What is bronchitis?
Bronchitis is inflammation of your bronchi. It is usually caused by bronchial infection. To understand the symptoms of bronchitis, lets look at what bronchi are.
The word “bronchi” is the plural form of bronchus. A bronchus is any of the larger branches of the air-pipe that carries air in and out of your lungs. Here is a diagram of your lungs. The main pipe goes down to your lungs and divide into two main branches: the left bronchus and the right bronchus. As you can see in the picture, they give out further branches inside each lung. Any one of these branches is a bronchus. As the bronchi branch out, they become thinner and smoother. When you have bronchitis, the inside of the bronchi get irritated and you have cough. As the irritation gets worse, the inner lining of your bronchi swell up. They produce more mucus and you cough up copious amount of sputum.
What causes bronchitis?
Most of the times, bronchitis is caused by viruses. The same viruses that cause common cold can cause bronchitis. However, some bacteria and other microorganisms have been known to cause bronchitis. Of the virus that cause bronchitis, influenza A and influenza B virus deserve special mention. These are the viruses that cause influenza or the flu. These are important because bronchitis caused by flu virus than be more serious and may need timely and specific treatment.
How do you get bronchitis?
Bronchitis is communicable disease. The organisms that cause bronchitis can be spread out just like common cold. You catch the infection by inhaling the organism that are floating in the air after an infected person coughs or sneezes near you. It can also be transmitted by close contact with the infected person.
However, there are two factors that determine whether you develop bronchitis after catching the bug: your immunity and the contagiousness of the particular organism.
Some viruses are very contagious and successfully produce symptoms of bronchitis in a new host whereas others are less effective in doing so. Your immunity to the particular organism as well as the overall strength of your immune system also play a role in whether you get bronchitis symptoms from the infection.
Symptoms of bronchitis after a common cold
The symptoms of bronchitis may not be different from symptoms of common cold for the first five days. You may start with a runny nose, sneezing and cough. You may feel tired. You may also have sore throat or mild headache or even low grade fever. When we talk about treatment of bronchitis, I will refer to these symptoms as “cold type symptoms”. Most of the times, the only thing distinguishes bronchitis from common cold is the duration of symptoms. When your cough lasts for more than 5 days after an episode of common cold, you have acute bronchitis.
This is why many people think of bronchitis as “chest cold”. When you have bronchitis after a cold, you feel like your cold symptoms have gone deeper into your chest. You start coughing more and produce plenty of phlegm. If you look at the picture of the lungs and your bronchi, you can see that your feeling about bronchitis being a chest cold is correct. The same virus that initially caused irritation and inflammation in your nose and your throat goes down deeper into your chest and cause chest cold or bronchitis. The chest cold symptoms from bronchitis usually last from one to three weeks.
Symptoms of bronchitis from influenza virus
Infection with the flu virus causes more severe symptoms than common cold. It starts abruptly. Unlike common cold, you know the exact time of day your flu symptoms start. You may start with high fever, body aches and fever. You may also have cough, runny nose, sore throat and headache. If your flu gets better after a few days without chest cold symptoms, you may only have uncomplicated flu. When you have worsening cough with lots of phlegm along with other symptoms of flu, you have bronchitis caused by the flu virus. Flu virus can also spread all the way down to your lungs and can cause infection of the lungs called pneumonia.
Symptoms of bronchitis from bacterial infection
Viruses cause most of the cases of bronchitis but there are two important bacteria that may cause symptoms of bronchitis similar to that caused by viruses.
The first one is called Mycoplasma pneumoniae. This is the same bacteria that cause walking pneumonia. However, most infections with this organism only result in bronchitis and not walking pneumonia. In addition to other symptoms of bronchitis, Mycoplasma bronchitis patients frequently complain about cough that won’t go away. Their cough is persistent and mostly dry without much phlegm production. The onset of symptoms is usually very slow and may last for weeks. Some people with bronchitis from Mycoplasma eventually develop walking pneumonia.
The other important bacteria that can cause bronchitis are called Pertussis. This is the same type of bacteria that cause whooping cough. Before widespread vaccination against these bacteria they caused the classic symptoms of whooping cough. However, in the post vaccination era, most people have some immunity against them and they only have persistent distressful cough.
Bronchitis vs. pneumonia
The main difference between bronchitis and pneumonia is the depth of infection. The inflammation from bronchitis is limited to your bronchi but it reaches deeper into the air sacs in your lungs when you have pneumonia. Due to the involvement of deeper parts of your lungs, you may have additional symptoms with pneumonia. You may have shortness of breath or even chest pain with coughs and deep breaths. You may also have fevers and chills with bacterial pneumonia. It is important to distinguish between bronchitis and pneumonia because pneumonia symptoms often required specific treatment.
Acute bronchitis vs. chronic bronchitis
The symptoms of bronchitis we discussed so far are from acute bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is a whole different disease. When you have daily cough with significant phlegm for at least three months, you may have chronic bronchitis. Unlike acute bronchitis, chronic bronchitis may not be caused by infection. Smoking cigarettes is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis. Other irritants such as dust and fumes may also cause it. People with chronic bronchitis frequently have some degree of airflow obstruction and wheezing on top of cough and phlegm.
Chronic bronchitis is common in smokers and is a part of the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) syndrome. If you want to learn more about chronic bronchitis, you can read this article about smokers cough and COPD.
Treatment of bronchitis symptoms
Symptoms of bronchitis may or may not need specific treatment depending on the particular situation. In some cases, simple home remedy may suffice. I will review a few specific situations and describe the appropriate coarse of action. Remember, this only applies to you if you are a relatively healthy adult with no medical condition that would compromise your immune system. If you have cancer, HIV or other diseases that can compromise your immunity, you need to call your doctor for any new symptom.
1. Cough with sputum production and cold type symptoms with no high fever: This is most likely viral infection of your upper airway with or without involvement of your bronchus. You do not need any x-ray or specific treatment. You can take over the counter cold medications and drink plenty of fluids at home.
2. Chest cold symptoms after common cold: You still do not need any specific diagnosis or treatment if you are an otherwise healthy adult. You can simply take Aspirin or Tylenol at home. However you need to see your doctor if you have any of these symptoms associated with your chest cold: fevers, chills, weakness, wheezing, chest pain or shortness of breath.
3. Abrupt onset chest cold with fever during the flu season: This could be influenza. If your symptoms are severe, seek medical attention as soon as you can. If you get diagnosed within 48 hours, you may benefit from specific antiviral treatment
4. Chest cold symptoms with constant troubling cough that won’t go away: If your symptoms are troubling, it is better to seek medical attention to make sure you don’t have any specific reason for the cough that needs treatment.