Think It Might Be Bronchitis? When to See a Doctor

Here's when to see a doctor about that persistent cough
Man coughing and sneezing while sitting on couch at home

You’ve been coughing for days (and nights — so many sleepless nights).

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Is it just a cold, bronchitis or something even worse? And should you get checked out or wait it out?

Family physician Donald Ford, MD, gives the lowdown on bronchitis.

Bronchitis symptoms

Cough, fatigue, a heavy tightness in the chest. It could be bronchitis, pneumonia or just a simple cold. So how can you tell which is which? One thing that sets bronchitis apart is its staying power, says Dr. Ford. “In bronchitis, the cough persists long after you begin to feel better.”

To understand bronchitis, he offers a quick anatomy lesson. The bronchioles are the large airways that extend down into the chest, where they’re capped off with the lungs. Acute bronchitis strikes when the bronchioles become infected (most often by a virus). The airways make mucus in an attempt to shed the viral invaders. That mucus makes you cough your head off.

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Even after the virus is gone, though, the lining of the bronchioles remains irritated and inflamed. You’re no longer contagious, even if your barking cough makes coworkers avoid you.

“You’re not sick, but you have these raw, exposed tissues in the airways that are really reactive,” Dr. Ford explains. “Cold air or even just a deep breath can cause a coughing fit.”

Bronchitis or pneumonia?

Unfortunately, since bronchitis is almost always viral, antibiotics won’t help you get better. But that doesn’t mean you should forego seeing your physician. Doctors can prescribe cough suppressants or other drugs to help you deal with symptoms.

They can also rule out more serious illnesses, like pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection that occurs deep in the lungs, rather than up in the bronchioles, Dr. Ford explains.

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How do you know if it’s time to see a doctor? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have a high fever? Bronchitis can bump your temperature up by a degree or two, but a triple-digit fever is more likely to be pneumonia. If you’re spiking a high fever, don’t put off the doctor visit.
  • Am I having trouble breathing? That could indicate pneumonia, which is nothing to mess around with. If you feel like you can’t breathe, a medical check-up is in order.
  • How long have I been sick? Most colds clear up within 7 to 10 days, says Dr. Ford. If you don’t have a fever or trouble breathing, it’s OK to wait it out to see if your cough goes away on its own. But if you’re still hacking after 10 days? Let the professionals take a look.
  • How do I feel? If you’re having trouble sleeping, feel like you’re just not getting better, or concerned about your cough, get it checked out, Dr. Ford says. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

“We can usually tell pretty easily by listening to your lungs if it’s bronchitis or pneumonia,” Dr. Ford adds. But that listening part is important, so this is a case when it’s better to see a doctor IRL instead of an online virtual visit.

No, it’s not fun to drag your sick self to the doctor’s office, but it’s worth the trouble. “It’s never a bother for us to take a listen,” he adds. “Don’t be afraid of coming to see us, because it’s always better to find out you’re fine than to miss something serious.”

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