Bronchitis refers to an infection or irritation of the bronchi—the passageway from the windpipe (trachea) to the lungs. This illness is much more common in the winter, as it usually follows an upper respiratory infection such as a cold. Chest, the official journal of the American College of Chest Physicians, reported in 2006 that “acute bronchitis is one of the most common diagnoses made by primary care clinicians and emergency department physicians.”
While you may be tempted to ask your doctor about an antibiotic treatment for bronchitis, it’s important to note that antibiotics are not a good option for this illness. According to a 2006 review in Chest, “the widespread use of antibiotics for the treatment of acute bronchitis is not justified, and vigorous efforts to curtail their use should be encouraged.”
Fortunately, there are several natural remedies you can use to alleviate bronchitis and other respiratory tract disorders.
Signs of bronchitis include bouts of coughing, shaking, chills, fever and chest pain that are usually preceded by a cold. Although pneumonia also includes a persistent cough, it differs from bronchitis in that it has the classic signs of lung involvement, such as shallow breathing and abnormal breath sounds. In addition, a chest X-ray will show fluid and lymph in the lungs. It is difficult to distinguish between bronchitis and pneumonia, so consult your physician if you have lung issues suggestive of pneumonia or if your cough persists for more than one week, it recurs, or it’s accompanied by a high fever, rash or persistent headache.
Bronchitis can be caused by a variety of microorganisms, especially viruses and bacteria. In healthy people, bronchitis most often follows an insult to the immune system, such as cold or flu, cigarette smoke and other noxious fumes, or cancer.
Tried and true home remedy
One of the main treatment goals in cases of bronchitis, sinusitis and pneumonia is to help the lungs and air passages get rid of excessive mucus. There’s an old-time therapy called postural drainage that works absolute wonders. I recommend that my patients with bronchitis do it twice daily until the bronchitis has resolved.
Apply a heating pad, hot water bottle or mustard poultice to your chest for up to 20 minutes. To make a mustard poultice, mix one-part dry mustard with three parts flour, then add enough water to make a paste. Spread the paste on thin cotton (an old pillowcase works well) or cheesecloth, fold it, and place it on your chest. Check the poultice often, as mustard can cause blisters if it’s left on too long.
After the hot pack or poultice, perform postural drainage by lying face down on a bed with the top half of your body off the bed, using your forearms as support. This position should be maintained for five to 15 minutes while you try to cough and expectorate into a basin or newspaper on the floor.
Bottle blowing and salt pipes
A Swedish study published in 1997 in the Scandinavian Journal of Infectious Diseases investigated 145 adults who were hospitalized for pneumonia. The patients who were instructed to sit up 10 times a day and blow 20 bubbles each time through a plastic tube into a bottle containing 10 ml of water had shorter hospital stays. Another study also found that this technique helped decrease the impairment of pulmonary function and increase total lung capacity in patients who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery. Bottle blowing or another similar activity, like playing a wind instrument, may well prove useful as a means of decreasing the frequency and duration of bronchitis or pneumonia in patients who are vulnerable to respiratory infections.
An alternative to bubble blowing is the use of a salt pipe. These pipes are inhaler-type devices containing tiny salt particles that are said to ease breathing. The practice originated in central Europe, where individuals with respiratory complaints would spend time in salt caves or mines to help relieve their breathing problems.
If you have bronchitis, it is important to use a mucolytic agent to improve the quality of your mucus secretions and promote expectoration. Two of the best are described below.
- Guaifenesin(also known as glycerol guaiacolate) is a derivative of a compound originally isolated from beech wood. It is available in many over-the-counter products.
- N-acetylcysteine (NAC)has an extensive history of use as a mucolytic in the treatment of acute and chronic lung conditions. NAC is helpful in all lung and respiratory tract disorders, especially chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Studies show it improves bronchial and lung function, reduces cough and improves oxygen saturation in the blood. In detailed analyses of 39 trials, it has been concluded that oral NAC reduces the risk that chronic bronchitis will worsen and improves patients’ symptoms compared with a placebo. The typical dosage for NAC is 200 mg three times daily.
Expectorants and immune system support
Herbal medicine is one of the best ways to support your body to help prevent and alleviate the symptoms of bronchitis. Herbs can also act as expectorants to increase the quantity of mucus, decrease its viscosity and promote its expulsion. Commonly used expectorants include Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice), Pelargonium sidoides (South African geranium), Hedera helix (ivy) and wild cherry bark.
Remember, an optimal immune function also relies on a healthy diet that includes whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, seeds and nuts. Reduce your consumption of fats and refined sugars, and be sure to drink five or six 8-ounce glasses of water every day (preferably pure, filtered water), to boost your immune system.
With any of these bronchitis remedies, a lessening in the severity of symptoms, such as coughing, should be apparent within the first 48 hours. If not, please check with your physician.