Identifying and treating bronchitis in children
It's the change of seasons, and everyone in the family is getting over a cold. But your child's noisy chest cough seems to be dragging on and on. You can hear it from anywhere in the house. Could it be bronchitis? Should you be worried?
What is bronchitis?
Bronchitis is an irritation and inflammation of the lining of the airways. It is often triggered by an upper respiratory infection, such as a common cold, the flu or a sinus infection. It can also be caused by exposure to irritating fumes or dusts, most commonly tobacco smoke.
The symptoms of bronchitis include:
- A severe cough, which may last for two weeks or more
- Coughing up yellowish or green phlegm
- Discomfort in the chest or sore abdominal muscles from coughing
- Wheezing and shortness of breath due to inflamed airways
- Fever, chills and muscle aches
- Nasal congestion and sore throat
- Bronchitis hearing loss due to mucus blocking the ears
The primary indicator of bronchitis is the cough, which usually lasts well beyond the other symptoms. In some cases, the cough may become so severe that it causes injury to the chest wall or makes the patient pass out.
What are the types of bronchitis?
The inflammation and coughing of bronchitis occur in several forms:
- Acute bronchitis can be caused by infection or exposure to lung irritants. It lasts for several days or weeks, but then tends to clear up on its own.
- Viral bronchitis is acute bronchitis that is specifically triggered by a viral infection such as the common cold.
- Occupational bronchitis refers to bronchitis that is acquired due to exposure to a lung irritant in one's home or workplace. It usually clears up when exposure stops.
- Chronic bronchitis is diagnosed if bronchitis symptoms last for more than three months or recur frequently over a period of years. It is usually not caused by an infection, and is often associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). The most common cause of chronic bronchitis in children is exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Asthmatic bronchitis refers to the same symptoms of bronchial inflammation and coughing, but with the underlying cause of asthma. It tends to be a chronic form of bronchitis.
What is the treatment for bronchitis?
Although often no treatment is necessary for acute bronchitis, you should still bring your child to a doctor for a professional diagnosis, especially if the cough is accompanied by fever. The doctor will need to rule out other illnesses such as pneumonia. See a doctor right away if the patient is spitting up blood or having difficulty breathing.
Since the majority of bronchitis cases stem from viral infections or lung irritants, antibiotics will have no effect. Bronchitis treatment for the most part aims to make the patient more comfortable until the symptoms resolve on their own. In the case of chronic bronchitis, there is no cure, and all you can do is ease the symptoms. With your doctor's approval, try these simple remedies:
- Lots of fluids to thin lung secretions, making it easier to clear phlegm out of the airways
- Cool mist vaporizer to soothe irritated airways
- Children's acetaminophen to relieve aches and pains
- Cough suppressant at night to help your child get needed rest
Try to eliminate any allergens or air pollutants that may be triggering or worsening the bronchitis.
Your doctor may also prescribe an inhaler to dilate the airways if your child is wheezing.
Is bronchitis contagious?
Well, yes and no. Technically, bronchitis itself is not contagious. Bronchitis refers simply to an ongoing irritation of the airways with an accompanying cough. However, acute bronchitis often results from a prior infection, such as a cold or the flu. These are highly contagious viral illnesses, and the cough of bronchitis will spread them around. So, your child cannot catch bronchitis from a sick playmate, but he or she may catch a cold, and that may lead to bronchitis.
Remember, many forms of bronchitis are caused by environmental factors such as smoke and air pollution. These are not contagious at all.