Primary Care

Nagging cough? It could be bronchitis.

November 23, 2021
Black Woman Coughing Hard At Home, Sitting On Couch Wearing Scarf And Covered With Blanket

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Over the next few months, we’ll all likely experience the coughing, sneezing and runny nose that comes with the cold winter air. But what if your common cold symptoms turn into something else? A persistent, nagging cough that keeps you up at night could be a sign of acute bronchitis.

“We tend to see a lot of bronchitis in the winter months when a lingering upper respiratory infection settles into the chest,” explains Linwood Joyner, M.D., a family medicine doctor at Riverside Eastern Shore Family Medicine in Nassawadox. “Fortunately, not all colds turn into bronchitis, and there are steps you can take to help you feel a little better.”

Read on for Dr. Joyner’s guide on everything you need to know about bronchitis.

What is bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is caused by the same viruses that can cause colds and the flu. That’s why it often happens after an upper respiratory illness. When you have bronchitis, your bronchial tubes (the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs) become inflamed. That swelling makes it more difficult to breathe and can make you cough up thick mucus.

Acute vs. chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a different type of bronchitis than what we’re focusing on in this article. Chronic bronchitis is not caused by a virus or bacteria, and symptoms last longer than three months. It’s often caused by breathing in irritants over a long period, like chemicals at a workplace or pollutants in your community. Smokers or those exposed to second-hand smoke are also at risk. 

What are the symptoms of acute bronchitis?

“The most common indicator of bronchitis is a deep, hacking cough that lasts for more than five days,” explains Dr. Joyner. “However, it’s not always easy to tell if it’s bronchitis or a different virus running its course, so it’s best to see your doctor.”

Symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • Persistent, hacking cough
  • Soreness/tenderness in chest when coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Rattling in the chest
  • Phlegm with cough (clear, yellow, white or green)
  • Fatigue
  • Low-grade fever (or none at all)
  • Chills
  • Body aches
  • Runny, stuffy nose
  • Sore throat

How is bronchitis treated?

Bronchitis is typically caused by a virus, so your doctor won’t prescribe an antibiotic. Overusing antibiotics – or taking them when you don’t need them – can lead to serious complications, like antibiotic resistance.

“It can be really frustrating to go to the doctor and find out there is no medicine that attacks the virus that’s causing your illness,” understands Dr. Joyner. “Luckily, that doesn’t mean there’s no relief to be found. Your doctor can help you come up with a plan that addresses your symptoms and helps you feel better.”

Your doctor may recommend the following treatments:

  • Take medicine to relieve your cough (during the day and at night)
  • Use a humidifier to help break out mucus in your chest
  • Take over-the-counter medicine to relieve cold symptoms
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink fluids, like water, juice or sports drinks
  • Try a nasal spray to clear congestion

If you think you may have bronchitis or can’t shake cold or flu symptoms, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. They will provide a thorough exam to get to the bottom of what’s causing your symptoms and set you on a path to feeling better. 

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