines, such as cough suppressants with dextromethorphan or codeine, and expectorants like guaifenesin, can help with symptoms. They can reduce coughing and loosen mucus. Cough drops and throat sprays can also provide relief for sore throats. It’s important not to suppress coughs too much, as coughing helps clear mucus from the lungs, but controlling frequent coughing fits lets the lungs heal.
  2. Bronchodilators – Bronchodilators like albuterol provide quick relief for breathing difficulties, while long-acting bronchodilators like tiotropium offer ongoing symptom relief for chronic bronchitis patients.
  3. Antibiotics – Only bacterial infections causing bronchitis respond well to antibiotics. Antibiotics typically don’t work because viruses are the primary cause of most instances. In cases where bronchitis is severe or has a danger of progressing to pneumonia, doctors may recommend antibiotics. Commonly used antibiotics include doxycycline, amoxicillin, clarithromycin, ciprofloxacin and azithromycin. Even if symptoms subside, it’s crucial to take the antibiotic as directed for the entire recommended duration.

Home Remedies:

Many people treat symptoms at home with basic remedies and lifestyle adjustments. Some of the most effective home remedies include:

  1. Fluids – Drinking plenty of fluids, especially warm liquids, can help loosen mucus and prevent dehydration. Herbal teas, broths, and water are good options. Avoid dairy products as they may cause mucus production to increase.
  2. Humidity – Breathing in warm moist air reduces coughing and helps soothe irritation in the throat or lungs. Take more showers, bathe for a longer time, or put on a humidifier. Some more relief could be had by adding menthol or eucalyptus extracts to the water.
  3. OTC medications – You can use cough remedies containing dextromethorphan or guaifenesin to suppress coughing. Guaifenesin, an expectorant, helps alleviate chest tightness by breaking up mucus. Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen can help with various issues like fever, headache, and aches.
  4. Rest – Getting adequate rest allows the body to focus its energy on fighting infection. Avoid strenuous activity and get plenty of sleep.

Making simple lifestyle changes and using OTC remedies at home can often effectively manage bronchitis symptoms and speed recovery. However, see a doctor if symptoms persist or worsen.

Prevention of Bronchitis:

You can take some steps to help prevent this disorder:

  • Practice good hand hygiene – Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available.
  • Get a flu shot –While the flu shot cannot specifically prevent this disorder, it can help reduce the risk of developing complications from the flu that may arise and cause bronchitis. Get vaccinated every year.
  • Quit smoking  Smoking damages the lungs’ natural defenses, making you more prone to infection. Quitting can help strengthen your lungs and respiratory system.
  • Avoid lung irritants – Avoid smoky areas and avoid exposure to chemical fumes and dust which may bring irritation to your air passages and therefore put you in a vulnerable position where you could easily fall victim to contracting this virus.
  • Improve air quality at home. Use air filters and purifiers, especially in the bedroom. Ensure good ventilation. Clean to reduce dust and allergens.
  • Take steps to avoid catching colds or the flu. Wash hands frequently, disinfect surfaces, and avoid close contact with sick people to reduce your chances of infections that could lead to bronchitis.


It can lead to some serious complications if left untreated. The most common complications include:

Pneumonia – One of the most serious complications  is pneumonia. Pneumonia is a lung infection that can occur when bronchitis causes the airways to become inflamed and produce excess mucus.

Signs of pneumonia include:

  • High fever
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion (especially in older adults)

Pneumonia requires urgent medical treatment with antibiotics and possibly hospitalization. Some groups at higher risk for pneumonia include young children, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems.

  • COPD – Repeated bouts of acute bronchitis can lead to permanent lung damage and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a progressive disease that makes it difficult to breathe due to narrowed airways and destroyed lung tissue. The risk factors of COPD include smoking. I presence of smoke, bombings, and other related mishaps also add to the risk as well as those suffering from bronchitis or asthma. Despite this, COPD is a chronic condition for which there is no known cure, but which can be controlled through treatment after the patient has stopped smoking.
  • Lung Damage – Recurrent infections can cause chronic inflammation that narrows and scars the airways permanently. It is more difficult to breathe and expel mucus from the lungs as a result of this lung injury. It also decreases the ability of the lungs to take in oxygen.