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Bronchitis can, though it's not uncommon, get quite scary. If you suspect you have acute bronchitis, do you need to see a doctor or will home remedies do the trick?

Not being able to breathe properly, to the point you're unproductively gasping for air, is one of the scariest things that can happen to you — especially if you're otherwise relatively healthy, and you've never before been struck by (extreme) shortness of breath, a cough so bad and constant it makes your back hurt, and wheezing. 

If you find yourself in exactly that situation, chances are that you immediately know there's no ambiguity whatsoever about whether you need to see a doctor, as well as that you'll discover something you've likely never thought about before: breathing is a basic human need, and you want to be able to do it properly, darn it! Just in case turning to Doctor Google was your first instinct instead (office hours may have passed and you're not quite sure whether a trip to the ER is warranted, say), here's a rundown of what you need to do if you suspect you have acute bronchitis.

What Is Acute Bronchitis, What Are Its Symptoms, And How Do You Get It?

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes, which need to function properly for you to be able to breathe normally. It will announce its presence in the form of wheezing, shortness of breath, and a nasty, mucus-producing cough, that might seem to go on forever. Bronchitis, in its acute form, is usually caused by viruses (including the same ones that lead to the common cold) or bacteria, but allergies and irritants can also be to blame. These include things in your home or workplace — the volatile organic compounds in your home may cause bronchitis, and Naphtalene or Paradichlorobenzene mothballs are a prime example, along with tobacco smoke. [1]

Chronic bronchitis is the long-term form of the disease [2], but there's no need to start wondering if over-the-counter medications can treat chronic bronchitis just yet — most people with acute bronchitis recover completely within a few days, and won't suffer permanent consequences. One danger, however, lies in trying to treat yourself while fully assuming you know what is wrong with you. 

Differential Diagnosis: What Else Could Be Wrong With You?

Without going into too much detail, if you're here because you're presenting with the classic symptoms of acute bronchitis and therefore believe you have acute bronchitis, you need to know that numerous other conditions can cause shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. People who believe they probably have bronchitis could also have [3, 4]:

  • Asthma
  • Allergic aspergillosis
  • Sinusitis
  • A common cold
  • Pneumonia
  • The flu
  • Reflux
  • Cancer
  • A pulmonary embolism
  • Tuberculosis
  • Congestive heart failure

As you can see from that, not necessarily exhaustive, list, you could be dealing with either something more or less serious than acute bronchitis. That brings us to the question of...

When Should You See A Doctor?

We've all had the common cold before — statistics show that most adults actually get two to four every year! Though actual influenza is rarer, chances are that you have experience with that, too. [5] Both can make you feel lousy, and both can make breathing harder, but having had bronchitis, I can say that it feels different. Scarier. Based on that, I'd say that — whether you really do have acute bronchitis or something completely different — most people, that is, those who aren't hypochondriacs, should see a doctor when they are genuinely scared or worried. When a small or loud voice in your head says "doctor — now!", get medical help. 

Treatment For Bronchitis

Things you can do before you have the chance to see your doctor, or in addition to the treatment you will be prescribed, include [6]:

  • Aspirin — for adults only since aspirin can cause Reye's Syndrome in children — or Tylenol/paracetamol, to reduce the fever sometimes associated with bronchitis.
  • Using a humidifier. 
  • Drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Resting up. 

Prescribed treatment will depend on the severity of your symptoms, and some things you need to know include [7, 8]:

  • You may not be prescribed anything except the things above. Antibiotics are very rarely used for cases of acute bronchitis, because antibiotics can only treat bacterial infections — and acute bronchitis is often caused by other things. 
  • Expectorants, medications that help you get rid of all that phlegm, may be offered.
  • Cough suppressants are not usually helpful because they don't target the source of the cough in people with bronchitis. 
  • People with severe shortness of breath may be offered bronchodilators (inhalers). This usually applies to people with other underlying issues, like asthma.
  • If your initial diagnosis is unclear, you can expect follow-up diagnostic tests. 

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