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.
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.
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.
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; too much salt causes burning in the throat, and too little is ineffective. Gargle as often as needed, but be sure to spit the salty water out after gargling.
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. Those who won't be exposed to your germs will probably be thankful, too.
If a bout with bronchitis produces muscle pain in the chest, these anti-inflammatory medications may provide some relief. Acetaminophen 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.) For a list of precautions to take when using over-the-counter analgesics, click here.
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. 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, you can try a medicine that contains the cough suppressant dextromethorphan. Take it only as often as absolutely needed. Check with your doctor if you're unsure. 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.
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.
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. 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 for 10 to 25 minutes.
Onions are expectorants and help the flow of mucus. You can also eat onions raw, cooked, baked, in soups and stews or as seasoning.
These help rid the respiratory system of bacteria and mucus. 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. 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.
Ancient Romans and Greeks loved bay leaves. They believed that this simple herb was the source of happiness, clairvoyance and artistic inspiration. Whatever the case, it does act as an expectorant and is best taken in tea. To make the tea, tear a leaf (fresh or dried) and steep in 1 cup boiling water.
Another bronchitis remedy with bay leaf is to soak some leaves in hot water and apply as a poultice to the chest. Cover with a kitchen towel. As it cools, rewarm.
Savory. 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 boiling water. Drink only once a day.
Thyme. 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 (it's a very strong herb, so you don't need much) to 1 cup boiling water. Steep for 5 minutes and sweeten with honey. If you have thyme oil on hand, dilute it (2 parts olive or corn oil to 1 part thyme oil) and rub on the chest to cure congestion.
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, but check every few minutes to make sure it doesn't burn the skin. Remove the plaster if it causes discomfort or burning.
Ginger is also a potent expectorant that works well in tea. Steep 1/2 teaspoon ginger, a pinch of ground cloves, and a pinch of cinnamon in 1 cup boiling water.
With bronchitis you're at risk for picking up another infection. Avoid crowds, children with colds, smoky rooms and contact with anyone who has a cold or flu. Wear gloves or a mask if you have to, and wash your hands often.
To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page. For preventive measures against infections of the respiratory tract, see How to Prevent Respiratory Infections.
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.