The term bronchitis can be confusing. It is poorly defined, and sometimes mis-used. Bronchitis can be acute – typically caused by respiratory tract infections (usually viral), or chronic, typically associated with COPD.
- Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi in the lungs. This causes a narrowing of the airways due to a combination of tissue swelling and excess mucus production
- Patients may associate the term “bronchitis” with an upper respiratory tract infection – and colloquially some doctors also use this term – sometimes when prescribing antibiotics.
- Author’s opinion – I find this use of “bronchitis” unhelpful. It doesn’t make any reference to the cause of the bronchitis. This could be anything from a mild common cold, through to a life threatening pneumonia. Usually it is caused by a simple viral infection. In my experience patients tend to use the term bronchitis when requesting antibiotics for an URTI with a troublesome cough.
- In adults, it should be more properly used to chronic bronchitis, a chronic inflammation of the bronchi, which is a component of COPD.
- In children it is more commonly used to refer to inflammation of the bronchi as a feature of an acute infection.
Features of acute bronchitis
- Cough (‘chesty cough’)
- Often productive of sputum – typically clear, yellow or green coloured
- Dark brown or grey coloured sputum may be more suggestive of a true pneumonia
- Cough usually lasts about 2 weeks (can be longer with pertussis and mycoplasma infections)
- Generally, no treatments have been proven to speed up recovery – and as the condition is self limiting, no treatment should be given. Reassure anxious patients
- Murtagh’s General Practice. 6th Ed. (2015) John Murtagh, Jill Rosenblatt
- Oxford Handbook of General Practice. 3rd Ed. (2010) Simon, C., Everitt, H., van Drop, F.
- Beers, MH., Porter RS., Jones, TV., Kaplan JL., Berkwits, M. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy