You have a miserable case of bronchitis, and your cough could wake the dead. Your family members and coworkers are losing patience. Even your pets are getting annoyed by your constant hacking.
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Is there anything you can do to calm your agitated airways? Family physician Donald Ford, MD, shares his advice for treating bronchitis at home.
Proven remedies to treat bronchitis
Bronchitis is especially annoying because the cough can last for weeks, even after the infection is gone. So what can you do?
First, make sure you actually have bronchitis. If you’re unsure or you have a high fever, see your doctor to rule out more serious problems like pneumonia, Dr. Ford advises.
If you are battling bronchitis, expect your cough to last several frustrating weeks. Bronchitis is almost always caused by a virus. That means antibiotics won’t help, and there’s not much you can do to speed up the recovery process.
While you’ll have to practice patience as you recover, though, these tricks might help you at least feel a little better while you wait.
1. Over-the-counter medication
While there’s no cure for bronchitis, medicine can help ease symptoms, Dr. Ford says:
- Cough expectorant: Look for meds with guaifenesin, a common ingredient in over-the-counter cold medicines. It’s an expectorant, meaning it helps loosen mucus.
- Cough suppressant: Other OTC cough medicines can suppress your hacking — an especially useful trick if your cough is keeping you up at night. For really stubborn coughs, doctors can prescribe prescription cough medicines.
- Steroid medications: Some patients benefit from prescription steroid medications, which ease inflammation in the airways.
Swallow plenty of it to help loosen mucus so that you can cough it up and out (gross, but gratifying). Unfortunately, wine and coffee don’t have the same hydration benefit, so stick to H2O, herbal tea and broths.
When you have a deep cough, it feels like you can’t clear the gunk from your lungs. Steam helps loosen the mucus so you can get rid of it. If you belong to a health club, this is definitely your chance to hit up the sauna. Or just turn on the shower in your own bathroom and let the room get steamy.
You can also fill a pan or pot with boiling water and lean over it to inhale the steam. “But be careful,” Dr. Ford cautions. “Don’t cover your head with a towel to trap the steam, because it can get too hot and burn your airways.”
4. Saline sprays and salt water gargles
Use a saline nasal spray or neti pot to flush your sinuses. “Even if symptoms are in the chest, most people have some congestion as well. Nasal saline helps clear out mucus and also hydrates your tissues,” Dr. Ford says. Gargling with salt water can also soothe and hydrate a sore throat.
Tea with honey is an old classic for treating colds. Mother Nature’s favorite sweetener probably won’t do much to clear your cough, Dr. Ford says, but it can soothe the sore throat that often goes along with it.
6. Cough drops
Despite the name, they don’t do much to clear up mucus. But like honey, they can soothe a raw throat, suppress your cough and help you feel better.
7. Essential oils
While there’s no evidence that essential oils can help with bronchitis symptoms, some people find breathing steam spiked with menthol oil is especially soothing, Dr. Ford says. “It doesn’t necessarily work better than plain steam, but it can feel good.”
What to avoid when you have bronchitis
One of the most important things to do when you have bronchitis is to avoid things that will irritate your lungs.
- No smoking. You should steer clear of smoking of any kind (including vaping) anyway but especially with bronchitis or other conditions that affect your lungs.
- Fires. Whether it’s a cozy fire in your fireplace, a camp fire or being in an area where there are controlled burns or wildfires, smoke will definitely worsen your condition.
- Dust. Inhaling dust and other allergens around your home can stir up trouble so keep your windows closed and keep your house clean, dusted and vacuumed. Wear a mask while cleaning and consider an air filter for your home.
Keep an eye on your local weather, too. Local news and other outlets, like the National Weather Service, will often report your local air quality index, which tracks the level of pollution in the air in your community. The higher the index number, the worse the air quality is, meaning you should stay inside with an air filter on and windows closed.
When to see a doctor
Because there’s no real cure for bronchitis, the illness can sometimes linger. If it does, look for these signs to know when you should consult your health care provider.
- If your coughing persists for several weeks.
- If you develop a cold that lasts longer than two weeks.
- If you develop a fever that lasts longer than five days or climbs above 102F.
- If coughing becomes painful or produces blood.
- If you develop shortness of breath or wheezing.
Your doctor can develop a treatment plan that works best for you.