An introduction to bronchitis treatments
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). Bronchitis can either be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).
Although both conditions share many similar symptoms, the ways in which they are treated are mostly different. However, the main goal of both is to relieve the symptoms, including easing the cough, reducing mucus and making breathing easier.
How is bronchitis diagnosed?
Firstly, before you can find the right treatment, you need to know which form of bronchitis you have.
Acute bronchitis: There are no specific tests for acute bronchitis. It is generally diagnosed following a physical examination from your doctor, who will also ask you to describe your symptoms, how long they have lasted, as well as lifestyle questions such as whether you smoke or have recently suffered a cold or flu.
During your appointment, your doctor will likely use a stethoscope to listen for abnormal sounds in your lungs, such as wheezing, which might indicate lung inflammation.
Chronic bronchitis: As well as a physical examination and consultation about your symptoms and lifestyle factors, to diagnose chronic bronchitis your doctor may recommend a chest X-ray, lung function tests and blood tests.
These tests can help your doctor determine how well your lungs are working and to find out how impaired/damaged they have become.
What treatments are there for bronchitis?
Acute bronchitis is often treated in the same way as you would treat a cold. It usually clears up on its own, without any complications.
There are a number of conventional medicines that you can use to help ease the symptoms, including:
Cough suppressants: If your cough is dry and hacking, over-the-counter cough suppressants can be used to reduce the activity of the cough reflex. If your cough is mucus-producing, it is advisable not to suppress this cough because it’s your body’s way of removing the infection or irritation.
However, if your cough is keeping you from getting to sleep for an extended period of time, then your doctor may recommend a cough suppressant that contains dextromethorphan, but this is usually only recommended if absolutely needed.
Expectorants: If your cough is mucus-producing, an expectorant can be used to help thin the mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough up. Unlike cough suppressants they do not stop a cough; they only make it easier to expel the mucus that is blocking the bronchial tubes.
Over-the-counter painkillers: You can treat other symptoms of acute bronchitis such as headaches, fever, and aches and pains with pain medication such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. However, ibuprofen should not be used if you have asthma.
Other treatments that may be useful in easing the symptoms of acute bronchitis include cough lozenges, cough syrups and, in severe cases, your doctor may recommend a bronchodilator inhaler.
For chronic bronchitis a long-term treatment plan must be discussed with your doctor. Treatment focuses on symptom relief and slowing the progression of the condition and can include treatments such as include bronchodilator inhalers, steroids, pulmonary rehabilitation and oxygen therapy.
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Can antibiotics help treat bronchitis?
Antibiotics aren't usually prescribed for acute bronchitis or chronic bronchitis unless it is clear that a bacterial infection is present. This class of drugs don't work against viruses (the most common cause of acute bronchitis) or irritants such as smoking (the most common cause of chronic bronchitis).
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if they think it is being caused by a bacterial infection or if there is an increased risk that you may develop a secondary infection or other conditions, such as pneumonia.
Are there any self-help measures for bronchitis?
There are many things you can do to help ease the symptoms of acute bronchitis. You should:
Get plenty of rest: If bronchitis is being caused by a viral infection your body needs plenty of time to rest and recover. You may not need to be restricted to bed rest, but try not to over-exert yourself as this will only decrease the immune system’s ability to fight the infection.
Drink plenty of water: Water is a natural expectorant. It can help loosen and thin mucus, making it easier to cough up. Furthermore, mucus will become thicker if you are dehydrated, making it harder to bring up.
Drinking plenty of fluids can also help to keep mucous membranes moist and keeps mucus from collecting in the respiratory tract. Warm drinks such as herbal teas and broths can also help to soothe irritated airways.
Avoid smoke: If you smoke, try to reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke whilst you attempt to recover from acute bronchitis. Smoking also negatively impacts your immune function, slowing down your recovery time and making you more prone to further infections.
For chronic bronchitis, the best thing you can do to improve your condition is to QUIT, preventing further lung damage.
Strengthen your immune system: If your bronchitis is being caused by an infection, then boosting your immune system can not only help prevent it from recurring, it can also speed up your recovery. Increasing your vitamin C intake and taking Echinacea can both help to strengthen your immune system.
Avoid dry air: Dry air can aggravate the irritated lining of the bronchial tubes and induce coughing, whereas warm, humidified air can help keep the linings moist and soothe irritation, which can help to reduce coughing and excess mucus build up.
Use a humidifier in your home to add moisture to the air. This is particularly useful to run in your bedroom during the night as you sleep.
Use steam treatments: Taking a hot shower, bath or using a steam inhaler can help to loosen mucus and relieve chest congestion.
You can also make a steam tent by filling a bowl or sink with hot water, bending over it and covering your head with a towel, then breathing in deeply.
Adding some essential oils such as peppermint and eucalyptus oil can help to clear your respiratory passages and provide some extra soothing relief.
Avoid or limit your intake of mucus producing foods: Some people find that eating dairy products such as milk and cheese cause them to produce more mucus than normal. Sugary, fried and processed foods have also been found to exacerbate mucus production.
For chronic bronchitis, the above self-care measures will also help. However, the main goal is to reduce your exposure to whatever is irritating your bronchial tubes. If it’s being caused by smoking, the most important thing to do is to quit smoking to prevent ongoing damage to your lungs and to stop symptoms worsening.
Are there any herbal remedies that can help?
Persistent coughs are often one of the most prominent symptoms of bronchitis. These coughs may or may not be accompanied by the production of mucus.
Firstly, coughs with lots of mucus are known as productive coughs. Common in cases of acute bronchitis, bacterial infections could be contributing to the underlying coughs, whereas in chronic bronchitis, long-term irritation and excess mucus production may be giving rise to a cough.
Depending on the type of bronchitis and the likely cause of your cough, different herbal remedies may be more appropriate.
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 the mucus and making it easier to expel.
If instead, an infection is likely to be causing a chesty cough, then 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.
Finally, if a dry, persistent cough is your main symptom (often more likely in cases of chronic bronchitis) then Bronchosan Pine Cough Syrup may be helpful.
Made from fresh spruce shoots combined with honey, this fragrant mix helps to move any stubborn mucus, whilst also helping to soothe the length of your respiratory tract.
1. Schapowal A, Klein P, Johnston SL. Adv Ther. 2015; 32 (2): 187-200
Echinacea reduces the risk of recurrent respiratory tract infections and complications: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.