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Bronchitis - 9 Tips to Stop the Cough

9 Tips to Stop the Cough

starts with a tickle. An invisible hand brushes a feather against the back of your throat. Then the rumblings start from deep within your chest cavity. Suddenly the volcano in your lungs erupts and you spend the next few minutes hacking up a mouthful of phlegm, the lava of your lungs.

You have bronchitis. Or more appropriately, bronchitis has you. Bronchitis usually has the upper hand because there isn't a whole lot you can do to get rid of it.

In many ways, bronchitis is a lot like a cold. It's usually caused by a virus, says pulmonologist Barbara phillips, M.D., associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. "So antibiotics won't do much good. Sometimes, though, bronchitis is caused by bacteria, and in that case antibiotics will work." Acute bronchitis "most times will go away by itself in a week or two," she says. But chronic sufferers can cough and wheeze for months. Although you have to let it take its course, there are things you can do to breathe easier while you have it.

Stop smoking. It's the most important thing you can do, especially if you're a chronic sufferer. Quit smoking and your chances of ridding yourself of bronchitis go up dramatically. "Ninety to 95 percent of chronic bronchitis is due directly to smoking," says pulmonologist Daniel Simmons, M.D., a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA School of Medicine.

"Your bronchitis will improve when you stop smoking," says Gordon L. Snider, M.D., a pulmonologist and professor at Boston University School of Medicine and Tufts University School of Medicine. If you've smoked for a long time, some of the damage to your lungs may be irreversible, but "the fewer years you've been smoking, the more likely it is that you will have a complete recovery," he says.

Smokers: Clear the Air

Smokers plagued with chronic bronchitis may be cowed into drinking milk by the results of a scientific study done by Melvyn Tockman, M.D., a pulmonologist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"We found that individuals who smoked cigarettes and drank milk had a substantially lower frequency of chronic bronchitis than did people who smoked but did not drink milk." Dr. Tockman said he discovered the link when comparing health histories and lifestyles of 2,539 smokers.

The smokers who drank milk consumed on the average about one glass of it a day. So Dr. Tockman says "If you must smoke, drink your milk."

Why milk may help suppress bronchitis is smokers is still questionable, he says, but he noted that the same effect was not found in milk-drinking nonsmokers. He doesn't, however, recommend milk as the antidote for smokers who are bronchitis sufferers. "Stopping smoking is still the best way to rid yourself of chronic bronchitis," he says.

Get active about passive smoking. Avoid those who smoke, and if your spouse smokes, get him or her to stop. Other people's smoking could be causing your bronchitis.

"You need to avoid all tobacco smoke," says Dr. phillips. "Even if you don't smoke, but you're exposed to exhaled smoke, you are doing what's called passive smoking, and that can give you bronchitis."

Keep the fluids flowing. "Drinking fluids helps the mucus become more watery and easier to dough up," says Dr. phillips. "Four to six glasses of fluid a day will do a good job of breaking it up."

Warm liquids or just plain water is best. "Avoid caffeine or alcoholic beverages," says Dr. phillips. "They are diuretics; they make you urinate more, and you actually lose more fluids than you gain."

Breathe in warm, moist air. Warm, moist air will also help vaporize the mucus. "If you have mucus that is thick or difficult to cough up, a vaporizer will help to loosen the secretions. You could also stand in your bathroom, close the door, and then run your shower, breathing in the warm mist that steams up your bathroom."

Don't throw in the towel. Drape it over the sink. "Steam inhalation from the bathroom sink is very helpful," says Dr. Snider. "Fill the sink with hot water, put a towel over your head and the sink, creating a tent, and then inhale the steam for 5 to 10 minutes every couple of hours."

Don't expect too much from expectorants. "There is no scientific evidence that there is any medicine that works to dry up mucus," says Dr. phillips. "Drinking fluids of any type is the best way to cough up secretions."

When to Call the Doctor

Bronchitis requires a doctor's attention when:

  • Your cough is getting worse, not better, after a week.
  • You have a fever or are coughing up blood.
  • You are older and get a hacking cough on top of another illness.
  • You are short of breath and have a very profuse cough.

Listen to your cough. Is it a productive or nonproductive cough "If you have a productive cough, one where you cough up sputum, you don't really want to suppress it completely because you won't be coughing up the stuff your lungs want to rid themselves of," says Dr. Simmons. His advice: Endure as best you can.

Turn down your volume. On the other hand, "If your cough is nonproductive-that is, you're not coughing anything up-then it's good to take a cough medicine designed to suppress a cough. Look for those containing the active ingredient dextromethorphan," suggests Dr. Simmons.

panel of Advisors

Barbara phillips, M.D., is a pulmonologist and associate professor of pulmonary medicine at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine in Lexington.

Daniel Simmons, M.D., is a pulmonologist and professor of medicine in the Division of pulmonary Disease, at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA School of Medicine.

Gordon L. Snider, M.D., is a pulmonologist and chief of medicinal service at the Boston Veterans Administration Medical Center in Massachusetts. He is also a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

Melvyn Tockman, M.D., is a pulmonologist who is associate director of occupational therapy in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

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