Winter is Coming: Bronchitis

Bronchitis is one of the most common conditions treated in my office during the fall and winter.

Chronic bronchitis is a different topic. It is a sub-type of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. This post will describe the more common occurring acute bronchitis. This post also does not necessarily apply patients who may have compromised immune systems.

What exactly is “bronchitis”?

Bronchitis means inflammation of the bronchus, or the large airways of the lower respiratory tract. This inflammation causes a cough that lasts five days or more. It typically resolves on its own within 1-3 weeks.

How do you get bronchitis?

Bronchitis is mostly caused by respiratory viruses. These are spread by contact with other infected individuals or with surfaces that have been contaminated by sick individuals.

What are the most common causes of bronchitis?

Flu and the common cold are the most common causes of bronchitis. RSV, which can be very troublesome in little ones, is also a frequent cause of bronchitis.

How does a doctor diagnose bronchitis?

Bronchitis is a clinical diagnosis. A doctor must examine the patient and listen to the lungs to ensure that there is nothing more serious going on as well. Often times, the patient will have a upper respiratory infection that precedes the symptoms of bronchitis. My patients most often say, “It moved into my chest.”

How do you treat bronchitis?

We cannot cure bronchitis directly, but we treat the symptoms until it resolves on its own. There is no medication we can give to cure a virus. Tamiflu will shorten the duration of the flu virus, but it still wreaks havoc on your bronchi and causes bronchitis. The bronchitis can last up to 6 weeks after the flu.

At what point would a physician be concerned that it is more than just bronchitis?

Pertussis is one thing that concerns physicians as more and more parents refuse to vaccinate their children. Pertussis is especially dangerous for infants, small children, those with respiratory disease, and adults over 65. Pertussis is characterized by fits of coughing, “whooping” on inhalation, and vomiting after a particularly violent coughing fit. This usually lasts more than two weeks.

Walking pneumonia is also a concern when there is a lingering cough. This will be further addressed in the next post on Pneumonias.

If a patient develops fever, fast respiratory rate, becomes lethargic, or wheezing, further examination and x-rays may be warranted.

What can mimic bronchitis?

Post nasal drip syndrome, reflux, asthma, heart failure, and lung cancer can all cause a chronic nagging cough that can mimic bronchitis. If a cough lasts longer than 3 weeks, you should be evaluated by your physician.

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