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Antibiotics won't cure normal bronchitis

October 2013


It’s that time of year again! For various reasons many of us are more vulnerable to coughs, colds and other related ailments as winter draws on than in the summer months.

Bronchitis is one of the most common types of lung infections and also one of the top five reasons why people visit their doctor. It is estimated that around 2 million people in the UK are affected by chronic bronchitis and it is most common in adults over 50.

It can be a particularly annoying problem because there can be a residual cough even when other symptoms have disappeared. Bronchitis can also develop into pneumonia, so it needs to be treated seriously.

Bronchitis as it sounds affects the bronchi. These are the main airways of the lungs, branching off on either side of your trachea or windpipe.  The walls of the bronchi produce mucus to trap dust and other particles that could otherwise cause infection. Bronchitis is an infection which gets into the bronchi and causes irritation and inflammation.  This can be caused by several viruses including flu. It can also be caused by inhaling irritating fumes or dust, or sometimes chemical solvents or smoke, including tobacco smoke. Occasionally bronchitis can be caused by a bacterial infection but this is far less common.

The main symptom of bronchitis is a cough, either dry or with phlegm. Bronchitis may be accompanied by a range of symptoms such as headache, fever, cold symptoms or general aches and pains that can confuse the diagnosis to begin with.  Wheezing and subsequent shortness of breath can also occur.

Symptoms usually peak after a few days and then gradually clear. However, the cough can last for two to three weeks because the inflammation in the airways can take a while to settle. Sometimes the coughing can be forceful and continuous making the chest and abdominal muscles sore.

Because bronchitis is usually caused by a virus rather than bacteria, antibiotics are not the usual recommendation from doctors. Usually the advice is to stay at home and rest while your own immune system clears the infection. You are usually advised to drink a lot to prevent any dehydration, especially from fever, and also take over the counter medication to relieve any aches and pains or headache. These over the counter remedies don’t help to clear the infection, but they can be especially useful at bedtime when the irritating cough can disturb the sleep you need to recover.

Generally this is treatment enough and the bronchitis will clear up by itself. However, if your cough is severe and lasts longer than three weeks; or if you cough up any blood, have a fever than lasts for several days or if you have any underlying conditions such as an existing heart or lung condition, then you should see your doctor.

As we age, it must also be borne in mind that our resistance and recovery rates aren’t necessarily as good as when we were younger. One in 20 cases of bronchitis leads to pneumonia, occurring when the infection spreads further into the lungs causing the air sacs in the lungs to fill up with fluid.  So bronchitis may be a common condition but it always needs to be taken seriously.


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