Bronchitis (brong-KYE-tis) is a disease that involves inflammation (irritation and swelling) of the larger airways in the respiratory tract, which can result from infection or other causes. These airways, called the bronchial (BRONG-kee-ul) tubes or bronchi (BRONG-kye), extend from the trachea* to the lungs.
- (TRAY-kee-uh) is the windpipe—the firm, tubular structure that carries air from the throat to the lungs.
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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
When a person has bronchitis, the tissue lining the airways swells, narrowing the air passages and making it difficult to breathe. The inflamed airways produce larger amounts of a thick, slippery substance called mucus (MYOO-kus), which can clog the air passages and complicate breathing even more. The excess mucus usually is coughed up. In addition, in bronchitis, the cilia (fine, hairlike structures on the surface of the cells lining the airways that help cleanse the airways of inhaled particles) become less able to clear impurities and bacteria from the airways, making it harder for the person to fight off lung infection. The disease can be brought on by a viral or bacterial infection, but it also can be the result of smoking or living or working in areas where there is heavy air pollution and dust.
Types of bronchitis
There are three kinds of bronchitis. Acute bronchitis comes on quickly and is typically the result of a bad cold or flu. It generally lasts about 10 days. In severe cases, a bad cough can persist up to a month as the bronchi heal. The acute form also can be caused by an allergy or by inhaling irritating substances in the air, such as smoke from a fire. Chronic (KRAH-nik, persistent or recurring) bronchitis is caused by continuing or repeated inflammation of the lungs over a period of time, at least 2 to 3 months, and it can persist or come and go over years. Excess mucus is produced, and the lining of the bronchi thickens. This leads to a bad cough and restricted airflow. People who smoke heavily and those with chronic lung disease are most likely to experience chronic bronchitis. The third type, asthmatic bronchitis, is seen in people with persistent asthma.
No matter who they are, what their job, or where they live, people who smoke cigarettes are more likely to experience chronic bronchitis. The American Lung Association reports that the disease develops in nearly nine million people in the United States every year. Bronchitis affects people of all ages, but those who are 45 years or older get it more often, and women are more susceptible than men. More than 10 million people have bouts of acute bronchitis every year; most are children less than 5 years of age, who typically get it in winter and early spring. The viruses that can cause acute bronchitis are contagious. People can get a viral infection from someone who is infected if they come into contact with that person’s respiratory fluids. The virus also can spread from person to person through the air by way of the droplets from a sneeze or cough. Generally, chronic bronchitis is not contagious.
When a smoker quits smoking, it takes only 20 minutes to feel better. Statistics from the American Lung Association show that:
20 minutes after quitting
- blood pressure decreases
- pulse rate lowers
8 hours after quitting
- the carbon monoxide level in the blood returns to normal
- the oxygen level in the blood rises to normal
1 day after quitting
- the chance of a heart attack drops
2 days after quitting
- nerve endings begin to regrow, allowing the senses of taste and smell to return to normal
2 weeks to 3 months after quitting
- circulation of the blood improves
- walking becomes easier
- breathing becomes easier
1 to 9 months after quitting
- coughing, congestion, tiredness, and shortness of breath diminish
1 year after quitting
- the risk of heart disease becomes half that of a smoker
The long-term benefits are encouraging, too. After 5 years the risk of stroke drops to that of someone who has never smoked. At 10 years after quitting the risk of lung cancer is significantly lower, and at 15 years the likelihood of a person who has quit smoking having a heart attack is the same as that of someone who has never smoked at all.
Bronchitis symptoms often mimic those of a cold. A cough that brings up mucus is common. Symptoms of acute bronchitis may include wheezing, tiredness, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. If the cause is a viral or bacterial infection, the patient may have a fever. Chronic bronchitis usually is marked by a cough that lasts 3 months or longer, tightness in the chest, and trouble breathing. Bronchitis often is confused or lumped together with other conditions. The doctor usually will rule out other causes for coughing and breathing problems to make the diagnosis. Besides listening to a person’s breathing, the doctor may order a chest X ray to check for pneumonia or a lung function test to check for asthma.
Many doctors prescribe antibiotics for acute bronchitis, although these medicines often do not work because they cannot cure viral infections. Bronchodilator* drugs may be prescribed to help open the airways, either in pill form or as a spray inhaler. Over-the-counter medications can be used to minimize pain and lessen cough. Patients also are advised to get a lot of rest, eat a well-balanced diet, and drink lots of fluids. It is suggested that people who have chronic bronchitis stop smoking and avoid dust, fumes, and cold or dry air. Cough medicine and vaporizers may help. Antibiotics often are prescribed when symptoms flare up acutely in a person with chronic bronchitis.
- (brong-ko-DYE-lay-tor) is a medication that helps improve air flow through the lungs by widening narrowed airways.
People with acute bronchitis usually begin to feel better within a few days, although they usually can expect to have a cough for 1 to 2 weeks or longer while the airways in the lungs heal. Chronic bronchitis symptoms last longer and may never resolve, because the damage to the lungs may be permanent. Because excess mucus is being produced, the body’s natural reflex will be to cough it up, and this cough may come and go for a long time, flaring up, subsiding, and flaring up again. Occasionally, pneumonia may develop in people with acute bronchitis. If a person is already in poor health, bronchitis can worsen the condition. Chronic bronchitis can lead to heart failure, because it makes the heart work harder to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Severe respiratory problems can develop, and in some cases the disease can result in death.
Since many cases are caused by a viral infection, washing the hands and not sharing drinks or eating utensils with someone who is infected can help to prevent acute bronchitis. Many cases of chronic bronchitis can be prevented or its symptoms made less severe by not smoking. In fact, if people did not smoke, most cases of chronic bronchitis would never develop. People with chronic bronchitis or other chronic lung diseases are usually advised to get a yearly influenza* vaccination to prevent symptoms from flaring up in response to infection with flu viruses.
- (in-floo-EN-zuh), also known as the flu, is a contagious viral infection that attacks the respiratory tract, including the nose, throat, and lungs.
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