Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes. The airways running under the windpipe are known as the bronchial tubes. Viral infections, such as in the case of a cold or a flu, are the most frequent causes of acute bronchitis. Bacteria or fungi trigger the disease less often. Smoking and pollutants in the air are the main causes of chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis can develop into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) over time.
Depending on the cause and course of the bronchitis, infections of the bronchial tubes are differentiated into acute and chronic bronchitides. Acute bronchitis is usually the result of a viral infection and heals within around two weeks. Smoking, cold or dampness can contribute to the occurrence of acute bronchitis.
If a bout of bronchitis lasts longer than three months, it is deemed to be chronic. Smoking is the main risk factor for the occurrence of chronic bronchitis. In addition, pollutants in the air, repeated acute bronchitiden and over-sensitivity of the bronchial tubes, such as in the case of asthma, can contribute to the occurrence of chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is deemed to be the precursor of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
A cough and viscous, slimy sputum are the main symptoms of bronchitis. Purulent sputum is evidence of a bacterial infection. The sputum can sometimes be mixed with blood. In such cases, if the patient has difficulty breathing or the symptoms last longer than two weeks, they should definitely seek medical advice. Blood in the sputum can also be evidence of more serious illnesses such as a pulmonary embolism, lung cancer or cardiac insufficiency. A chronic cough combined with sputum and breathing difficulties are signs of COPD.
Bronchitis is diagnosed on the basis of the patient’s medical history and the characteristic symptoms. A blood test provides information on whether the infection is viral or bacterial in nature. If there is a suspected lung infection, an x-ray of the lungs will be carried out. If the patient has chronic bronchitis, their lung function will be tested for evidence of COPD. Sometimes a bronchoscopy of the bronchial tubes is necessary to clarify the diagnosis.
The treatment depends on the type and course of the bronchitis. If it is acute and viral in nature, then mucolytic, cough-suppressing and anti-inflammatory medication is administered. Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. Acute bronchitis usually heals within around 10 days.
If a patient has chronic bronchitis, the most important treatment measure is to stop smoking. Acute infections or influenza should be avoided where possible as every bout of acute bronchitis exacerbates chronic bronchitis.