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Bronchitis is an irritation and inflammation of the bronchial tubes that is characterized by persistent coughing and excessive phlegm. The most common causes of bronchitis are smoking and viral and bacterial infections, but there are many others, including viruses, bacteria, chemicals and environmental toxins. Acute bronchitis lasts a few days and causes no long-term health problems. Chronic bronchitis is diagnosed in cases that last longer than three months for two consecutive years or longer than six months during one year. To properly treat this illness, one must know the cause.
Tobacco smoke is one of the most common causes of bronchitis. Research has shown that more than 90 percent of chronic bronchitis cases are caused by exposure to tobacco smoke. Chronic bronchitis causes long-term health problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema. Long-term health problems are more severe the longer a person lives with chronic bronchitis.
The best treatment for chronic bronchitis typically is, simply enough, for the patient to stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. This will not reverse bronchial damage that has already occurred but will prevent further damage and reduce the risk of long-term problems. In addition to lifestyle changes, a doctor might prescribe medications that reduce inflammation and expand the airways.
Several viruses — rhinovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza — are the other common causes of bronchitis. It also might be caused by bacteria such as as mycoplasma, pneumococcus and haemophilius. Mycoplasma is the bacteria that causes walking pneumonia. Less-common causes of bronchitis include inhalation of chemicals or environmental toxins.
Unlike chronic bronchitis, acute bronchitis does not cause any long-term effects. In most cases, the illness will resolve without treatment, usually within two weeks. In some cases, doctors might prescribe inhalers and steroid medications to help speed recovery.
Regardless of what causes bronchitis, over-the-counter medications might help relieve the symptoms but will not shorten the life of the illness. Drinking lots of fluids and taking an over-the-counter medicine containing guaifenesen will help loosen and expel phlegm, and medicine containing dextromethorphan will help suppress coughing. The chest pain caused by excessive coughing might be relieved by using over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen. Natural remedies such as cool mist vaporizers and humidifiers also might provide some relief. Herbal teas are also known to relieve symptoms caused by bronchitis.
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