During the winter months, many South Africans experience colds, flu or respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis. Most of us will have had bronchitis at some stage of our lives, or at least know of people who have had it, but what exactly is this medical condition and can it pose a serious threat to our health?
Dr Steve Ponde, a paediatric pulmonologist who practises at Netcare Waterfall City Hospital in Midrand, says that acute bronchitis, which is also sometimes known as a ‘chest cold’, is a relatively common medical condition, particularly over the winter months.
“Bronchitis is best described as the inflammation of the large and medium-sized airways, or bronchi as we call them, and is usually characterised by a cough,” explains Dr Ponde.
“The condition usually resolves after a few days, or at most three weeks, and is usually not serious. That said, people should seek treatment for any cough that is persistent or severe and which lasts for longer than three days.
“A persistent cough could be a sign of a more serious chronic problem of the airways, and there is a risk that unmanaged bronchitis could develop into bronchopneumonia, which can be life threatening particularly in young children under two years of age, the elderly and people with other illnesses that may weaken their immune system.
“Approximately 1 in 20 cases of bronchitis lead to pneumonia, so this condition can pose a very serious risk to one’s health and must be managed appropriately with the assistance of your doctor.”
According to Dr Ponde, bronchitis is itself often associated with untreated infections such as a head cold and sinusitis. These infections may be highly contagious and are particularly prevalent during the winter months.
Other symptoms of bronchitis may include chest tightness, coughing up phlegm or sputum, shortness of breath, fever, and sometimes chest pain. Many of these bronchial infections are caused by viruses, which do not respond to antibiotic treatment.
Acute or chronic bronchitis?
He points out that there is a second type of bronchitis aside from the acute form, and this is chronic bronchitis, which is a condition that usually only affects smokers.
“Today chronic bronchitis is referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], which is a blanket term used to describe progressive lung diseases such as this particular form of bronchitis and emphysema.
“In the case of chronic bronchitis, patients cough and bring up phlegm almost every day for at least two or more consecutive years. They must give up smoking if they hope to improve.”
“All forms of COPD are potentially serious medical conditions, and the World Health Organization predicts that it will become the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2030,” warns Dr Ponde.
“A child with a recurring cough may have asthma or may have inhaled a foreign body and should be taken to the doctor.
“Coughing up blood [haemoptysis] should never be ignored,” he advises. “Violent coughing may result in the rupturing of small blood vessels resulting in bleeding, and may be an indication of an underlying disease such as tuberculosis.”
Caring for the patient
As bronchitis is generally caused by viruses, it is not usually treated with antibiotics, as these are only effective against bacterial infections. However, antibiotics may be used in the very young, elderly or those with other chronic conditions to assist in reducing the risk of secondary pneumonia infections.
Cough mixtures and bronchodilators, together with plenty of bed rest, are most commonly used to treat bronchitis.
“A child who has developed bronchitis should stay indoors, consume large amounts of liquids and be provided with small, frequent meals. Steam inhalations or a humidifier may be helpful in relieving the cough in children over the age of two.”
Dr Ponde says that South Africans can reduce their risk of developing bronchitis by avoiding exposure to others who have respiratory or other infections. Should you develop a cold, treat it with care and make sure you get sufficient bed rest.
He recommends the following to help keep infections such as bronchitis and possible secondary infections at bay:
- Practise good hygiene by washing your hands and your children’s hands often to avoid the spreading of germs.
- Parents who have children with cancer or HIV should discuss additional protective measures to prevent the development of complications such as pneumonia with their doctor.
- Make sure your home is smoke-free. Passive smoking makes children and adults more susceptible to upper respiratory infections.
- Avoid smoking as it damages the lungs and damaged lungs are more susceptible to bronchitis.
- Cough and sneeze into your sleeve or tissue to prevent germs spreading through the air. Encourage others to do the same.
- Exercise, follow a well-balanced and healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and drink plenty of fluids. A healthy body is better able to resist infection.
- Exclusively breastfeed your baby as it helps to build a stronger immune system and provides additional protection.
“Ensure that your children’s immunisations are up to date. It is important to have babies and young children immunised against as many common infectious diseases as possible. Recommendations for immunisations change from time to time and should be discussed with your doctor or clinic. Vaccines are available to help protect against pneumococcal pneumonia and flu.”
“Provided that illnesses such as bronchitis are treated and managed correctly and with due care, complications such as pneumonia could be prevented and the patient is likely to make a full recovery in good time,” concludes Dr Ponde.
Issued by: Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare
Contact: Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Meggan Saville or Alison Sharp
Telephone: (011) 469 3016
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