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What is Involved in Making a Diagnosis of Bronchitis?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2016
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Bronchitis is an illness in which the lining of the lung’s passageways becomes inflamed, causing such symptoms as breathing difficulties, wheezing, chest discomfort, productive coughing, fever, and fatigue. It is usually caused by a virus, though it may also result from a bacterial infection or exposure to environmental irritants, especially cigarette smoke. Before making a diagnosis of bronchitis, a physician will normally ask the patient about his symptoms and then listen to his breathing. The physician may also perform tests to determine the cause of the bronchitis, and to rule out other lung-related illnesses. These tests may include mucus analyses, chest x-rays, and lung function checks.

Generally, the first step in making a diagnosis of bronchitis is a doctor-patient discussion of the patient’s symptoms. The patient will normally be asked to list any symptoms he has been experiencing. Usually, the physician will also place a stethoscope against the patient’s chest to listen for abnormal breathing sounds. In many cases, these simple steps are all that is needed to make a diagnosis of bronchitis.

If bronchitis has been caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics can be the most effective treatment. Antibiotics are not effective against the more common viral bronchitis, however. Therefore, if a physician has made a diagnosis of bronchitis but suspects that the illness is bacterial, she may analyze a mucus sample. If bacteria are detected in the patient’s mucus, she may prescribe a course of antibiotic drugs.

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Sometimes a physician may not be immediately certain whether a patient’s breathing difficulties are caused by bronchitis or another lung-related illness. In this case, she may avoid making a diagnosis of bronchitis until she has ruled out the possibility of other illnesses. To eliminate other potential illnesses, she will often perform one or more diagnostic tests. Often, these tests include a chest X-ray and a lung function check.

A chest X-ray provides the physician with an image of the patient’s lungs. By studying this image, she may be able to confirm that she would be correct in making a diagnosis of bronchitis. Conversely, she may find that the patient’s lung and chest discomfort is actually caused by another illness, such as pneumonia.

Another test commonly used to confirm a diagnosis of bronchitis is a lung function check, known technically as a pulmonary function test (PFT). During a PFT, the patient breathes into a device which measures his lung’s ability to inhale and exhale air. Poor lung function may indicate a chronic respiratory illness such as asthma or emphysema.

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