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Feature Article Is it a Cold, Bronchitis or Pneumonia?

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When you have a cold, sometimes the only thing that can make you feel better is knowing that it will be over soon. But if you’ve been coughing and feeling tired for more than two weeks, your cold might have turned into acute bronchitis.

Bronchitis, also called a chest cold, is when the airways of the lungs become irritated, and swell and produce excess mucus which causes a persistent cough. Bronchitis often occurs following a cold, where a virus has irritated the airways.

“Acute bronchitis is very common following a cold but it usually resolves by itself,” said Brittany Houston, DO, a resident physician at Samaritan Internal Medicine - Corvallis. “For most people, rest at home is enough to heal.”

According to Houston, bronchitis is almost always caused by a virus not bacteria, so antibiotics are very unlikely to help you feel better. Body aches and chest pain may last as long as three weeks. Expect your cough to last several weeks longer. It is possible to spread the virus that causes bronchitis during the early stages of sickness so if you’re not feeling well, home is the best place to be.

To help ease the symptoms of bronchitis, Houston recommends over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and a cough suppressant. Make sure your cough suppressant doesn’t also contain pain medication to avoid an overdose. It may be helpful to use a humidifier, especially at night. The moist air can loosen the mucus in your airways and help you sleep better. You should also avoid smoking or secondhand smoke which can worsen the cough.

Occasionally, the symptoms of acute bronchitis can be confused with pneumonia, which is more serious and will not resolve on its own. Because of the health risks associated with pneumonia, Houston encourages people to visit the doctor if symptoms continue for more than three weeks or if they have a fever higher than 100.4 F. This is especially important for people who are older than 65, have a weakened immune system or who have other chronic conditions like asthma or congestive heart failure. Your doctor can determine if you have bronchitis, pneumonia or another condition. He or she may use a chest X-ray, sputum test or lung function test to help diagnose your condition.

“To avoid bronchitis, follow good hygiene,” said Houston. “Wash hands often during the day, especially before eating or touching your face. Cough and sneeze into your elbow, and stay home and rest if you feel sick.”

Samaritan patients who use MyChart can schedule an E-Visit from the comfort of home for a common condition like a cold or bronchitis. Visit samhealth.org/MyChart to learn more or make an appointment.