You thought you were finally shaking that cold, but this morning your cough is worse than ever. You're coughing up phlegm by the cupful, and it feels as if someone spent the night tap-dancing on your chest. You've probably developed acute bronchitis, an often painful infection in the major bronchial tubes (airways) leading to the lungs.
Acute bronchitis is most often caused by a virus, frequently the same one that causes colds, although the flu virus is a common culprit as well. (While acute bronchitis can also be caused by a bacteria or even a fungus, they're only rarely to blame.) Acute bronchitis often follows a cold or the flu, when resistance is down and the lungs may already be slightly irritated. Likewise, anyone whose immune resistance is low or who has any other type of chronic lung irritation or injury, especially from exposure to cigarette smoke or other toxic gases, is at increased risk of developing bronchitis. And the viruses that cause bronchitis can be passed to others much the same way cold and flu viruses are: An infected person coughs, spraying viral particles either into the air, where they can be breathed in by others, or onto their own hands, where they can be picked up when the person shakes hands with others.
There can be an irritated throat (from the coughing), burning or aching pain just beneath the breastbone, a feeling of tightness in the chest, wheezing or shortness of breath, and a "rattling" sensation in the lungs and chest. A low-grade fever, chills and achiness may also occur. The irritation caused by the virus in turn leaves the respiratory tract vulnerable to other complications, such as pneumonia.
If you have an underlying chronic disease or suffer from asthma, allergies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or any other serious respiratory or heart problem, you need to contact your doctor if you develop symptoms of acute bronchitis. Bronchitis symptoms in infants, the elderly or anyone else with a weak immune system should be treated by a physician. If you're otherwise healthy, however, you'll likely have to allow the infection to simply run its course. Antibiotics, after all, are useless against viral infections. Fortunately, acute bronchitis generally goes away on its own within a few days or a week, although the cough can sometimes linger for weeks or even months.
This doesn't mean you have to lie in bed, suffering, and wait for your body to defeat the virus. In this article, we'll examine ways to help your body heal from a bronchial infection and ease symptoms of the condition. Move on to the next section for some home remedies to alleviate the congestion and coughing of bronchitis.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.
Humidify Your Environment
Believe it or not, coughing is actually good for you. It's the body's way of eliminating the infection that causes bronchitis. So, instead of stifling a cough with an over-the-counter suppressant, help it along by using a warm- or cool-mist humidifier to add moisture to the air. (Take care to use and clean the humidifier according to the manufacturer's instructions.) The added humidity will help bring the sputum (matter that's coughed out of the body) up and out of the body. Standing in a steamy shower with the bathroom door closed, keeping a pan of water at a slow boil on the stove (never leave it unattended!), and using a tea kettle to shoot out warm, moist air can also help loosen and bring up phlegm. And if you have a few drops of peppermint or eucalyptus oil to add to the water, these can be quite soothing.
Drink Plenty of Liquids
Taking in extra liquids helps keep the sputum more fluid and therefore easier to expel. It doesn't really matter what type of liquid you drink, although tea, soup and other warm liquids may feel better than cold ones. As a bonus, warm fluids may also soothe the irritated throat that may result from all that coughing.
You can also use water for a steam treatment. Fill the sink with hot water, bend down to it, cover your head with a towel and breathe in the steam. Add a few drops of eucalyptus, peppermint or rosemary oil, if you have one of them. These help clear and soothe the respiratory passages [source: WebMD].
With all of this in mind, there really isn't definitive evidence that swamping your system with extra hydration is really best practice when you're sick. If you slug gallons of water each day, you may actually throw off your body's chemistry, making it harder — instead of easier — to recover from various diseases. And in a worst-case scenario you could trigger hyponatremia, or water intoxication, which in rare cases can actually be fatal [source: Mayo Clinic].
Your best bet is to drink when you're thirsty. And make sure that your urine is pale yellow instead of dark — too yellow and your body likely needs more moisture.
Gargle with Warm Saltwater
Gargling with saltwater may provide a double dose of relief by soothing the inflammation in the throat and by cutting through some of the mucus that may be coating and irritating the sensitive throat membranes.
It only takes one teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water to do this; too much salt causes burning in the throat, and too little is ineffective. The salty concoction can be a bit off-putting to some taste buds, and the art of gargling this brew may take a bit of practice, but it will make you feel better. Gargle as often as needed but be sure to spit the salty water out after gargling. Otherwise you'll likely end up with a very upset stomach.
If you're reading this desperately seeking some relief from a current illness, this next part is something to keep in mind for future days. Some studies show that regularly gargling water can actually reduce upper respiratory infections, keeping distressing bronchial issues at bay. So once your sickness subsides, it may be time to add gargling to your daily health routine [source: O'Connor].
Rest, Rest, Rest
Since your bout with bronchitis probably followed on the heels of a cold or the flu, you may find it hard to sit still any longer. But walking around with bronchitis will only make you feel worse and slow your body's ability to fight the infection, so you'll need to take it easy a little longer.
The worst of acute bronchitis typically lasts anywhere from three to 10 days. However, in many (unlucky) cases, it may drag on for three weeks. But the exasperating lingering cough and sticky phlegm? You may be dealing with the remnants of those symptoms for a month or two as your body tries to recover. In other words, ease back into your normal exercise routine and try to keep stress under control to give your system its best chance to return to normal sooner rather than later [source: Harvard Health].
If your body really struggles to evict bronchitis from your system, you may be suffering from a chronic form of the illness, which doctors define as lingering for three or more months. Smokers and people who are exposed to air pollution are more susceptible to chronic bronchitis [source: Health].
So, rest and catch up on your sleep. Those who won't be exposed to your germs will probably be thankful, too.
Take Aspirin or Ibuprofen for Chest Pain
Bronchitis isn't just a hassle – sometimes it hurts. The non-stop coughing and wheezing can cause the muscles in your midsection to clench over and over again throughout the day, perhaps making you a bit sore or maybe resulting in outright pain. That's especially true if you're dealing with a case of chronic bronchitis (as opposed to acute bronchitis) that lingers for weeks or months without lasting relief [source: National Institute of Health].
If a bout with bronchitis produces muscle pain in the chest, anti-inflammatory medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, may provide some relief. You may want to try aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen. They may partially relieve coughing and its painful side effects [source: Ebbert]. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) doesn't have an anti-inflammatory effect and so may be less helpful. (Because of the risk of deadly reaction called Reye's syndrome, don't give aspirin to children; acetaminophen should be used instead.)
You may be able to pair one of these pain medications with an over-the-counter cough medicine that contains dextromethorphan, which is a cough suppressant. But before you do so, read the labels carefully and never mix them if you're uncertain that they're safe together. And remember that if you opt for an over-the-counter medicine that's meant to address numerous symptoms at once (like coughing and aches), they'll likely contain substances that you shouldn't mix with a separate pain reliever.
Use a Cough Remedy as a Last Resort
Remember, coughing is your body's way of driving out the infection and keeping your breathing passages clear. The best cough remedies for bronchitis contain guaifenesin, which helps bring up sputum. If you opt for a guaifenesin drug, you may see better results if you drink a bit of extra water, which may help to loosen phlegm and keep it moving through your body [source: Mayo Clinic].
But if you're at the end of your rope and can't bear another minute of hacking, especially if it's been keeping you from getting the sleep you need to recover, try a medicine that contains the cough suppressant dextromethorphan. You may find this drug in lozenge, syrup, or capsule form. Take it only as often as absolutely needed. Check with your doctor if you're unsure, and take note that in some cases this style of drug can be habit-forming [source: Mayo Clinic].
Combination products should generally be avoided; decongestants, antihistamines, and alcohol (common ingredients in combination products) have no role in the treatment of coughs and may even increase discomfort by causing side effects. Most of the candy-type cough drops act as demulcents on the throat; in other words, their soothing properties are due largely to their sugar content.
These little cure-all nuts have loads of vitamins and nutrients, and they're said to help everything from mental acuity to sexual vitality. Rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium, almonds are especially known for their healing powers in respiratory illness.
Researchers note that almonds have anti-inflammatory properties, as well as antioxidant effects. The science isn't totally clear as of yet, but these tasty nuts do in some cases seem to boost the body's ability to fight respiratory disease, and they're a boon to your cardiovascular health in general [source: Harvard Health].
So when you're down with bronchitis, eat them in any form (except candy-coated or chocolate-covered). Sliver some almonds and garnish your veggies. They're good in a citrus fruit salad for a little added crunch or rubbed in a little honey, coated with cinnamon, and roasted in the oven at 325 degrees Fahrenheit (162 C) for 10 to 25 minutes.
People suffering from excessive mucus during bronchitis often find that dairy products like yogurt, ice cream, butter, and milk may cause thicker, gooier phlegm that's harder to expel from the body. Reducing your intake of these products — and switching to almond milk — may thin your mucus and make it easier to breathe [source: Lung Institute].
Mix Onions and Garlic
Many people are familiar with the weepy reaction they have to freshly cut onions. This is because onions are expectorants and help the flow of mucus. With particularly strong raw onions, the eyes may begin to water and your nose might begin to run profusely. When you're clogged up from terrible congestion, that may be just the ticket to making you feel a little better.
Gather some fresh onions (and garlic for added power) and cut them into thin slices. Then mash them up and place them in an old (preferably clean) sock. You've essentially created a natural poultice, one that harnesses the strong vapors associated with onions and garlic [source: Prevention].
To activate the poultice, place it on your chest and cover it with a hot water bottle or wrap the veggies in a hot, damp towel. The heat activates the plants' odors and you'll feel them seeping into your clogged respiratory system. As your mucus thins and loosens, you may find that your cough is loosening its grip on you, too.
A poultice isn't the only way to put this healthy plant to use. You can also eat onions raw, cooked, baked, in soups and stews or as seasoning.
When your whole head seems clogged with gunk it seems as though you can't smell anything — except, perhaps, those objects that have very strong odors, like the fresh, clean wafting of lemon. Lemon doesn't just offer an uplifting vibrant odor, it's also a natural expectorant, so it can help in thinning the body's mucus.
You can combine lemon juice with honey to make a tasty drink that helps rid the respiratory system of bacteria and mucus [source: National Health Service]. Honey, in addition to being sweet and delicious, is recognized as an anti-bacterial substance and has been used to combat illnesses for thousands of years [source: Health].
Make a cup of lemon tea by grating 1 teaspoon lemon rind and adding it to 1 cup boiling water. Steep for 5 minutes. Or, you can boil a lemon wedge. Strain into a cup and drink. Or, just add the lemon wedge to a cup of hot tea. For a sore throat that comes from coughing, add 1 teaspoon lemon juice to 1 cup warm water and gargle. This helps bring up phlegm.
Oregano Isn't Just for Sauce
You may already have some effective remedies for illness sitting around in your house, but they're not in your medicine cabinet; they're your kitchen. Oregano – that essential herb for spaghetti sauce – is also a potential weapon in your respiratory illness arsenal.
Oregano doesn't just add zing to sauces. It's an antioxidant, one with noted antifungal and antibacterial properties. Remarkably, it's also an expectorant that can slice through your congestion, making mucus thinner and (hopefully) more manageable. You can buy oregano in the supplements area of your local grocery story, often in convenient capsule form. Take one or two of them per day and you may well find your wretched cough is somewhat less painful [source: Kessler].
Or, you can easily brew up oregano tea with what you have on hand. Take one teaspoon of dried oregano and steep it in about 8 ounces (236 milliliters) of boiling water. If you don't like the distinctive taste, you can add a bit of honey, which will also soothe your throat. Drink two or three cups of this tea per day to combat your bronchitis symptoms. As an added benefit, the concoction is also good for quelling upset stomach.
Make Time for Thyme
Thyme isn't just another ingredient for a delicious pasta recipes. This prized herb, which is native to the Mediterranean region, is also useful in combating various symptoms related to bronchitis. Since ancient times, physicians and herbalists have used thyme for an array of respiratory issues, from hacking coughs to congestion and more.
Thyme contains a chemical compound called thymol, which has found its way into everything from pesticides, to toothpaste, and a range of medicines. It has distinct antiseptic, anti-fungal, and antimicrobial properties that are useful in beating back various types of infections, including bronchitis [source: National Institutes of Heath].
As a powerful expectorant, this herb helps rid the body of mucus, strengthens the lungs to fight off infection, and acts as a shield against bacteria. Use it dried as a seasoning or make a tea by adding 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon thyme to 1 cup boiling water (it's a very strong herb, so you don't need much). Steep for 5 minutes and sweeten with honey [source: Kilham]. If you have thyme oil on hand, you can use that instead. Dilute it (2 parts olive or corn oil to 1 part thyme oil) and rub on your chest to cure congestion.
Short on thyme? You can also try the herb savory to fight your symptoms. This potent, peppery herb is said to rid the lungs of mucus. Use it as a tea by adding 1/2 teaspoon savory to 1 cup of boiling water. Drink only once a day.
Cut the Mustard
The spicy kick of mustard seed is one sign that this plant may help cut through the thick congestion that accompanies so many bouts of bronchitis. Throughout history, mustard poultices and "plasters" have been used to kickstart the immune system, reduce pain, and of course, serve as a potent expectorant to help keep mucus flowing more freely. Frantic doctors applied mustard plasters to President Abraham Lincoln the day he was shot and killed by an assassin [sources: Amarillo Globe-News, Canavan].
The warmth of an old-fashioned mustard plaster relieves symptoms of many respiratory ailments, including bronchitis. Take 1 tablespoon dry mustard and mix with 4 tablespoons flour. Stir in enough warm water to make a runny paste. Oil the chest with vegetable shortening or olive oil, then spread the mustard mix on a piece of cloth -- muslin, gauze, a kitchen washcloth -- and cover with an identical piece.
Apply to the chest. Keep in place until cool (about 10-20 minutes), but check every few minutes to make sure it doesn't burn the skin. Remove the plaster if it causes discomfort, because it can create serious skin pain and even blisters if you leave a potent blend in place too long [source: Homesteading Family].
Keep an Eye Out for Complications
While letting nature take its course is generally the best treatment for acute bronchitis, complications can sometimes occur, so you'll need to stay alert for signs that it's time to see your doctor. The most worrisome complications include pneumonia, sinus infection and ear infection, all of which need to be treated with prescription antibiotics. Signs that one or more of these complications may be present include a persistent high fever (not a typical characteristic of bronchitis), severe shortness of breath, prolonged coughing spells or a cough that lasts more than four to six weeks, severe chest pain, pain behind the eyes or ear pain.
Be on the lookout for blood in your sputum or sputum that changes dramatically in color or consistency, and report it to your doctor. In addition, tell your doctor if you suffer frequent bouts of bronchitis, since you may be suffering from a more serious respiratory problem that requires medical treatment.
Last editorial update on Mar 8, 2019 05:49:43 pm.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Timothy Gower is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in many publications, including Reader's Digest, Prevention, Men's Health, Better Homes and Gardens, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. The author of four books, Gower is also a contributing editor for Health magazine.
Alice Lesch Kelly is a health writer based in Boston. Her work has been published in magazines such as Shape, Fit Pregnancy, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest, Eating Well, and Health. She is the co-author of three books on women's health.
Linnea Lundgren has more than 12 years experience researching, writing, and editing for newspapers and magazines. She is the author of four books, including Living Well With Allergies.
Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers and Southern Living magazines. Formerly assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine, her professional passion is learning and writing about health.
ABOUT THE CONSULTANTS:
Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.
David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.