If a common cold causes irritation in the mucous membranes of the bronchial tubes and the respiratory tract, it can result in coughing that involves phlegm. This productive or “wet” cough caused by a bacterial or viral infection is called bronchitis.
Sudden or acute bronchitis is caused by the same viruses that cause common cold. Viral bronchitis infections spread in the same way as the common cold – as an airborne infection or an infection through contact. The airborne virus can access the respiratory tract or surfaces that can spread the infection upon contact. Bacterial bronchitis is not infectious, as it is a sequela caused by the bacteria naturally present in the body.
Maintaining good hand hygiene is important in the prevention of an infection. You should wash your hands carefully with soap and dry them well. Pay attention to your coughing and prevent the airborne transmission of the virus by coughing into your sleeve or a handkerchief. It is also important to wash your hands carefully after coughing.
Smoking, asthma and allergies increase the risk of bacterial bronchitis. Not smoking and treating asthma or allergic symptoms may help in avoiding bronchitis infections.
Typical symptoms of bronchitis include
• productive cough
• other symptoms of common cold, such as rhinitis, sore throat and fever
If the cough is dry and hacking, it is most likely caused by a laryngitis infection. If the productive cough involves a high fever but no other symptoms of common cold, a possible cause of the symptoms might also be pneumonia.
It takes approximately two weeks for a productive cough caused by a bronchitis infection to subside. If the cough persists and it does not involve a bacterial infection or fever, the symptoms might be caused by a chronic bronchitis or a productive cough without any additional symptoms of common cold. Smokers and asthma patients are typically more susceptible to chronic bronchitis and bacterial infections.
If your condition improves intermittently and becomes worse again, it might be an indicator of a sequela, such as bacterial bronchitis, which requires visiting a doctor. The mucosa damaged by a virus is more vulnerable to infections, and the bacteria naturally present in the body use this to their advantage and begin to reproduce. Other sequelae of a bronchitis include pneumonia and sinusitis, which also require visiting a doctor.
Viral bronchitis in very small children can be very difficult to treat. The child’s respiratory tract is are so small that even the swelling of the mucosa can cause obstructions in the tract. In the case of children, the term bronchiolitis, or the inflammation of the small airways, is often used. If the bronchitis involves shortness of breath, you should visit a doctor.
Learn more: Difficulty in breathing in children
The diagnosis of bronchitis often relies on the patient’s own record of their condition and the onset of the disease. An auscultation of the lungs is not a reliable mode of diagnosing bronchitis, but it is an effective way of ruling out the possibility of pneumonia. For this purpose, a chest X-ray is often also performed as well as the analysis of the blood’s CRP levels, although they are not helpful in the diagnosis of bronchitis.
Bronchitis is typically treated in the same way as the symptoms of a common cold – rest, steam inhalation, hot drinks and other liquids can often improve your condition. In most cases, bronchitis does not require urgent attention. Cough associated with a bacterial or viral bronchitis will usually subside spontaneously in a couple of weeks.
Most cases of bacterial bronchitis subside without antibiotic therapy. If the recovery process needs to be supported due to asthma or another pulmonary disease, antibiotics can be used upon the doctor’s discretion.
You should see a doctor if
• the productive cough continues for more than two weeks
• the fever and common cold continue for more than three days or
• you experience high fever without the symptoms of a common cold
You can also contact our doctors and nurses through the Digital Clinic of the OmaMehiläinen mobile application and online service. Doctors can rule out the possibility of bacterial bronchitis, pneumonia and sinusitis by performing certain examinations.
The need for sick leave due to bronchitis depends on the patient’s condition. You may go back to work, school or daycare as soon as your condition allows this. Physical stress and exercise should be avoided for a couple of weeks after the onset of the disease.
Expert consulted for the article Ari Rosenvall, M.D., Specialist in General Practice.