My Bronchitic Life: Practical Lessons for Symptom Relief
Techniques for coping with bronchitis.
Posted Apr 29, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
WARNING: I AM NOT A DOCTOR. Well, I am, but of the Ph.D. is in psychology, not the medical type. So nothing in this post replaces advice from medical professionals. I describe my experiences coping with bronchitis and other upper respiratory ailments in the hope that you may find something here worth considering. Although this post is inspired by the pandemic, it may have ideas worth considering for anyone who ever gets any type of upper respiratory ailment, keeping in mind that you should only take action after consulting with medical professionals.
My Bronchitic Life
I’ve had upper respiratory issues my entire life. I almost died from being unable to breathe when I was 8; I got chest colds all the time, and, since I was a teenager, I’ve been plagued with asthma. I get bronchitis almost every winter.
Bronchitis is an upper respiratory infection that produces inflammation, mucus in the lungs, and difficulty breathing. Some people might experience it as “chest tightness.” It is usually accompanied by cold symptoms, such as runny nose, sore throat, low-grade fever, and tiredness. In my experience, the chest congestion is quite bad for about a week and then slowly improves over the next several weeks. Bronchitis often prevents me from engaging in any exercise at all for at least two weeks.
There are two types of bronchitis: Acute and chronic. Acute just means you get it like you get a cold or flu – every once in a while, but it's not permanent. Chronic is far more serious; you have it much of the time.
I do not know if there is an official medical term for what I have. Most of the time, I am happily able to do things like play tennis, hike, bike, and hit the gym. On the other hand, I get bronchitis far more than anyone else I know.
Bronchitis and Covid-19
Although bronchitis does not cause you to catch COVID-19, COVID-19 can produce bronchitis. If you have a history of bronchitis, it can be quite dangerous and even lead to pneumonia. This is why, during the pandemic, anyone like me who is vulnerable to bronchitis needs to stay vigilant and get professional medical help when one gets sick.
Now What? You Have Bronchitis, but the Doctors Keep You Home
Whether or not you have the coronavirus, let’s assume medical professionals do not keep you hospitalized but you have bronchitis. If you are not like me, and this is your first time with bronchitis, it might be scary as all get out. I mean, you are having trouble breathing. Assuming the doctors were right to send you home, it need not be scary, but it does help to know what you can do about it to feel better.
Keeping in mind that you should not do anything without medical approval and that just because something works for me doesn’t mean it will work for you, what can you do?
Combating the Symptoms of Bronchitis
Antibiotics fight bacterial infections, not viral infections. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says this: “Using antibiotics for viruses can put you at risk of getting a bacterial infection that is resistant to antibiotic treatment.” Doctors prescribed antibiotics for most of my life when I would get bronchitis. They never worked for me. About 20 years ago, I stopped taking them for bronchitis (I am 64, so it's not like I did not try for a very long time).
Here is what works for me:
Steam. Steam works. My last bout of bronchitis was very bad (late January/early February); I would love to know whether it was an early case of Covid. I put warm heat humidifiers in every room I spent time in – bedroom, study, family room, office. It helped.
Peak steam: Turn the shower into a steam room. At night, I’d sometimes get a hacking cough that would not stop. It was horrible, I felt like my throat and lungs were being sandpapered. The only thing that stopped it was going into the bathroom, running the shower on hot, and turning it into a steam room. That did help a lot; it suppressed the cough and soothed my throat and lungs – after sitting there for 10-20 minutes.
Sleep with raised head. Use multiple pillows or couch bolster or some such. I do not fully understand why this works, but it did for me. I could breathe easier and coughed less.
Menthol Chest Rubs. Brand name or generic, doesn’t matter. There are all these “breathe easier” rubs that are mostly menthol based, and may repulse most of your housemates from the pungent smell. But they made me feel much better.
Menthol humidifier additives. You can sometimes find these to add to the steam humidifier. The menthol makes the steam heat even somewhat more effective at soothing my sore throat, making it feel like I could breathe easier, and cough less.
The scientific evidence of which I am aware on the effectiveness of menthol for bronchitis-type ailments is mixed. Animal studies have indicated that they help relieve symptoms by reducing spasms and increasing secretions (the more gunk you cough up, the less is clogging your lungs). Some human studies have shown no effect on objective symptoms, but that patients nonetheless subjectively say they have experienced relief. Consistent with this pattern, I do not know whether these menthol interventions actually do anything, but they certainly made me feel better – and when you are feeling miserable, that’s pretty good.
Pseudoephedrine. For me, this is an effective decongestant and helps me literally breathe easier. This does not require a prescription, but you usually have to ask the pharmacist for them. They are not on the counters. You definitely should not take these without consulting with a physician. They are a stimulant, so they also take some of the edge off of the tiredness and fatigue that comes with a bout of bronchitis.
Migraine level aspirin/acetaminophen. These usually combine high-ish doses of aspirin and acetaminophen with a small amount of caffeine. I find they provide relief from headache and fatigue.
Tea, with honey and cayenne (red) pepper. That’s right, cayenne, the-super-hot-spicy red pepper powder that borders on intolerable in even mild doses. It's incredibly soothing to a sore throat (which often comes with the bronchitis/hacking cough thing). It is a known anti-inflammatory and analgesic used to relieve pain far worse than sore throats.
Chicken soup, with cayenne (red) pepper. Long a folk-remedy, chicken soup does actually seem to help. Throw in the red pepper, and it helps even more. The first line of this article in the medical journal Chest is: “Chicken soup has long been regarded as a remedy for symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections.” Lest you think this is some sort of quack article, here is the title: "Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro."
Please keep in mind that, even if these practices are medically safe for you, they may or may not help you, even though they help me. The notions of individualized, precision, or personalized medicine have developed because different people sometimes respond differently to the exact same treatment for what appears to be the exact same condition – which occurs because we are all different genetically, biologically, and psychosocially.
Bronchitis is very uncomfortable, but if you have been checked out by a doctor and sent home, it need not be worse than that. If you have not had it before, the whole difficulty breathing thing, especially when accompanied by all sorts of other symptoms (headache, fever, etc.) can be anxiety arousing. I hope that the techniques I presented here – which, again, you should only use if you know they are medically safe for you – help you get through bronchitis if it hits you.