Coughing, sore throat, fatigue, fever, and a stuffy or runny nose are all hallmark signs of a cold or other respiratory virus. But sometimes that cough persists for days (or even weeks) after the original infection is gone. That’s when it’s time to call your doctor, who can help determine whether or not you have acute bronchitis, and recommend what treatment will help take care of the problem — and make that cough finally go away.
Why You Should See Your Doctor if You Suspect You Have Acute Bronchitis
Most cases of acute bronchitis — the condition that results when the airways that carry oxygen to and from the lungs become inflamed — are due to viral infections, such as a cold or the flu. And because most viral infections associated with the cold or flu do clear up their own, most cases of acute bronchitis caused by those infections will clear up on their own, too (though bronchitis symptoms may last longer than other cold or flu symptoms). (1)
But that doesn’t mean you should ignore your symptoms or not do anything to treat them. If you suspect that you might have acute bronchitis, call your doctor.
A single bout of bronchitis is unlikely to have lasting effects, but it can lead to more serious conditions, such as pneumonia or breathing difficulties in people who are at higher risk for complications. This is especially a concern for those who have weakened immune systems or other health problems, including young children, the elderly, and people with health conditions such as cancer or diabetes — or if the infection is particularly severe.
Plus, many symptoms of acute bronchitis are similar to those of other health conditions, such as asthma or allergies. So it’s important to have a doctor give you a correct diagnosis and rule out anything more serious. Typical symptoms of acute bronchitis include coughing (with or without mucus) and fatigue.
And if you experience more serious symptoms, such as wheezing, chest discomfort or pain, or shortness of breath, see your doctor right away, says Fernando Holguin, MD, professor of medicine and director of the asthma clinical research program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Those symptoms are more commonly linked to other complications, such as pneumonia and asthma.
How Your Doctor Determines the Best Treatment for Bronchitis for You
Your doctor will likely ask you questions that will help them determine whether or not you have bronchitis. They will also want to learn details that will help determine that the bronchitis is not the chronic type. Chronic bronchitis is a condition that yields similar symptoms to acute bronchitis, but that develops over a longer period of time, due to long-term exposure to harmful irritants (like cigarette smoke or air pollution). It will usually continue over the course of a person’s lifetime. Some questions you may be asked include: (2)
- Have you recently had or do you now have a cold or the flu?
- Do you smoke or are you exposed to secondhand smoke?
- Have you ever had pneumonia?
- Have you had bronchitis before, and if so, how long did it last?
- When did your symptoms begin?
- Do your symptoms affect your ability to sleep or to work?
- Does cold air bother you?
- Do you find that you wheeze sometimes?
For your part, you may want to ask your doctor if she or he recommends any additional tests be performed and what information he can expect to find from the results. Some symptoms may prompt doctors, for instance, to test for pneumonia or asthma.
If you’ve had several cases of acute bronchitis in the past, you’ll want to keep track and inform your doctor of how your symptoms have changed from case to case. If you find that you develop bronchitis every time you get a cold or every allergy season, there may be an underlying problem that has not been identified, Dr. Holguin adds. Your doctor may also order tests, including a sputum culture (a test that checks your mucus for infection-causing germs) and a pulmonary function test (which evaluate lung function), and may order a chest X-ray to look for pneumonia or lung tissue scarring. (3,4,5)
Typical Acute Bronchitis Treatments Your Doctor May Recommend
If you are diagnosed with acute bronchitis, your doctor will typically recommend measures that will help relieve your symptoms and ease your breathing, such as getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids. (6)
Since most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a virus, your doctor most likely won’t prescribe an antibiotic unless they think that you have a bacterial infection. But if you have particularly severe or persistent symptoms, doctors may prescribe a short course of steroids to relieve symptoms, says Holguin.
Your doctor might also recommend a cough suppressant if coughing is keeping you up at night, and may suggest acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or a similar medication for pain or fever. If you’re not experiencing problems sleeping because of your cough, most doctors suggest steering clear of expectorants or cough suppressants. Also, these medicines are not recommended for young children. (7) “I don’t usually recommend these drugs,” Holguin adds. “They have not been shown to impact the natural course of acute bronchitis.”
Of course, your doctor will urge you to stop and prevent any exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke, which can exacerbate acute bronchitis. If you smoke, it’s very important that you quit, and if you’re around secondhand smoke, make sure you take steps to stop your exposure.
What You Can Do at Home for Acute Bronchitis
Additionally, there are several things you can do at home to take charge of your bronchitis symptoms and stay on the path to recovery. (Read: symptom relief.) They won’t make the infection go away, but some of these things, like drinking tea with honey and lemon, using a humidifier, and getting light or moderate exercise, actually do help you feel better.