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Acute Bronchitis

Illustration of  the  anatomy of the respiratory system, adult
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What is acute bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the breathing tubes (airways) that are called bronchi, which causes increased production of mucus and other changes. Although there are several different types of bronchitis, the two most common are acute and chronic.

What causes acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by infectious agents such as bacteria or viruses. It may also be caused by physical or chemical agents--dusts, allergens, and strong fumes, including those from chemical cleaning compounds or tobacco smoke. Acute asthmatic bronchitis may happen as the result of an asthma attack, or it may be the cause of an asthma attack.

Acute bronchitis is usually a mild, and self-limiting condition with complete resolution of symptoms and return of normal lung function.

Acute bronchitis may follow the common cold or other viral infections in the upper respiratory tract. It may also occur in people with chronic sinusitis, allergies, or those with enlarged tonsils and adenoids. It can be serious in people with pulmonary or cardiac diseases. Pneumonia is a complication that can follow bronchitis.

What are the symptoms acute bronchitis?

The following are the most common symptoms for acute bronchitis. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Runny nose

  • Malaise

  • Chills

  • Slight fever

  • Back and muscle pain

  • Sore throat

  • Wheezing

  • Early--dry, nonproductive cough

  • Later--abundant mucus-filled cough

  • Shortness of breath

The symptoms of acute bronchitis may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is acute bronchitis diagnosed?

Acute bronchitis is usually diagnosed by completing a medical history and physical examination. Many tests may be ordered to rule out other diseases, such as pneumonia or asthma. The following tests may be ordered to help confirm a diagnosis:

  • Chest X-rays. Diagnostic tests that use invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Arterial blood gas. This test is used to analyze the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood.

  • Pulse oximetry. An oximeter is a small machine that measures the amount of oxygen in the blood. To obtain this measurement, a small sensor (like a Band-Aid) is taped onto a finger or toe. When the machine is on, a small red light can be seen in the sensor. The sensor is painless and the red light does not get hot.

  • Cultures of nasal discharge and sputum. Tests used to find and identify the microorganism causing an infection.

  • Lung (pulmonary function) tests. Diagnostic tests that help to measure the ability of the lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide appropriately. The tests are usually performed with special machines that a person must breathe into.

Treatment for acute bronchitis

Specific treatment for acute bronchitis will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

In most cases, antibiotic treatment is not necessary to treat acute bronchitis, since most of the infections are caused by viruses. If the condition has progressed to pneumonia, then antibiotics may be appropriate. Most of the treatment is designed to address the symptoms, and may include:

  • Analgesics, such as acetaminophen, for fever and discomfort

  • Cough medicine

  • Increased fluid intake

  • Increase in humidity

  • Smoking cessation

  • Avoidance of exposure to secondhand smoke 

Antihistamines should be avoided in most cases because they dry up the secretions and can make the cough worse.