Acute bronchitis is a common condition characterized by a sudden onset of a persistent cough that lasts anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks before resolving on its own. Symptoms are due to inflammation within the lungs that is typically caused by viral infections.
Understanding the symptoms of acute bronchitis, as well as how it’s treated is going to be the most important step to take. A cough doesn’t necessarily mean you have acute bronchitis, so understanding how your symptoms fit together will lead you to a proper diagnosis.
Acute Bronchitis Symptoms
A dry or mucus-producing cough is a predominant acute bronchitis symptom. It’s important to remember that mucus production DOES NOT indicate the severity of the bronchitis or whether the infection is bacterial.
Wheezing can accompany a cough even in patients who have never been diagnosed with asthma. Wheezing is likely caused by bronchial hyper-reactivity, which means that a portion of the lungs has become sensitive, leading to spasms. This narrows the airways and produces a wheezing sound when air moves through it.
Chest pain can be associated with acute bronchitis because of musculoskeletal injuries of the muscles between the ribs. The muscles may become injured from excessive and prolonged coughing.
How Do I Know If I Have Bronchitis?
The vast majority of patients don’t require testing or treatment for acute bronchitis. However, it’s important that you don’t mistakenly self-diagnose your acute bronchitis, as you could have something more serious.
You likely have acute bronchitis if you have a cough lasting 1 to 3 weeks, but have not experienced a fever, difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath — and if you don’t have a medical history of chronic bronchitis (COPD). If you have any of these symptoms, you will need to see a physician for a chest X-ray and updated treatment plan.
It is important to distinguish acute bronchitis from asthma and pneumonia, as those two conditions can have more serious complications and should be treated differently. Once you and your doctor determine that your symptoms are not related to something serious, you can begin treating your acute bronchitis. Treatment often addresses symptoms such as coughing while your body clears the virus. Do not use antibiotics to treat acute bronchitis as this does nothing but create antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the community.
How Is Acute Bronchitis Treated?
There is no specific treatment for acute bronchitis, as most symptoms will resolve in 1 to 3 weeks without any treatment at all. However, you can relieve your cough symptoms with treatments such as:
- At-home solutions such as hot tea with honey, as well as over-the-counter throat lozenges. Avoid smoking.
- Medications including dextromethorphan (Robitussin) and guaifenesin (Mucinex).
Avoid using codeine to relieve cough symptoms, as it has little to no benefit and carries a significant potential for abuse and addiction. Additionally, avoid steroids, ibuprofen, and albuterol if your cough is not related to asthma or COPD; none of these medications will treat a cough caused by acute bronchitis, and each has its own side effects. Avoid antibiotics since acute bronchitis is caused by viruses and not bacteria.
Other Causes of a Cough
Could you have the flu? During flu season, it is best not to worry about distinguishing between the flu and acute bronchitis. This is because flu treatment is safe, while there is no treatment for acute bronchitis besides symptom control through cough medicine. It is best to treat for the flu if your symptoms have been present for less than 48 hours. If you’ve experienced symptoms for more than 48 hours, flu treatment will be ineffective.
If you have allergies and are constantly clearing your throat, or if you can see a mucous waterfall in the back of your throat, your cough is likely the result of mucus draining and subsequent lung irritation. The lungs respond by coughing out mucus. Unlike other coughs, a post-nasal drip cough occurs mostly in the morning. By mid-day, mucus has been expelled and the cough typically disappears.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Severe heartburn can cause wheezing, hoarseness, and persistent cough. If your cough symptoms linger without any good explanation, talk to your doctor about going on Prilosec or Protonix to see if your cough is related to GERD.
ACE Inhibitor Use
ACE inhibitors are a class of blood pressure medications including lisinopril, benazepril, captopril, enalapril (vasotec), and ramipril. These medications cause a persistent dry cough in 15% of patients who take them. You can tell your cough is caused by ACE inhibitor use by switching to a different blood pressure medication for about a month to see if the cough goes away. Of course, be sure to discuss this with your doctor first.