We’ve all heard of bronchitis—and we've all heard bronchitis. The deep, rattling chest cough. The wheezing. The lingering congestion and mucus. Bronchitis symptoms like these are hard to ignore, even if you don’t know what’s causing them.
So how do you know if your cough is a symptom of bronchitis or something else? And, if it is bronchitis, how can you get rid of it? Here’s what you need to know.
What is bronchitis, anyway?
Not just any run-of-the-mill, tickle-in-the-throat cough, bronchitis is a respiratory condition in which the lining of your bronchial tubes become inflamed, the Mayo Clinic explains. These tubes are especially important because they carry air both to and from your lungs, which is why bronchitis causes coughing, wheezing, and other symptoms that may affect your ability to breathe normally.
Bronchitis is usually brought on by a viral infection, like a cold or the flu, piling on top of an already miserable state of affairs. In fact, research suggests that 85 to 95 percent of acute bronchitis cases are caused by viruses that make their way into the respiratory system.
While the underlying virus is almost always contagious, the bronchitis itself is not. What's more, not everyone is going to get it, or get it every time they are sick. “These viruses do not necessarily cause bronchitis in all hosts,” Kanao Otsu, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine in the division of allergy and immunology at National Jewish Health, tells SELF. If two people have the same initial illness, one may end up with bronchitis while the other gets off scot-free.
“Having an underlying lung disease such as asthma, cigarette smoke exposure, work exposures to certain chemicals and irritants, can all increase one’s risk for developing acute bronchitis,” Dr. Otsu says.
Here are the most common bronchitis symptoms to look out for.
- Persistent cough that lasts one-and-a-half to three weeks.
- Chest tightness or pain.
- Shortness of breath.
- Sore throat.
- Low fever and chills.
But it’s not always as obvious as a list like this makes it seem. When trying to diagnose your cough, take note of how it feels. A cough that’s caused by bronchitis is often accompanied by mucus in your chest, which may or may not come up when you cough (when it does, it's called a “productive” cough). That can cause as sensation of rattling deep in your chest when you breathe in or cough.
The color of the mucus can vary from clear to yellow or green, depending on what infection or virus you’ve got. Once the virus is gone and the mucus dissipates, the lingering cough may become dry.
“[The cough] may also be associated with chest tightness and wheezing, which can persist for five to six weeks,” Dr. Otsu adds. Wheezing is when your breaths make a whistling or rattling sound because your airways are blocked–it’s common in those with asthma. When your breathing is a bit labored, you may also experience shortness of breath. Coughing so often may make your throat irritated and sore.
Making matters a bit more complicated is the fact that bronchitis usually appears on top of the symptoms of whatever viral illness you originally had. So you may experience things like a fever and headache as well (you can blame the flu for that, not the bronchitis).
How is bronchitis diagnosed?
In many cases, your doctor can diagnose bronchitis based on the presence of another illness (which is why keeping track of the progression of your symptoms is so important) and by listening to your lungs while you breathe, the Mayo Clinic says.
But, to rule out other possible illnesses, your doctor might also recommend some specific tests. That could include undergoing a chest X-ray, a test of your mucus for signs of a bacterial infection or allergy, or a test of your lung function to see if you might actually have another condition (like asthma or emphysema).
Treatment for bronchitis is usually straightforward.
Most cases of bronchitis stem from viral illnesses, which unfortunately cannot be treated with antibiotics. So, unless your doctor suspects your bronchitis developed from a bacterial illness, you'll probably have to wait it out until it clears from your system on its own without specialized treatment. And many cases of bronchitis do clear up on their own within a few weeks, the Mayo Clinic explains.
But your doctor can suggest some things to manage your bronchitis symptoms and make you more comfortable while your body deals with the underlying illness.
For instance, treatment for a fever or headache might include over-the-counter pain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), aspirin, and acetaminophen, Dr. Otsu says.
And when it comes to your cough, it’s important to avoid lung irritants as much as possible. You can also try using a cough suppressants to help you sleep at night and a humidifier to loosen up your mucus and make it easier for you to get rid of.
If you have an underlying chronic condition (such as asthma) your doctor might also prescribe an inhaler or other bronchodilator medications to reduce the inflammation in your airways and make it easier for you to breathe, the Mayo Clinic says.
So…when does this cough go away?
Initially, the cough usually lasts between 10 and 21 days, Dr. Otsu says. But it may linger for up to six weeks. Although that may sound like an eternity, rest assured that it will end.
In the rare case that, after that time, you’re still dealing with your cough or you have a persistent cough that occurs without the presence of another underlying illness, you might have a separate condition called chronic bronchitis.“Chronic bronchitis is diagnosed in individuals who have productive cough for most days of the month, for at least three months of the year, for at least two consecutive years,” Dr. Otsu says. It’s most often seen in smokers and associated with other lung conditions like emphysema.
If you have a bad cough that lasts longer than three weeks, that’s a sign that your cough isn’t due to just a casual cold and may have become something more serious, like bronchitis. It’s especially important to see a doctor if your cough makes it hard for you to sleep at night (or actually wakes you up), causes difficulty breathing, comes with a fever higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or causes you to cough up blood or rust-colored mucus.
And if you find that you’re experiencing bronchitis symptoms regularly, you might have a chronic form of the disease and should talk to a doctor about long-term treatment options.