Bronchitis symptoms, treatments and remedies

When you have bronchitis your goal is to loosen the phlegm in your chest. Here's how to cough it up and out, and breath more easily.

Tips for easy breathing

The most direct approach to your lungs is the air you breathe; therefore inhalation treatments are the first step. Think of them as a steam cleaning for your airways. The right food and drink can also help to keep mucus on the move.

At the same time, you'll want to get some germ-fighters into your system so as to discourage the bacteria adhering to the mucus. Here's what to do.

  • Breathe steam. You can do that just by taking a hot shower, or pour steaming-hot water into a bowl and lean over it, draping a towel over your head to create a steam tent. If you use water from the kettle, wait for a minute or two before leaning over it, so as to avoid scalding your face. Inhaling the steam will help to loosen the secretions in your lungs. Many pharmacies sell a simple, cheap and safe steam inhaler – a two-handled beaker with a face mask attachment called Clearway. 
  • Essential oils can make the steam treatment even more effective. Add a few drops of eucalyptus or pine oil to the water. Eucalyptus helps to soften mucus in obstructed airways and has some antibacterial properties. (If you want to use eucalyptus leaves, simply boil them in a pot of water, then remove from the heat and inhale the steam.) Pine oil acts as an expectorant, so it will help you to 'bring up' phlegm from the bronchial tubes.
  • Run a humidifier in your bedroom when you sleep to moisten the air you breathe. Make sure you follow the manufacturer's directions for cleaning the humidifier. Otherwise, bacteria and mould can accumulate in the works. If you have frequent bronchitis, consider an ultrasound, cool-mist humidifier (such as Bionaire, available for about £30 online). Let it run day and night when you are in the room.

Read more: How to increase your lung power


Foods that help and hinder

  • Eat chilli peppers, hot spicy salsa or dishes flavoured with cayenne pepper. Fiery foods thin the mucus in your lungs, helping you to cough more productively. To further thin mucus and help you cough it up more easily, drink plenty of water – at least 8 large glasses a day.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks, which dehydrate your system and make the mucus tougher to dislodge.
  • Drink mullein tea. Mullein, also known as Aaron's rod, is a traditional remedy for respiratory ailments and is used to make expectorant cough syrups. It contains substances known as saponins, which help to loosen phlegm, along with a gelatinous mucilage that soothes raw mucous membranes. 
    Boil a cup of water, remove from the heat, and drop in 2 teaspoons dried mullein flowers. Leave to steep for 10 minutes, then strain and drink the tea. You can drink up to 3 cups a day.
  • To drink or not to drink milk? One school of thought claims that milk stimulates the production of mucus in the upper and lower respiratory tract and in the intestines. (The theory is that young calves, with four stomachs, need this extra mucus to help protect their intestinal tracts from strong stomach acids– but humans don't.) But other authorities say that there is almost no evidence of any link between milk and mucus, and that people actually do more harm than good by cutting out milk because they prejudice their calcium intake.

Read more: Medical myths: Milk makes you phlegmy


Shot term and chronic bronchitis

Bronchitis diagram

Short-lived cases of bronchitis are usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection, though they can also be brought on by allergies. The bronchial tubes swell up, and the cilia – tiny hairs lining the respiratory tract – become paralysed. 

Mucus accumulates, forcing you to cough heavily. You may also experience aching, shortness of breath, wheezing, sweating, chills, fatigue and a raised temperature. These symptoms generally go away after 10 days. 

Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, can last a lifetime. Most chronic bronchitis is caused by smoking though it can arise from long-term exposure to dust.

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Supplement your efforts

Shop-bought or herbal supplements can help loosed the phelgm in your lungs. 

  • N-acetylcysteine (NAC), a form of the amino acid cysteine, has been found to help thin and loosen mucus and reduce the recurrence of bronchitis. Interestingly, it is also the antidote for paracetamol poisoning. NAC is available from health-food shops in 600mg capsules. Take one a day on an empty stomach. If treating short-lived bronchitis, continue taking NAC for a few weeks after the cough has cleared up.
  • Echinacea and astragalus are herbs that strengthen the immune system and help you to fight off bacteria and viruses. Take 200mg of either herb four times a day for acute bronchitis or twice a day for chronic bronchitis.
  • Thyme tea. For an acute attack of bronchitis, drink thyme tea to thin mucus secretions. Use 1 or 2 teaspoons per 240ml (8fl oz) boiling water and add honey to taste. Drink 3 or 4 cups a day. Other herbs that can be combined with thyme or used as alternatives are elecampane, hyssop, plantain and angelica. Use in the same way as thyme.


Should I call the doctor?

See your doctor if your cough is interfering with your sleep or your normal routine, or if breathing is difficult, or if you have a fever or if you are coughing up blood or yellow or green phlegm. Bronchitis can lead to pneumonia. You should also call the doctor if you think your child has bronchitis.

Read more: Breaking the habit: Stop smoking


The power of prevention

To prevent chronic bronchitis, the most essential advice is don't smoke.

If you're a smoker, find out about programmes that will help you to give it up. Second-hand smoke is almost as bad, so avoid smoky pubs, and ask friends who smoke to do so away from you.

If your job exposes you to lots of dust, fumes or pollutants – any of which can contribute to chronic bronchitis – be sure to wear an efficient mask or respirator to filter the impurities from the air you breathe.

To reduce your risk of getting viral bronchitis, wash your hands frequently and keep them away from your face, especially when you've been near someone who has a cold. Clean your nose and sinuses with a saline solution to help prevent allergens and infectious agents from getting into your lungs.

Vitamin C helps you to fight off respiratory viruses. It works well in conjunction with supplementary flavonoids. Take up to 500mg of vitamin C and 250mg flavonoids twice a day.

Read more: Can healthy eating undo the damage of smoking?


Give it a miss!

When you're coughing, it can be very tempting to take a cough suppressant. But if you have a wet, productive cough, you shouldn't try to suppress it because your lungs are expelling bad mucus. You could try an expectorant cough syrup. These claim to loosen mucus, so the coughing clears out your bronchial passages. 

Expectorant cough mixtures contain the ingredient guaifenesin. They include Adult Meltus Expectorant with Decongestant and Beechams All-In-One. However, many doctors believe that the most effective way to loosen mucus is to drink plenty of fluids.