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Bronchitis

Bronchitis is an infection of the bronchi, which are the main airways to the lungs. The windpipe becomes inflamed and irritated, which leads to a persistent cough.

  1. Coughing and increased phlegm are main symptoms
  2. Usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection
  3. Bacterial infections may require treatment in some

If you have a persistent cough, and are experiencing other symptoms of bronchitis, you should speak to a healthcare professional. We have a private online video consultation service which enables you to consult with one of our UK doctors.

Bronchitis
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Description

Bronchitis is an infection of the airways that lead to the lungs, called bronchi. It's a self-limiting condition, usually lasting around three weeks, and common symptoms include a persistent heavy cough and an increased production of phlegm.

Bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection, and these viruses are often the same ones that cause other upper respiratory tract infections. They include the coronavirus, rhinovirus, and adenovirus.

Bronchitis is one of the most common conditions that GPs encounter. Respiratory tract infections account for around 300 to 400 consultations per 1000 patients seen in the UK, and 44 of those are cases of acute bronchitis alone. The incidence rate is highest during the autumn and winter months.

Bronchitis occurs when the bronchial wall becomes inflamed, which causes mucus production to increase, and in turn results in a cough characteristic of lower respiratory tract infections. 

The initial infection manifests as severe coughing for several days, and may be accompanied by a fever. It then takes a few weeks for the bronchial wall to fully repair, which is why coughing is prolonged. The obstruction in the bronchi is very similar to that of asthma sufferers; however, acute bronchitis is not a long-term condition.

Chronic bronchitis can develop as a result of persistent irritant inhalation (for example if someone works with fumes or chemicals, and doesn’t wear a mask) or from smoking. This can then develop into emphysema, a form of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), where the tissue in the lungs becomes damaged. 

Complications of acute bronchitis are very rare. Around a quarter of people with bronchitis still have a cough for a month after contracting the infection. However, it can persist for longer, and this is defined as a chronic cough. It's also possible to get pneumonia from bronchitis, particularly in older people.

If you would like to speak to a healthcare professional about bronchitis, you can use our private online video consultation service. Once you have booked your appointment, you will be able to consult with a doctor at a convenient time. Our clinicians can also prescribe antibiotics if your symptoms have persevered for a long time.

Page last reviewed:  26/02/2020
Diagnosis and treatment

How is bronchitis diagnosed?

Bronchitis can be diagnosed judging from the type of cough that you have, and other symptoms which are less significant but may be useful for a doctor to know, such as breathlessness and a fever.

Having established the presence of these symptoms, a doctor may examine the chest area to look for signs of wheezing and obstructed breathing.

Will I need tests?

For acute bronchitis, laboratory testing is not necessary. However, if a doctor is concerned that the bronchitis may be associated with another, more severe respiratory condition, they may decide to take an x-ray.

What will a doctor normally advise?

In viral cases, a doctor will advise self-care therapies that do not require medication. These include resting properly, taking lots of fluids and using paracetamol and painkillers to alleviate symptoms. 

If you smoke, a doctor will also suggest ceasing your habit for (at least) the duration of the infection, as it will exacerbate symptoms. A doctor may consider prescribing antibiotics if you are systemically unwell or at risk of developing complications because of a pre-existing condition, such as heart or kidney disease.

In the event that a doctor is considering prescribing antibiotics, it's likely that it will be delayed to see if symptoms improve without the need for medication, as bronchitis can often be self-limiting.

What treatments are there for bronchitis?

Treatments for bronchitis focus on symptomatic relief: resting, drinking lots of fluids, taking paracetamol and painkillers. 

It's also possible that you will be prescribed antibiotics. However, they are not recommended for otherwise healthy people. 

Page last reviewed:  26/02/2020
Questions and Answers

How is bronchitis treated?

Bronchitis is mostly treated with symptomatic relief while the infection is allowed to clear. It's important to rest and drink plenty of fluids while the bronchial wall heals. It can also help to take paracetamol and painkillers to alleviate symptoms other than the cough itself. 

Rarely, antibiotics may be recommended. However, a doctor will not advise their use in the majority of cases. For the most part, antibiotics will not increase the rate of recovery and may cause adverse effects. Using antibiotics for self-limiting conditions makes antibiotic resistance stronger, which reduces their effectiveness when they’re used to treat more serious conditions. For this reason, they only tend to be prescribed for bronchitis in cases where someone is at increased risk of developing infection-related complications.

What treatments are there?

There is no specific treatment besides rest and allowing the body to deal with the infection. Self-help measures include drinking lots of fluids and taking mild pain relief for any discomfort caused.

Antibiotics are only issued where absolutely necessary.

Can I consult a doctor about bronchitis online?

Yes. You can book an appointment through our private video online consultation service. This facility enables you to speak to a doctor about how to manage your symptoms, and find out whether you need a physical examination or further treatment.

Page last reviewed:  26/02/2020

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