The last time I had bronchitis is set in my memory like stone. It was during the H1N1 influenza outbreak in the fall of 2009. After four days of paralyzing fevers, cold sweats, not being able to eat, and struggling to breathe, I was finally starting to feel better. It had been a busy, very wet fall, and our potatoes were still in the ground in mid-October. When I heard that there was a forecast of a hard freeze for that evening, I knew I had to get them out of the ground. So, that's what I did—with the help of my poor wife. While this was a good thing for our potato crop (five wheelbarrow loads!), my already weakened lungs took another hit. The cold air, coupled with the influenza virus and the obvious exertion of digging up a hundred hills of potatoes, put me on my back again for a week. It also resulted in a month-long case of acute bronchitis.
Medically speaking, bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways connecting our lungs and our trachea. The inflammation can be caused by any number of irritants, but the symptoms are generally the same: shortness of breath, an itchy and/or burning feeling in your chest, a rattling sound when you breathe, chills and fever, the overwhelming need to cough, and sputum that is expelled from coughing. It really sucks, and I don't look forward to ever getting it again—though I know it is just a part of life. Here is some information about bronchitis, along with a few things that should help you to get rid of it.
Getting Rid of Bronchitis
What kind of bronchitis do you have? The first step in getting rid of bronchitis is to figure out what kind of bronchitis you have. Have you had any other respiratory illnesses lately? This would include the common cold, a sinus infection, influenza, or pneumonia. If so, it is probable that the same factors that caused the other illness have also brought on your bronchitis. The only way to be sure is to have a doctor look you over. With proper testing, it can usually be determined if the illness is viral, bacterial, or environmental.
Most bronchitis is viral in origin. For the most part, there is no medicine that will cure viral bronchitis. The same viruses that cause the common cold (rhino virus) or the flu (influenza virus) can take up residence in the mucous membrane, and will eventually die off in a few weeks for healthy patients. If you have a prior health concern, like asthma, heart disease, or are immune compromised, you should definitely consult with a physician. Antibiotics have no affect on viruses and should not be used unless there is a secondary infection. The most common approach is to treat the symptoms. If you have nasal congestion, take a decongestant; if you have a headache, sore throat, or swelling, take ibuprofen; if you want help clearing out your lungs, take an expectorant like Sudafed or Robitussin.
Bronchitis is very rarely caused by bacteria. In less than 10 percent of cases, bronchitis can be caused by a bacterial infection. These are some of the same bacteria that cause bacterial pneumonia, an inflammation of the lung tissue. Pneumonia is a miserable and dangerous condition that can kill you. However, if it is diagnosed and treated properly with the right antibiotics (assuming the bacteria aren't resistant), the outlook is good for both bacterial bronchitis and pneumonia.
Bronchitis can be caused by your environment, too. Pollutants in the air, such as smog, and extended exposure to cold temperatures are not good for our respiratory systems. Toxic vapors, dust, and smoke from manufacturing can also contribute to the irritation that causes bronchitis. Sorry, smokers, but by far the most common cause of chronic bronchitis is the intentional or secondary inhalation of tobacco smoke. I used to be one of you, so I know you are coming up with excuses in your head right now—maybe even thinking that smoking helps your cough. Malarkey! You will be doing yourself and everyone you know a favor if you just kick the habit. Repairing the damage done is all but impossible, but with some time away from the constant irritation of tobacco smoke, your lungs and bronchi will become less inflamed. Things will get better if you quit. I promise.
Keep on coughing. Cough suppressants can give you some relief, but you'll want to keep coughing to clear the crap out of there. As long as a cough is productive (another way of saying phlegmy), it is a healthy thing for your body to do. If the cough becomes dry, wheezy-sounding, or if there is ever severe pain or blood in the sputum, you should get things checked out by a doctor.
If you can't seem to shake the illness, you might have chronic bronchitis. If the cough persists for more than three months in any given year, you have what is called chronic bronchitis. This means that rather than being caused by a temporary infection, your bronchitis is probably the result of some kind of injury or persistent irritation, like smoking. It could have been all of the coughing you did when your illness started that caused the injury. Or the result of an exposure to one of the environmental hazards listed above. Or damage from a particularly bad allergic reaction. There are medications, such as corticosteroids and bronchodilators, which can alleviate symptoms. However, the best way to prevent flare-ups is to avoid whatever caused the problem in the first place.
The Overuse of Antibiotics
When I had influenza last year, I talked to my doctor about the bronchitis I was developing. Without testing anything, he decided to prescribe an antibiotic. After completing the prescription, I realized that it had made no difference at all. In fact, the likelihood that it would have done anything was slim to none given that less than 10 percent of bronchitis cases are bacterial in origin. The fact that I had been in bed for four days with the flu (a virus) should have been another indicator that the bronchitis would not be affected by antibiotics. Perhaps he was trying to prevent a secondary infection? Perhaps he was just being overly cautious? Perhaps he was just trying to get me out of his office?
What can we do? We can do a lot by simply using proper sanitation methods and being aware of how we spread diseases when we are contagious. The viruses and bacteria that cause these respiratory diseases are all easily spread when we cough without covering our mouths or forget to wash our hands.
With every unnecessary prescription or improper use of antibiotics, we take one step closer to making that antibiotic useless. Evolution is a powerful force, and bacteria are vigorous reproducers. If there is a gene or trait that favors survival for bacteria, it will be passed on to the next generation. Sometimes a strain will have resistance to multiple antibiotics, in which case it is called a multi-resistant superbug. They are super-scary little buggers that are responsible for all sorts of horrible infections—including CA-MRSA, which can cause Necrotizing fasciitis (look it up if you dare!). If that isn't reason enough to reserve antibiotics for only the very worst situations—when they are truly needed—I don't know what is.