Bronchitis occurs when the mucous membranes of the lungs, which line the bronchial passage, become inflamed. The swelling caused by inflammation restricts the airways, causing coughing, which exacerbates the irritation. Phlegm expectoration and breathlessness often accompany the cough. Acute bronchitis usually lasts one to three weeks, after which time most symptoms disappear. Chronic bronchitis lasts for at least three months and recurs for a minimum of two years. Both acute and chronic bronchitis have similar symptoms.
Coughing is a predominant symptom of bronchitis. Though short and weak, the cough usually occurs repeatedly. Many people assume they just have "a cough" and do not seek treatment for bronchitis initially. In most cases, bronchitis goes away naturally, and doctors prescribe rest, fluids, and mild cough medicine.
Often, phlegm production accompanies the hacking cough, with the former beginning 24 to 48 hours after the onset of the latter. Phlegm may be white, yellow, or green, though in severe cases, the expectoration could be streaked with blood. This should prompt the individual to seek immediate medical attention, as it could indicate tuberculosis or another serious condition. In most cases, a cough with phlegm eases discomfort and pain by lubricating the airway. A dry cough often calls for cough suppressants to prevent disruption of sleep.
Chronic bronchitis often causes discomfort in the chest. Some experience constriction and heaviness, while others feel pain below the breastbone when taking deep breaths. In cases of acute bronchitis, doctors usually recommend anti-inflammatory painkillers. Long-term pain relief and other prescriptions may be administered to people with chronic bronchitis.
Wheezing is a whistling sound upon exhaling, caused by constriction of the airways; although alarming, this symptom should subside when the cough passes. In severe cases, however, wheezing occurs in tandem with breathlessness, signaling excessive swelling of the mucous membranes. Doctors recommend inhaled bronchodilators for relief. Those with chronic bronchitis recognize their condition has been aggravated when wheezing begins and often carry inhalers at all times.
Breathlessness usually occurs during more severe cases of acute bronchitis and when chronic bronchitis becomes aggravated. Exertion and incessant coughing spells often precede breathlessness. This is another symptom for which doctors typically recommend inhaled bronchodilators, which clear the airways immediately and allow an adequate supply of oxygen to reach the lungs. Those with severe bronchial disease should always have an inhaler nearby.
Some people with bronchitis, especially children, develop a fever. This symptom affects people with acute bronchitis because a virus or bacterial infection usually causes the illness. Antibiotics (if the bronchitis is caused by a bacterial infection) and painkillers can treat this symptom, but if one's temperature rises above 102°F, the individual should seek medical attention to rule out other conditions such as pneumonia.
People with bronchitis who experience fever may experience chills as well, and the two symptoms should pass together. In severe cases, however, this combination can render sick individuals bedridden and leave them feeling weak and lethargic.
In addition to phlegm, some people with bronchitis — again, often children — will develop a runny nose. This symptom is generally considered mild and is not a cause for concern unless a plugged nose interferes with breathing during sleep. A runny nose should begin to subside as other symptoms lessen.
While breathlessness usually has a trigger such as exertion or prolonged coughing, difficulty breathing implies the bronchial airways are severely blocked. If left untreated, this symptom can worsen over time. Trouble breathing often comes with chest tightness and pain. Physicians usually prescribe inhaled or oral steroids for clearing the passages; some patients may require oxygen supplementation.
Both acute and chronic bronchitis cause fatigue, which develops due to constant coughing, symptoms, such as coughing and congestion, that interrupt sleep, and the body working hard to fend off the illness.
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