An introduction to bronchitis and mucus
Bronchitis is a condition that occurs when an irritant or infection causes inflammation and swelling to the lining of the bronchial tubes (the tubes that carry air to and from your lungs). As the irritated membranes of the bronchi swell and grow thicker, the tiny airways of the lungs become restricted.
Coughing is the body’s way of trying to remove any irritant or infection from the airways and although it starts off as a persistent non-productive dry cough; it can develop into a productive cough, which brings up mucus, as the condition progresses.
Why does bronchitis cause chest discomfort?
Mucus is a slimy substance produced by the lining of the bronchial tubes.
Although unpleasant, mucus has a beneficial role to play in your body. It lubricates the lining of the respiratory tract and it is a natural part of your body’s defence, entrapping bugs and germs and pushing them out via mucous secretions. The problem comes when mucus builds up in the respiratory tract and starts to get out of control.
Coughing is the most common symptom of bronchitis. It usually starts off dry and hacking, but as the mucous membranes in the lining of the bronchial tubes become more irritated, they can start to produce excess mucus, clogging the bronchi and restricting airflow to the lungs even more, which can result in a productive (mucus-producing) cough as the body attempts to remove the mucus from the airways.
Excess mucus can make it difficult to breathe, which can cause you to develop other bronchitis symptoms including shortness of breath and wheezing.
Coughing up thick, clear or white mucus is often an indication of an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold, whereas a thick, yellowish, green mucus can be an indication of a viral or bacterial infection in the lower respiratory tract.
With acute bronchitis, which is a lower respiratory tract condition, you can experience both as the infection progresses, especially if your bronchitis occurs following an upper respiratory infection.
The amount of mucus that is produced varies from person to person. However, it usually reduces as the infection does.
If you have a cough with mucus on most days for at least 3 months in a year, for 2 years in a row, it is likely you have developed chronic bronchitis, which is a long-term, serious condition that is often caused by smoking.
It is important to consult your doctor if you cough up mucus that is streaked with blood.
Are there any self-help measures?
Coughing is your body’s natural response to get rid of excess mucus in your airways, but there are many other ways to reduce the amount of mucus you produce and thin it to allow you to bring it up more easily as you cough. You should:
Drink plenty of water: Water is a natural expectorant, which can thin out mucus, making it easier to cough up. Staying well hydrated will also help you avoid becoming dehydrated, which can cause mucus to thicken and build up, making it harder to cough up. Drink a glass of water every two hours to help thin mucus.
Use steam inhalations: The heat and moisture from steam can not only soothe the irritated lining of the bronchial tubes, it also helps to break up and dissolve mucus, allowing it to be coughed up more easily.
Take a hot shower or bath, use a vaporiser or create a steam tent by lowering your face over a bowl filled with hot water, placing a towel over your head and bowl and inhaling the steam. Adding a few drops of essential oil (peppermint or eucalyptus oil) in the hot water will help to loosen stubborn, hard to cough up mucus.
Use a humidifier or vaporiser: Breathing in warm, moist air can help to loosen mucus in the airways, making it easier to breathe. It also helps to keep the lining of your bronchial tubes moist, which helps to soothe your irritated airways and reduce the severity of your cough.
Quit smoking or reduce the amount you smoke: Not only does smoking impede your immune function, which is needed to help you recover; it can further aggravate respiratory problems. It irritates your already irritated mucous membranes and causes them to produce extra mucus. If you don’t smoke, try to avoid second-hand smoke.
Spit it out: Although coughing up mucus is not a pleasant act, try not to swallow any that is coughed up. Instead, spit it into a tissue. Swallowing it will only keep your airways clogged up.
Drink some herbal tea: Chamomile tea isn’t just a lovely relaxing beverage, which can help aid sleep, it also contains antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties that help to reduce the inflammation of the bronchial tubes that has led to the increase of mucus production.
Try some liquorice or peppermint tea as well. Liquorice is a natural expectorant, which helps loosen mucus. It also has a soothing effect on irritated throats and inflamed lungs. Peppermint is also a good natural expectorant that helps to thin and loosen thick mucus.
Gargle warm salt water: Gargling salt water helps to break down the mucus in the airways, so easing any congestion.
Eat foods that thin and loosen mucus: There are many foods that can help to thin mucus, making it easier to expel from your lungs, such as ginger, honey, lemons and garlic.
Certain vegetables and fruits can also relieve excess mucus, including celery, onions, parsley, winter squash, berries, oranges, greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, horseradish and cayenne peppers.
Chicken soup is also thought to be able to relieve the problem of excessive mucus, as well as fatty fish such as tuna and salmon and olive oil.
Avoid foods that can cause the increase of mucus: Some people find that eating dairy products causes them to produce more mucus than normal. Dairy foods include milk, yoghurt, cheese and the foods that have these dairy products in them.
Fatty foods such as fried foods and red meat, processed foods, sugary foods and foods containing gluten, can also cause excessive mucus. Drinking too much alcohol may also result in excessive mucus becoming a problem.
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Are there any herbal remedies that can help?
Persistent coughs are often one of the most prominent symptoms of bronchitis and these coughs may or may not be accompanied by the production of mucus. Depending on the type of bronchitis and the likely cause, different herbal remedies may be more appropriate.
In cases of acute bronchitis especially, bacterial infections are often at the root of the cause when it comes to mucus coughs.
To help ease a chesty or mucus cough, use the herbs Ivy and Thyme found in Bronchoforce. Ivy is naturally anti-spasmodic and can work well to help loosen any stubborn mucus, whilst thyme is gently anti-septic, helping to thin mucus and make it easier to expel.
If an infection is likely to be causing, or exacerbating a chesty, mucus cough, Echinaforce, in combination with Bronchoforce may work well.
Echinaforce can help to minimise the duration and severity of your symptoms, whilst also supporting your immune system.
What about conventional medicines?
When you have a productive (mucus-producing) cough it is important not to suppress it with over-the-counter cough suppressants, unless your cough is preventing you from sleeping and your doctor recommends using a cough suppressant.
Over-the-counter expectorants can help you ‘bring up’ (expectorate) mucus without suppressing your cough. They work by loosening or thinning mucus that has built up in the chest, making it easier for it to be expelled when you cough. Conventional expectorant remedies usually contain the drugs ipecachuana or guaifenesin.
Antibiotics are not usually recommended for treating acute bronchitis because it is most commonly caused by a viral infection. However, your doctor may prescribe them if they suspect it is being caused by a bacterial infection.