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Chronic bronchitis is a rough deal, and a range of medications may become part of your life once you are diagnosed. Is it possible to treat chronic bronchitis with over-the-counter medications?

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes — which need to function properly for people to breathe easily — that never quite goes away. Enter sometimes milder, sometimes worse bouts of cough (with mucus as an added bonus), shortness of breath, chest tightness, and wheezing. [1] Chronic bronchitis is a rough deal, basically. 

The median prevalence of the condition is about 2.6 percent of the population, and though many were (or still are — don't be one of them!) smokers, many also aren't. The interesting thing is that non-smoking-related chronic bronchitis is more common in some places than others, strongly indicating that environmental and genetic factors are at play as well. [2] Besides irritant-related chronic bronchitis, in which things like pollution and smoking, including second-hand smoking, play a role, chronic bronchitis can also be the result of allergic asthma and recurrent infection. You may be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis if you suffer from its symptoms months per year at least two years in a row. [3]

How Is Chronic Bronchitis Usually Treated?

Making people with chronic bronchitis more comfortable can be quite the effort, and depending on the person's condition and symptoms, a variety of medications may be employed. 

Bronchodilators, a kind of inhalable medication, are one of the mainstays of chronic bronchitis treatment, and they may either provide you with fast relief when you find yourself unable to breathe well, and long-acting — which means they go towards preventing attacks. The confusing thing about bronchodilators is that the same medication is often produced by numerous different companies, and thus sold under many different names. [4]

Common examples of fast-acting bronchodilators (inhalers) that may be used to treat chronic bronchitis include:

  • Albuterol, Salbutamol, Ventolin, Proventil, AccuNeb — "the blue pump"
  • Albuterol sulfate, ProAir, HFA, ProAir, RespiClick
  • Levalbuterol, Xopenex

Long-acting bronchodilators may contain two different medications, and often include corticosteroids. These inhalers will help improve lung function over time, and examples are: 

  • Symbicort (Budesonide/Formoterol)
  • Pulmicort (Budesonide)
  • Flovent (Fluticasone)
  • Dulera (Mometasone/formoterol)

Oral steroids may also also be used in the treatment of chronic bronchitis during exarcerbations, and these include Prednisone, prednisolone, and dexamethasone. 

Some people who suffer from chronic bronchitis require supplemental oxygen [5], and antibiotics may also become necessary during exacerbations [6]. 

Can I Use Over-The-Counter Medications In The Treatment Of My Chronic Bronchitis?

First off, SteadyHealth has readers from all over the world, and the world is rather a varied place. I know for a fact that some of the above medications are available over the counter in some countries, since I have bought them that way myself. Those same medications will be prescription-only in many other countries. 

So, with that in mind, a word of warning — if you are not sure what medications you need, because you haven't seen a doctor about it or haven't seen one in a while, buying medications over the counter isn't really a good idea. (This, I'll add, is I assume the very reason these medications are prescription-only in many places!)

Anyone who hasn't had a proper diagnosis or has not been under the care of a physician for a while should seek medical attention before buying any of the medications listed above and similar ones. Yes, even if you could just walk into a pharmacy and get medications right now. (If you can't breathe and need relief right now, see a doctor right away if at all possible. If it isn't for some reason, then you can start thinking about buying bronchodilators over the counter!) 

If you know exactly what you need because a doctor has told you so, and you can purchase the medications in question without a prescription, you can — of course — go right ahead and do just that. 

What About 'Beyond The Counter' Treatments For Chronic Bronchitis?

Over-the-counter medications are those you buy from a pharmacy without a prescription, but what most people who look for "over the counter medications to treat chronic bronchitis" are really after is a way to feel better without a doctor. Some of the treatments in question don't require a pharmacy at all! (You do, however, always benefit from consulting a doctor.)

The "beyond the counter" steps you could take, perhaps better described as lifestyle changes, in the treatment of your chronic bronchitis include:

  • STOP SMOKING if you still smoke — this is important! Also avoid second-hand smoke whenever possible. Exposure to smoking means your symptoms will continue to get worse. [7]
  • People with chronic bronchitis are routinely advised to keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water. There are studies that question whether this will really lead to symptom improvement [8], but since proper hydration is important for overall health anyway, there's no harm in following this instruction. 
  • Pollution, whether outdoor air pollution or indoor pollution resulting from irritants in your home [9, 10], will worsen your symptoms. Try to keep your home as free of irritants as possible, including by using natural cleaning products, and stay indoors or wear a pollution mask if the air is particularly bad in your place of residence. 
  • Regular exercise, including walking, can significantly improve your symptoms. [11]
  • Both the foods you eat and your weight can impact the severity of your chronic bronchitis symptoms, so try to eat a wholesome, "real food" diet, and try to keep your body mass index within the healthy range. [12]
Though you can make all these steps without ever seeing a doctor, be aware that many of them are part of a program known as pulmonary rehabilitation [13]. You are likely to make much more progress with the help of a competent medical team, not to mention that they're also there to keep you safe. (Exercise, for instance, can improve your symptoms, but also induce shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing.) 

In Conclusion

There are many things you can do to help lessen the severity of your chronic bronchitis symptoms at home, but you'll be more successful if you work in partnership with your doctor.

People who suspect they have chronic bronchitis but have not yet been diagnosed should seek medical attention rather than trying to treat themselves with over-the-counter medications. You may, after all, be wrong about your suspected self-diagnosis, and could be purchasing medications that are not suitable for you. 

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