When your airways are swollen and inflamed from bronchitis, you know it. Breathing becomes difficult, and a dry cough becomes productive with thick mucus.

Depending on the type and nature of bronchitis, symptoms can last anywhere from several days to several weeks, or even months. But don't despair. Although the illness can be long lasting, you can take measures at home that will make you more comfortable until your lungs recover.

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes that serve as the main airways to your lungs. Almost all cases of bronchitis in both children and adults are viral in nature, according to New Jersey pediatrician David Levine, MD. The exception is bronchitis in smokers, which is often bacterial. Exposure to substances that can irritate your lungs, such as dust, second-hand smoke, chemical vapors, and pollutants, can also lead to bronchitis.

Common Symptoms of Bronchitis

  • Dry cough that may develop into a cough with mucus production
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Low fever
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

Acute, or short-term, bronchitis usually goes away within a few days and doesn't generally require special medical care, even if the cough lingers for weeks. But it is still important to see a doctor to rule out bacterial infection and other, more serious lung conditions with similar symptoms, such as pneumonia.

Viruses and bacteria can readily infect bronchial tubes that are continually inflamed from smoking cigarettes or inhaling second-hand smoke. That is why smokers—and those who live with smokers—are at risk of developing chronic, or long-term, bronchitis. The main symptom of chronic bronchitis is a constant cough with mucus production that becomes more severe over time.

Treatment for acute bronchitis usually consists of home care and over-the-counter medications that reduce pain and help expel mucus. Since a virus most commonly causes acute bronchitis, antibiotics usually don't help. Self-care at home includes using a humidifier or vaporizer, getting enough rest, and drinking plenty of fluids. Warm fluids in particular can help loosen mucus. If a cough is keeping you awake, try sleeping slightly upright against stacked pillows.

If you have chronic bronchitis and you smoke, it is important to quit. At times, you may need supplemental oxygen and medication to dilate your bronchial tubes for easier breathing. Your doctor may also prescribe corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and recommend a specific nutritional supplement, such as the amino acid n-acetylcysteine, that acts as an antioxidant and may help reduce damage to your lungs.

David Levine, MD, reviewed this article.



Cedars-Sinai: "Bronchitis"

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: "What is Bronchitis?"

University of Maryland Medical Center: "Bronchitis"