Although more frequent in the winter, coughs and colds can develop in any season. In fact, there seems to be some going around right now. A chest cold, or acute bronchitis, is one of the most common reasons that people go to the doctor.
Acute bronchitis accounts for about 2.3 million visits to the doctor each year. In addition, people are given an average of two prescriptions and miss two to three days of work. It adds up to an expensive illness, but is it serious?
What is bronchitis? Bronchitis is an infection that triggers an inflammation of the airways and that produces a cough. The cough begins about two days after the infection starts and usually lasts for two weeks. In about 25% of cases, the cough may last from six to twelve weeks or longer. Other symptoms can include fever, shortness of breath, and wheezing, rales or sounds in the lungs, and pain when you breathe. The doctor will usually diagnose bronchitis by these symptoms. There are no specific tests. He might want to culture the phlegm or sputum to be sure it is not a bacterial infection, especially in someone who is immune compromised or in the very young or very old. Chest x-rays tell the doctor nothing.
Some think that the color of the sputum is a key to diagnosis. In reality, the sputum can be a wide range of colors: clear, white, yellow, green, and even tinged with blood. The color is caused by the white blood cells in the sputum and does not necessarily mean that the cough is caused by a bacterial infection.
What causes bronchitis? It can be caused by bacteria but most of the time it is caused by any number of different viruses. This means that usually antibiotics are of no use in treating it. In the past, patients often asked physicians for antibiotics and the physicians prescribed them. Because of the problems that antibiotic overuse have caused, doctors no longer give antibiotics routinely to fight bronchitis. Studies have shown that antibiotics have no effect on the duration or length of time you have the infection.
What do you do, then, when you feel so bad? You treat the symptoms. Take a cough suppressant such as dextromethorphan. Sometimes an antihistamine helps if an allergy is also an irritant. Occasionally, the doctor may suggest a bronchodilator such as the type that people with asthma use. One study has shown that it may shorten the length of time that a person continues to cough.
Bronchitis may be serious for people with weak immune systems and with other chronic diseases such as asthma. These people should see their doctor. The rest of us should just ‘tough it out.’ The latest recommendation from the American Family Physician is that if you are still coughing after a month, see your doctor. Unfortunately, Bronchitis is one of those viral diseases that makes you miserable and yet only the tincture of time will cure.