At first it’s a dry cough, sometimes beginning during a cold, sometimes after, and sometimes on its own. The cough grows more insistent, and a day or two later it starts producing… stuff. Soon it’s a nuisance, and you find yourself barking away as you walk, talk, eat, or try to sleep. After a week of this you decide to see a doctor.
Doctors might be able to give you something to knock down the cough, but in most cases that’s all they’ll do. If you were healthy in the first place, you likely have what’s called “acute bronchitis”, an illness that typically lasts a couple weeks and clears up on its own. There are no medicines for it, no cure, and no vaccine. It’s almost as common, and contagious, as the common cold. In fact, it may very well BE the common cold.
THE CHEST COLD
Acute bronchitis used to be called a “chest cold”, and it’s an accurate description, as most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by the same viruses that cause the common head cold. The rhinovirus, adenovirus, and Coxsackievirus strains that infect nasal passage linings will also infect airway linings in the lungs. They have the same effect in both locations, causing inflammation and increased mucus production.
In a head cold this is mainly a nuisance, causing stuffiness and a runny nose. In the bronchi, however, it narrows the airways and makes breathing slightly difficult, and the excess mucous can only be cleared by coughing. The cough is what makes acute bronchitis so contagious, producing an aerosol of microscopic droplets that can carry the illness to people many feet away.
Even after the mist settles, these viruses can remain infectious for several days. Someone can pick them up on the skin of their hand and will catch a cold after a casual wipe of the mouth or nose. And some will contract bronchitis.
An estimated 10% of acute bronchitis involves bacteria, either as a secondary infection (occurring after a viral infection set in) or as the primary infection. They tend to last longer, often a month or more.
Bacteria, however, can usually be knocked out with antibiotics. Doctors typically will not prescribe these drugs in the first week or two of bronchitis, but they will usually try them for more persistent cases.
Bacterial infections are contagious, even for a week or two after symptoms have subsided. The most common bacterial causes are mycoplasma pneumoniae and chlamydia pneumoniae, which can cause pneumonia.
A cough which produces mucus for more than 2-3 months a year, for two consecutive years, is called “chronic bronchitis” (or “CB” for short). This is a non-contagious condition in the lungs, where the tissue lining the bronchi thickens and constricts the airways, and mucus-producing cells grow larger and more numerous. As you’d expect from these changes, CB reduces airflow and increases mucus production.
It’s estimated 90% of CB cases are caused by smoking, with the remaining 10% from pollution, exposure to smoke and noxious gases, and genetic conditions. Cystic fibrosis is the most common genetic cause.
Though the condition is not contagious, chronic bronchitis leads to more frequent viral and bacterial infections in the airways. This is partly because mucus tends to be thicker in CB patients, and can be difficult to cough up. It’s also due to the death of cilia, microscopic hair-like structures that normally sweep mucous out of the airways. With thicker mucus and nothing but coughing to move it, bacteria and viruses remain in the lungs longer and proliferate.
The CB sufferer’s lungs become, essentially, reservoirs and breeding grounds for infection. Even if they show no symptoms, the infectious organisms in the airways are spread with every cough.
INFECTIOUS? CONTAGIOUS? WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Acute bronchitis is clearly contagious, because living microorganisms are spread and can sicken others. Chronic bronchitis, however, does not spread a particular illness, but rather an assortment of infectious agents. Is there a difference?
No, there’s no difference. Where the rubber hits the road, it’s ill-person-spreads-germs-and-others-become-ill. Or, as the American Heritage dictionary defines contagious, “Capable of transmitting disease; carrying a disease”. In short, both forms of bronchitis are contagious.
NATURAL TREATMENTS FOR BRONCHITIS
Anyone who has suffered from bronchitis knows how extremely uncomfortable and even downright painful it can be. It starts off seemingly small, perhaps even as just a tickle in your chest. It soon, however, grows into a horrible rattling of your ribcage, and the feeling like someone is pounding on your chest every time you cough. A throaty, persistent hack is the most common symptom of acute bronchitis.
Natural remedies are particularly effective for acute bronchitis, because they may be used for a definite period of time. It should be noted that any chronic bronchitis sufferer should consult his or her doctor before adopting a natural health care plan to ensure that the supplements are safe for long-term use. Additionally, infants and elderly individuals, or those with other heart or respiratory conditions, should always consult a healthcare professional before beginning alternative therapies. If you are otherwise healthy and have a normal immune system, the virus will run its course. There are several natural remedies that you can use in order to help your body along the healing course, and to relieve your symptoms.
Wild Oil of Oregano:
Oil of oregano is a particularly effective treatment for a variety of ailments, including respiratory infections, as well as cold and flu. It is available in most natural and health food stores, and also online at sites such as oiloforegano.com. Some varieties will suggest mixing a few drops of the oil with honey for palatability, while others will suggest mixing several drops with warm water, which is common of homeopathic medicines. Upon consumption, you will almost immediately feel a warning sensation in your mouth and chest. The oil is rather literally working to burn off your congestion.
Honey and Onion:
Honey has wonderful natural antibacterial properties, and will also help to calm a persistent cough. For an added bonus, use local honey. If you are prone to seasonal allergies, local honey will help your body to build a tolerance for the pollen to which you are allergic. To reap the maximum benefits for bronchitis treatment, slice up an onion in a bowl and cover it with honey. Allow this to sit overnight. The following morning, remove the onion slices. Take 3-4 teaspoons of the honey daily. The onion is an expectorant that will help remove mucus from your lungs. If a honey and onion mixture doesn’t float your boat, use the onions separately in your cooking, or sliced raw into a salad.
Ginger is one of nature’s little wonders, with numerous medicinal uses and health benefits. It works as an expectorant, and its warming properties are wonderfully soothing. If you are fortunate enough to live by an Asian supermarket, you can find delicious ginger tea. It is very important to find tea made from actual dried ginger-root, not just ginger flavored. Or, of course, you can make your own. To do so, steep a chunk of ginger-root in hot water. Add flavorings to suit your preference, such as a pinch of cinnamon and ground cloves, or a squeeze of honey.
All common-sense remedies most certainly apply for bronchitis as well. Get a lot of rest, drink plenty of water and other non-caffeinated liquids, and eat healthfully. Use over the counter cough medications only as a last resort. Remember, although it may be painful, coughing is actually good. It is your body’s way of clearing out the infection that has caused the illness.