Do I Have Bronchitis? Diagnosis & Treatment

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If you have a nagging cough that just doesn’t seem to go away, you could have bronchitis. Acute bronchitis, also simply known as a chest cold, is common during the colder, winter months. So, if you’re wondering, “Do I have bronchitis?” Pulmonologist Rodjawan Supakul, MD, UnityPoint Health, has some answers for you.

Do I Have Bronchitis?

“Acute bronchitis is when air tubes that carry air to and from your lungs get inflamed,” Dr. Supakul says. 

Try asking yourself these four questions to determine if you have acute bronchitis symptoms.

  1. Do you have a nagging cough that is persistent and may leave you feeling short of breath?
  2. Are you coughing up clear, yellow phlegm or green-colored mucus?
  3. Are you feeling other cold/flu symptoms like stuffy nose, sore throat or headache?
  4. Do you just want to take a nap?

If you answered yes to those four questions, you might have bronchitis.

How Long Does Bronchitis Last?

Dr. Supakul says acute bronchitis symptoms usually get better in about a week, although the cough can last for many weeks afterward. While uncomfortable, the coughing is actually a good response. It helps clear much mucus from the air tubes.

“The mucus color doesn’t indicate anything. Some people think green mucus means bacterial infection, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, if you cough a lot, you can cough up a streak of blood, which is from breakage/rupture of small vessels in your windpipe,” Dr. Supakul says.

What Causes Bronchitis?

There are two causes of acute bronchitis. It’s most commonly caused by a viral infection, which means it’s a side effect of a common cold, flu bug or COVID-19 infection. In rare cases, you can get bronchitis from the bacteria causing whooping cough. Dr. Supakul says bronchitis can be a step along the process as whooping cough develops.

How Do I Treat Bronchitis?

“Because viruses cause the majority of acute bronchitis, antibiotics are not helpful,” Dr. Supakul says.

Try these things to help ease bronchitis coughing:

  • Try an over-the-counter cough medication
  • Stop smoking
  • Avoid cleaning products with strong smells
  • Stay hydrated
  • Try nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naproxen or aspirin
  • Use a warm-mist humidifier

When is it Time to See a Doctor?

“If you persistently cough up frank, red blood, you should seek medical advice. Fever higher than 102°F, a fever that lasts more than a few days, shortness of breath, a change in the mucus color or coughing with unexplained weight loss are all also signs you should see a physician,” Dr. Supakul says.

The good news is people who often get bronchitis are not more susceptible to lung health issues in the future. She warns, however, there are conditions with similar features as acute bronchitis, including chronic bronchitis from COPD, undiagnosed asthma or pneumonia.

“Your best bet is to see a doctor, if your cough persists for a couple weeks. Further evaluation and investigation might be needed to rule out other conditions with blood work or chest x-rays,” Dr. Supakul says.