Acute bronchitis

What is acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is the sudden development of an inflammation in the lower respiratory passages in the lungs, including the bronchi.

What causes it?

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by an infection due to a virus. For example, the virus which causes the common cold can lead to acute bronchitis if it spreads further down into the respiratory system.

People who are more at risk of developing acute bronchitis include those who have long-standing lung problems such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema. The reason for this is that the defence mechanisms against infection in their lungs do not function as well as those of the normal, healthy person. The most common cause of such lung problems is smoking. There is some medical evidence to suggest that exposure to dust and irritant fumes can trigger off acute bronchitis. However, this is rare.

What are the symptoms?

In cases of acute bronchitis, the virus or bacteria that attack the bronchi (respiratory passages) can cause some, or all, of the following symptoms:

  • A cough, which is caused by irritation of the respiratory passages.
  • A marked increase in the production of phlegm (sputum).
  • Shortness of breath
  • A distinct wheeze, which is caused by a combination of swelling in the lining of the respiratory passages along with an increase in the production of phlegm.
  • There may be fatigue, fever and a general feeling of being unwell.
  • The symptoms of acute bronchitis are made considerably worse by being exposed to cigarette smoke or air pollution, and during cold, close or damp weather.

Are there any self-help remedies?

Acute bronchitis does not usually require antibiotic treatment, as it is triggered by a viral infection. However, if there is no chronic bronchitis present, and you suffer from a sudden outbreak of acute bronchitis, try the following self-help remedies:

  • Cough often to remove any phlegm which may be present in the bronchi.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, preferably water.
  • Take paracetamol to relieve any fever. Remember to take it regularly in the recommended doses.
  • Don’t smoke cigarettes.
  • Avoid smoky or stuffy atmospheres and stay indoors in a well-ventilated room during cold, close and damp weather.

Should I see a doctor?

If the symptoms of acute bronchitis last for more than 10 days, or seem to be deteriorating, it is advisable to consult your local GP. Other warning signs to watch out for, and which definitely warrant a visit to the doctor, are:

  • Any changes in the colour of the skin or lips to a blueish or whitish colour.
  • Difficulty in breathing, especially pain on drawing a deep breath.
  • Underlying asthma or an asthmatic tendency which may be considerably worsened during acute bronchitis.
  • Underlying chronic bronchitis or emphysema.

Acute bronchitis will usually clear up of its own accord within a couple of weeks, provided there are no other complications present.

Can acute bronchitis be prevented?

The best approach to preventing lung diseases such as pneumonia is not to smoke cigarettes. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you already smoke, you should seriously think about stopping. Your GP or pharmacist can advise you about smoking cessation programmes.

There are no vaccines available against the viruses that are the most common cause bronchitis.

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