What is bronchitis?
The airways in the lungs produce mucus to help trap dust and other particles that cause irritation. When the airways are inflamed (through irritants or infection), they produce more mucus than usual. Your body tries to remove the excessive mucus by coughing. This condition is called bronchitis.
Bronchitis can be acute or chronic.
Acute bronchitis is a temporary condition, lasting about three weeks, affecting people of all ages. Children under the age of five are most susceptible.
Chronic bronchitis occurs when the airways are repeatedly inflamed, causing a build-up of mucus, making it difficult to breathe. The inflammation also damages the cilia, hair-like structures that help keep the air passages clean and free of germs. Damaged cilia lead to more infections. Chronic bronchitis is a serious long-term condition that requires regular medical treatment.
Acute bronchitis is usually caused by infections. Chronic bronchitis is most commonly caused by smoking.
When should I see a specialist for bronchitis treatment?
It is important to see a specialist if you suspect that you might have chronic bronchitis. Receiving prompt treatment greatly decreases your risk of severe lung damage, which could develop into other respiratory problems.
Make an appointment to see a respiratory physician if your cough:
· is persistent for more than 3 weeks
· keeps you from resting well at night
· is accompanied by a fever
· produces coloured mucus or blood
· causes wheezing sounds or shortness of breath
Did you know?
Many people with chronic bronchitis also have emphysema. These two diseases are part of a broader group of respiratory diseases, collectively known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), that have chronic, progressive, and debilitating respiratory conditions.
A survey done in 2012 across 9 Asia-Pacific countries estimated that the prevalence of COPD was 6.2%, with 19.1% of those surveyed having severe COPD, suggesting that a substantial socioeconomic burden of the disease in this region¹.
What are the complications of bronchitis?
If left untreated, bronchitis (acute or chronic) can occasionally develop into pneumonia particularly in people with suppressed immune systems or who already have lung disease.
Pneumonia is a condition when the infection spreads further into the airway, causing the air sacs inside the lungs to fill up with fluid. Those at risk of developing pneumonia include
· elderly people
· people with other health conditions such as heart disease
· people with a weak immune system
How should I prepare for my appointment?
The respiratory physician will discuss your personal and family history with you. Your specialist is likely to ask questions regarding your cough, if you are a smoker, exposed to chemicals that might irritate your lungs, have any other health condition, any recent colds or flu.
The following information should be prepared for the appointment:
· Your symptoms and how long you have had these symptoms
· All medication currently being consumed including dosage, vitamins, and other supplements
· You and your family’s medical history including any recent laboratory tests, scans or x-rays
The respiratory physician will also perform a physical examination to listen to your lungs as you breathe and order certain tests such as a
· chest X-ray to determine if you have pneumonia or another lung condition
· sputum test to determine if the mucus from your lungs indicates a bacterial infection that can be resolved by antibiotics. Sputum can also be tested for signs of allergies
· pulmonary function test where you blow into a device called a spirometer that measures your how much air your lungs can hold and how quickly you can get air out of your lungs. This test checks for signs of asthma or emphysema
What can I expect during bronchitis treatment?
Typically, acute bronchitis goes away on its own. You may be advised to drink more fluids to help reduce congestion and take acetaminophen to bring down any fever. Over-the-counter cough suppressants and expectorants along with hot showers can help relieve symptoms by thinning mucus and opening the airways, allowing ease of mucus expulsion.
For chronic bronchitis, the focus is to manage the symptoms and control the progression of the disease. Your treatment plan may consist of the following:
· A bronchodilator, which is a drug breathed through an inhaler, that helps open the airways in your lungs, allowing for easier breathing.
· An oral medication that relaxes your airways to relieve any breathing difficulties or severe shortness of breath.
· Steroids to reduce airway inflammation may also be prescribed as an inhaler or in pill form.
Your respiratory physician could also suggest a pulmonary rehabilitation programme, consisting of exercise, nutrition counselling and breathing strategies, to improve your breathing and overall well-being.
How do I alleviate the symptoms of chronic bronchitis?
Although there is no cure for chronic bronchitis, certain lifestyle changes can help ease your symptoms, such as:
· eating a healthy diet to help prevent lung infections
· regular moderate exercise (with a healthy diet) will help you maintain a desirable weight as being overweight makes it more difficult to breathe. It can also help strengthen the muscles that help you breathe
· stop smoking
· avoid smoky environments
1. Lim S, Lam DC-L, Muttalif AR, et al. Impact of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the Asia-Pacific region: the EPIC Asia population-based survey. Asia Pac Fam Med. 2015;14(1):4. doi:10.1186/s12930-015-0020-9.