Bronchitis — causes and effects?

Originally Published: October 11, 1996 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 1, 2009
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(1)

Dear Alice,

How do I know I have bronchitis?

(2)

Hi Alice,

I recently got bronchitis and I was wondering what really causes it. Some friends have told me that it is because I drank a very cold drink when my lungs were "overheated" (like after jogging). Is this one of the causes of bronchitis?

—Doesn't want to drink cold stuff now

Dear Reader #1 and Doesn't want to drink cold stuff now,

When you have bronchitis, the mucous lining of the bronchi (the airways which connect your trachea to your lungs) becomes inflamed. This inflammation causes a persistent, phlegm-producing cough. Other common symptoms of bronchitis are wheezing and breathlessness. People also generally feel congested, may experience some pain or discomfort behind the breastbone (sternum), and may have a fever.

There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Neither of these types of bronchitis is caused by drinking cold drinks! Chronic bronchitis, as the name implies, tends to stick with a person for a considerable length of time. It is common among smokers and people who live (or work) in highly polluted areas. Acute bronchitis usually strikes a person suddenly and clears up within a few days. It, too, seems to be more common among smokers, and others who are more susceptible to respiratory infect ions (i.e., babies, the elderly, and people with lung disease). However, in most cases, acute bronchitis is a complication of a viral infection (cold or flu).

In either case, if you suspect you have bronchitis, you may want to see your health care provider — Columbia students can call x4-2284 or log on to Open Communicator to make an appointment. Sometimes bacteria, such as those responsible for pneumonia, cause bronchitis. If necessary, your health care provider can prescribe antibiotics. However, since most cases of bronchitis are viral in origin or caused by lung irritants like smoke and pollutants, antibiotics would not do any good. If you think you have bronchitis, a good treatment option is drinking lots of fluids and getting some sleep. You can also try a humidifier to relieve some of the respiratory symptoms. For a cough that is keeping you up, you may want to try a cough suppressant medication. However keep in mind that coughing actually helps you get rid of the bad stuff, so try to use a suppressant medication only if necessary to get some rest. If you smoke, your symptoms may remain unless you cut back or quit (check out Smoking withdrawal symptoms and how to quit for information on quitting).  

As with many illnesses, sleep, fluids, and monitoring of your symptoms are key when you suspect bronchitis. At any rate, you can keep on drinking cold stuff!

Alice