Bronchitis: Symptoms & Treatment
When the large airways in the lungs - the bronchi - are infected, they become irritated and inflamed. This type of chest infection is called bronchitis.
There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Acute bronchitis usually lasts up to three weeks and is most often caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold or flu (if you have a cold, sore throat or flu, it's not unusual to have bronchitis afterwards). This explains why there are lots more cases of bronchitis during the winter months, when more people go down with cold and flu bugs.
Acute bronchitis can affect anyone of any age, but is most common in children aged five and under. If you're very overweight, if you smoke, if you're pregnant or are elderly, you may also have a higher risk of developing a chest infection such as acute bronchitis. Having a long-term health problem such as asthma or diabetes could also make you more susceptible to acute bronchitis, as could having a weakened immune system.
Chronic bronchitis, meanwhile, lasts three months or longer, and is one of several lung-related conditions known collectively as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). To find out about chronic bronchitis and COPD why not read our article.
What are the symptoms?
If you have acute bronchitis, you'll have a nasty cough that brings up lots of thick mucus. Other symptoms include the following:
Common cold symptoms such as a runny or blocked nose, sore throat and headache
Joint and muscle aches and pains
A heavy or tight feeling in your chest
Wheezing and/or shortness of breath
Your symptoms should be at their peak within two or three days, then most of them should gradually start getting better. Your cough may last longer though, as it can take a few weeks for the inflammation in your lungs to settle.
In some cases, bronchitis can lead to pneumonia - a more severe type of chest infection - if the infection spreads into other parts of your lungs (according to the NHS, around one in 20 cases of bronchitis ends up in pneumonia). Some people are more susceptible to developing pneumonia than others, including older people, those who smoke, those with a compromised immune system and people with heart disease and other medical conditions.
Many cases of bronchitis get better on their own without any treatments. You can, however, take an over-the-counter painkiller - such as paracetamol or ibuprofen - if you have symptoms such as a fever, aches, pains and a headache.
Other treatments that you'd normally use to treat a cold might be useful too, such as a decongestant if you have a stuffy or blocked nose. Or you may want to try an over-the-counter cold and flu remedy formulated to help you sleep better at night if your symptoms are keeping you awake (do not take any remedies that make you drowsy if you're going to be driving or operating machinery).
Also be aware that some cold and flu remedies contain paracetamol or ibuprofen. This means you shouldn't take an over-the-counter painkiller at the same time, as it would mean you'd be taking twice the recommended dose.
Alternatively, you may want to try an expectorant cough medicine that thins and loosens the mucus in your chest and airways, which may help you bring up more of it when you cough (these medicines often claim to help make your cough more ‘productive'). Some cough medicines are also formulated to help you get a better night's sleep.
Will antibiotics help?
Antibiotics won't usually help clear up bronchitis because they only work on bacterial infections – and most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses. Even when bronchitis is caused by a bacterial infection, doctors don't always use antibiotics to treat it, since they often don't help people recover any faster.
Indeed, according to the NHS, GPs usually only prescribe antibiotics if they think your chest infection is getting worse, if you have pneumonia or if you're at risk of developing complications such as pleurisy, where fluid builds up around your lungs.
On the other hand people over the age of 80 and those with certain medical conditions – such as heart or lung disease – may be advised to take antibiotics when they have acute bronchitis, as may those who have cystic fibrosis or a weakened immune system.
Pneumonia warning signs
You shouldn't need to see your doctor if you have acute bronchitis. But if you have any of the following symptoms, it could be a sign that you've developed pneumonia – in which case, see your GP as soon as possible:
A cough that's lasted for more than three or four weeks
A high temperature, wheezing or headache that's getting more severe
Shortness of breath, chest pains or rapid breathing
Coughing up blood (or dark-coloured mucus)
Frequent bouts of acute bronchitis
If you have a mild case of pneumonia, it can be treated at home with antibiotics. But if your symptoms are more severe, you may have to go into hospital.
Self help for bronchitis
It's a good idea to take things easy if you have acute bronchitis. In particular, make sure you get plenty of sleep at night, and take a nap during the daytime if you're feeling tired. Then when you feel up to it, try to do some gentle exercise – an easy 20-minute walk, for instance – as it will make you breathe more deeply (which, in turn, may help clear your chest of mucus).
There are several other things you can do to help yourself too:
Drink plenty of fluids
Drinking can help prevent mild dehydration, especially if you have a high temperature (you're more prone to dehydration when you have a fever). It can also help thin the mucus in your chest, making it easier to bring up when you cough. Try having a glass of water, herbal tea, clear soup, fruit or vegetable juice every three to four hours. If you have a sore throat, which is often the case when you have a persistent cough, try soothing it with a warm drink of honey and lemon.
Take some deep breaths
When you don't feel up to exercising, try to do a little deep breathing once an hour or so, to help get the mucus in your chest moving. Three or four deep breaths are all you may need. Then if you can, try to have one deep cough to bring up some mucus.
Eat lots of fresh foods
Make sure you eat healthily when you have bronchitis. Having plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables can help support your body when you're under the weather – vegetable soups and stews are ideal, as the extra liquid will help clear your chest. If possible, try having some spicy foods that contain chillies or cayenne pepper too, as some believe they help thin mucus in the body (this is why your nose often runs when you eat something hot).
Prop yourself up
Get a better night's sleep by adding another pillow or two. Raising your head up can help you breathe more easily. Also use a humidifier in your bedroom at night if you have one, as it can keep your lungs more moist while you sleep.
How to prevent bronchitis
Since smokers are thought to have a higher risk of developing bronchitis than non-smokers, one of the first things you should do is quit if you're still smoking. Not only does smoking damage your lungs, it can also weaken your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to catching colds and flu when viruses are circulating.
If you need help with giving up smoking, there are several things you could try that are designed to help relieve nicotine cravings, such as patches, gum and lozenges. These products – called nicotine replacement treatment (NRT) products – are available over the counter, or you could ask your GP for a prescription.
Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a cold or flu virus. So if you want to prevent having bronchitis, it's a good idea to take measures towards avoiding catching a cold or flu in the first place.
One of the most effective preventative measures against colds and flu is to wash your hands frequently, especially when you're around infected people who are sneezing and coughing.
These viruses can be transmitted by someone with a cold or flu sneezing or coughing, as it propels droplets of virus-containing fluid into the air and onto surfaces that you may put your hands on. If you then touch your mouth or nose, you can transfer the virus into your body – which is why keeping your hands as clean as possible is thought to help.
If you're heading out and about when there are lots of cold and flu infections around, try to keep a supply of hand wipes in your bag or pocket, as you may not always have access to hand-washing facilities when you need them.
Keeping surfaces clean at home and at your place of work can also help when others have colds or flu (use a disinfectant spray or wipes to sanitise areas regularly where they may have coughed or sneezed).
Meanwhile, if you have bronchitis yourself (or indeed a cold or flu bug), try to stop spreading your virus to other people by using a tissue to cover your mouth and nose whenever you cough or sneeze.
Click here to read about other ways to boost your resistance to cold and flu viruses.
Natural immune support
The health of your immune system plays an important part in the development of bronchitis. People with weakened immune systems are known to be more at risk of bronchitis than those with healthy immunity, and the condition can also often follow a cold or flu virus, both of which can take their toll on your natural resistance.
Good nutrition is essential for strong immunity, so make sure your diet is healthy and balanced, and includes at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Certain natural supplements may also help boost your immune system. Vitamin C, for instance, is widely recommended for immune support, with one study suggesting it may help older people recover from respiratory tract infections (i).
Vitamin D is thought to be important for immunity too, and several studies suggest a link between vitamin D levels and the risk of having a respiratory infection (ii). Some experts also believe having a low vitamin D level could increase your risk for pneumonia (iii), which can be a complication of bronchitis.
Zinc is also recognised as important for immune function, and is thought to help reduce susceptibility to acute lower respiratory tract infections. One study suggests zinc supplementation may be significantly associated with reducing rates of pneumonia in children (iv).
Finally the herb echinacea may help with immune support. This natural remedy has been granted an official traditional herbal registration (THR) for the relief of the symptoms of the common cold and influenza-type infections based on traditional use only. Do not take echinacea if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you're taking medicines that suppress your immune system. If you're taking any type of medicine, speak to your GP before taking echinacea.
To discover more advice and articles on a range of common health conditions, our health library is a good place to start.
Hunt. C, Chakravorty. NK, Annan. G, et al. The clinical effects of vitamin C supplementation in elderly hospitalised patients with acute respiratory infections. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1994;64:212-219.
Charan. J, Goyal. JP, et al. Vitamin D for prevention of respiratory tract infections: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2012 Oct-Dec; 3(4):300-303.
Holter. JC, Ueland .T, et al. Vitamin D Status and Long-Term Mortality in Community-Acquired Pneumonia: Secondary Data Analysis from a Prospective Cohort. PLosOne. Jul 1 2016;11(7).
Lassi. ZS, Haider. BA, Bhutta. ZA. Zinc supplementation for the prevention of pneumonia in children aged 2 months to 59 months. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2010; (12):CD005978..
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.