Acute bronchitis, sometimes referred to as a chest cold, occurs when the bronchi—the large airways of the chest—become inflamed, typically from a viral infection such as influenza or the common cold. Symptoms include a cough that produces mucus, chest soreness, fatigue, mild headache and body ache, watery eyes, and a sore throat. While a cough can linger for up to six weeks, other symptoms may abate within two weeks.
How it should be treated: Uncomplicated bronchitis usually goes away on its own, so treatment is typically focused on symptom relief. Prescription or over-the-counter cough suppressants or expectorants, decongestants and antihistamines may help relieve symptoms. If the flu caused your bronchitis, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug. If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, your doctor may prescribe a bronchodilator such as albuterol to ease breathing difficulties. Uncomplicated bronchitis doesn’t benefit from antibiotic treatment.
What you can do: Use a humidifier or a cool mist vaporizer or take warm, steamy showers to relieve nasal symptoms. Rest and drink lots of fluids. Aspirin, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) or acetaminophen can help ease aches and a sore throat. Try soothing a cough with lozenges or honey. Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.
When to call your doctor: A rapid heart rate, fever, trouble breathing or shortness of breath and abnormal chest sounds such as rattling could be signs of pneumonia, in which case antibiotics are appropriate. If you are older than 75 and have a persistent cough, contact your doctor; the infection may be more serious.
If you use any prescription or over-the-counter drugs, ask your doctor or pharmacist whether they’ll interact with any of the suggested treatments. Carefully read and follow the directions on drug labels and beware of a drug’s side effects. For example, certain antihistamines like Benadryl are not recommended for people over age 65 because they may cause drowsiness and dizziness.