Can Allergies Cause Bronchitis?

Medically reviewed by Katie Mena, MD on November 1, 2016Written by Stephanie Watson

Overview

Bronchitis can be acute, meaning it’s caused by a virus or bacteria, or it can be caused by allergies. Acute bronchitis usually goes away after a few days or weeks. Allergic bronchitis is chronic, and may be caused by exposure to allergy triggers like tobacco smoke, pollution, or dust. You may also hear it called chronic bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is part of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), along with emphysema. Chronic bronchitis can last for months or longer.

Bronchitis is inflammation or swelling of the bronchial tubes that carry air into your lungs. When you have bronchitis, your airways also produce too much mucus. Mucus normally protects your lungs by trapping bacteria, dust, and other particles before they can get in. Too much mucus makes it harder to breathe. People with bronchitis often cough a lot and have trouble breathing.

Keep reading to learn more about allergic or chronic bronchitis.

Symptoms

Coughing is the main symptom of both acute and allergic bronchitis. With acute bronchitis, the cough usually goes away after a few days or weeks. A chronic allergic bronchitis cough can last for many weeks or months.

When you cough you’ll bring up a thick, slimy fluid called mucus. In acute bronchitis, the mucus can be yellow or green. Chronic bronchitis mucus is usually clear or white.

Aside from the cough, acute and allergic bronchitis have different symptoms.

Chronic bronchitis symptomsAcute bronchitis symptoms
cough that lasts for many weeks or even monthscough that lasts a few days or weeks
productive cough produces clear mucus or whiteproductive cough produces yellow or green mucus
wheezingfever
pressure or tightness in chestchills
fatigue

Causes

Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis. Smoke is filled with dangerous chemicals. When you breathe in cigarette smoke, it irritates the lining of your airways and makes your lungs produce extra mucus.

Other causes of chronic bronchitis include:

  • air pollution
  • chemical fumes
  • dust
  • pollen

Risk factors

Smoking tobacco products is one of the biggest risks for allergic bronchitis. You’re also more likely to get this condition if you:

  • are older than 45
  • work in a job where you’re exposed to dust or chemical fume, such as coal mining, textiles, or farming
  • live or work in an area with a lot of air pollution
  • are female
  • have allergies

Diagnosis

Call your doctor for an appointment if:

  • you have a cough that lasts for more than three weeks
  • you cough up blood
  • you’re wheezing or short of breath

Your doctor will do a physical examination and ask about your medical history and symptoms. Your doctor might ask:

  • How long have you been coughing?
  • How often do you cough?
  • Do you cough up any mucus? How much? What color is the mucus?
  • Do you smoke? For how long have you smoked? How many cigarettes do you smoke each day?
  • Are you often around someone who smokes?
  • Have you recently had a cold- or flu-like infection?
  • Are you exposed to chemical fumes or dust at work? What types of chemicals are you exposed to?

Your doctor will also listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. You may have other tests for allergic bronchitis, such as:

  • Sputum tests. Your doctor will check a sample of the mucus you cough up to see if you have an infection or allergies.
  • Chest x-ray. This imaging test looks for any growths or problems with your lungs.
  • Lung function test. You’ll blow into a device called a spirometer to see how strong your lungs are and how much air they can hold.

Treatment

Your doctor may prescribe or recommend one or more of these treatments to open up your airways and help you breathe easier.

Bronchodilators

Bronchodilators relax muscles around the airways to open them up. You breathe in the medicine through a device called an inhaler.

Short-acting bronchodilators start to work quickly. Examples of short-acting bronchodilators include:

  • ipratropium (Atrovent)
  • albuterol (Proventil HFA, ProAir, Ventolin HFA)
  • levalbuterol (Xopenex)

Long-acting bronchodilators go to work more slowly, but their effects last for 12 to 24 hours. These medicines include:

Steroids

Steroids bring down swelling in your airways. Usually you breathe in steroids through an inhaler. Examples include:

You may take a steroid along with a long-acting bronchodilator.

Oxygen therapy

Oxygen therapy delivers oxygen to your lungs to help you breathe. You wear prongs that go in your nose or a mask that fits over your face. Your doctor will determine if you need oxygen therapy based on your oxygen saturation at rest and with exercise.

Humidifier

To help you breathe at night, you can turn on a warm mist humidifier. The warm air helps loosen up the mucus in your airways. Wash the humidifier often to prevent bacteria and other germs from growing inside.

Pulmonary rehabilitation

This is a program to help you breathe better. During pulmonary rehabilitation, you’ll work with doctors, nurses, and other specialists. The program can include:

  • exercises to improve breathing
  • nutrition
  • methods to help you conserve energy
  • tips to help you breathe better
  • counseling and support

Breathing techniques

People with chronic bronchitis often breathe too quickly. Breathing techniques like pursed-lip breathing can help slow your breathing rate. With this method, you breathe through pursed lips, as if you were going to kiss someone.

Vaccines

Allergic bronchitis can increase your risk for lung infections. Getting the following vaccines can help you stay healthy:

  • a flu shot once a year
  • a pneumonia shot every five or six years

Outlook

The word “chronic” in “chronic bronchitis” means it sticks around for a long time. Your cough and shortness of breath may never fully go away. Treatments like medicine and oxygen therapy can ease your symptoms and help you get back to a more normal life.

Prevention

The best way to prevent allergic bronchitis is to quit smoking. Kicking the habit will also protect you from other diseases, like cancer and heart disease. Ask your doctor to recommend a quit-smoking method, such as nicotine replacement or medicines that cut cravings.

Learn more: The 8 best quit smoking blogs of 2016 »

Here are some other ways to protect your lungs:

  • If you work with or around chemicals, make sure that the area is well ventilated.
  • If the ventilation is poor, use a respirator. This device fits over your nose and mouth. It cleans the air before it gets into your lungs.
  • At home, avoid breathing in any fumes. Don’t use spray chemicals like paint, hair spray, household cleaners, or bug spray indoors. If you do have to use these products, open the windows or do it in a well-ventilated, open area like an open garage. You can also wear a mask when you spray to protect your lungs.
  • Put on a mask whenever you work in the yard so you don’t breathe in dust, pollen, and other irritants.
  • If dust, pollen, or other allergy triggers cause your bronchitis symptoms, see an allergist. Allergy shots or medicines can stop you from reacting to your triggers.
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