Is it “just a cough” or something else?
Many times when you have a cold or upper respiratory infection, you’ll have a cough along with your runny nose, watering eyes and nasal congestion. When the cold runs its course, all of your symptoms – including your cough – will gradually become less severe and eventually stop as your immune system clears the virus from your body. However, in some cases your cough may linger for several weeks or longer, which means you likely have bronchitis.
“Bronchitis is an inflammation of the mucus membranes that line the bronchial tubes, which carry air in and out of the lungs,” said Richard Huntington, M.D., a primary care physician at Geisinger Kistler. “With bronchitis, these tiny airways become narrower or blocked, which causes you to cough, wheeze, and feel breathless.”
Acute bronchitis: A cough that lasts a few weeks
There are two types of bronchitis: acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis usually lasts for two to three weeks and will clear up on its own in people who are in good overall health. It will typically start as a common cold or the flu with upper respiratory symptoms. The cough is usually dry and hacking at the beginning, and eventually starts to produce phlegm and mucus. You may also feel tired, have chest pain, throat irritation and run a low fever.
In most cases, acute bronchitis is caused by a virus or bacteria, which means that it is contagious. If you have symptoms of a cold and are coughing, you should assume that you can spread the virus or bacteria that is causing your illness. In cases where acute bronchitis is caused by inhaling substances like smoke or vomit, you will not be contagious.
Treating acute bronchitis is very similar to treating a cold. Your doctor will advise you to rest and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. You may also be advised to take over-the-counter pain relievers or a cough suppressant to help alleviate your symptoms. Since most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses, you won’t be prescribed an antibiotic.
“Acute bronchitis usually goes away on its own,” said Dr. Huntington. “However, if you’re running a high fever or have chills, you should see a doctor right away since it may be pneumonia.”
Chronic bronchitis: A lung disease that can last a lifetime
Chronic bronchitis is long-lasting and requires regular medical treatment. It’s defined as a cough that occurs every day with sputum production that lasts for at least three months per year, for two years in a row. Chronic bronchitis is one type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and it’s most commonly caused by cigarette smoking.
If you have chronic bronchitis, the cells that line your airways lose the function of their cilia. Cilia are the hair-like appendages on these cells that clear mucus and other particles out of the way. Eventually the cells with the cilia are replaced by other cells that secrete more mucus, creating an overgrowth of bacteria that leads to inflammation. This inflammation further restricts airflow and causes chronic coughing as your body tries to clear your airways. It’s a progressive disease, which means that symptoms get worse over time.
“The most effective treatment for chronic bronchitis is to stop smoking and avoid inhaling pollutants, dust and other substances that make chronic bronchitis worse,” said Dr. Huntington. “If chronic bronchitis is caught early and the patient stops smoking, they can experience a reduction in their symptoms and live a healthy life for many years.”
Richard Huntington, M.D., is a primary care physician at Geisinger Kistler Clinic in Wilkes-Barre. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Huntington or another primary care physician, please call 570-829-2621 or visit Geisinger.org.