When You Can’t Stop Coughing: Bronchitis in Pregnancy

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You’re coughing and coughing and coughing. And just when one coughing fit ends another one starts up. It started out as a cold but while your other cold symptoms have gone away, the cough is lingering. Face the fact that you probably have a case of bronchitis.

Bronchitis is any inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which are an intermediary part of your lungs. Your lungs are made up of small air sacs called alveoli, which is where your blood exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide; the bronchioles, which are small tubes that carry air to the alveoli, and the bronchial tubes, which are the large tubes that connect the bronchioles to your trachea, which is also called your windpipe.

The inflammation of your bronchial tubes could be caused by an infection, including viral, bacterial, or fungal infections. It can also be caused by exposure to irritants such as smoke, dust, chemical fumes, or air pollution.

Bronchitis is different from pneumonia. Both are lung conditions, but pneumonia is an infection or inflammation of the alveoli while bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes. They can be hard to distinguish, even by a health professional. Generally, pneumonia is more serious, and you feel sicker. Another lung inflammation is bronchiolitis, which affects the smaller tubes in the lung. Bronchiolitis is usually seen in young children.

If bronchitis doesn’t go away or if you keep coming down with it, you may have chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is one of the most common forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can be a serious lung problem. COPD can lead to heart disease and lung cancer, and seriously impacts how well your lungs function.

Bronchitis and Pregnancy

The good news is that most cases of bronchitis are not going to affect your pregnancy. The bad news is that bronchitis can make you pretty miserable. If you are in your later months of pregnancy, when your expanding uterus can interfere with taking very deep breaths, you may be even more uncomfortable.

Symptoms

The main symptom of bronchitis is coughing. You may cough up mucus, which health professionals call a wet cough or a productive cough, or have a dry cough where nothing comes up, which is an unproductive cough. You may have coughing fits where it is hard to stop coughing. The stuff you cough up may be clear, white, grey, or green. Other symptoms may include tiredness, shortness of breath, sore throat, soreness in your chest, or a slight fever and chills.

Bronchitis takes a while to go away. It may take you a couple of weeks after you first have symptoms for the coughing to stop. Even if it takes you a couple of weeks to shake it off, this is acute bronchitis, or what most people call a common chest cold.

When to See Your Doctor

It is time to see your doctor if:

  • Your cough has not gone away in three weeks.
  • Prevents you from sleeping.
  • You have a fever over 100 degrees F.
  • The mucus you cough up has any blood in it.
  • You are very short of breath.

Diagnosing Bronchitis

Your doctor will listen to your chest with a stethoscope. He or she may ask you to take several deep breaths while listening. You may be asked to cough up some spit for a sputum test, which will determine if the problem is due to a bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics.

You may also take a pulmonary function test. In this test, you blow into a device that measures how much air your lungs can hold and how fast you can breathe out all that air.

Treatment

Most cases of bronchitis are caused by viruses. This means that antibiotics will not help. However, if your doctor feels you are at risk for developing a bacterial infection in your lungs, he or she may treat you with antibiotics.

If you have bronchitis, rest and take it easy. Drink plenty of fluids to help loosen the mucus in your lungs and make it easier to cough up. You can drink water, herbal tea, and clear soups, but stay away from drinks with caffeine in them. Taking a long steamy shower can also help relieve your cough and let you breathe easier.

If the coughing is keeping you awake at night, ask your doctor or a pharmacist what cough suppressants are safe to take during pregnancy. You can also ask about pain relievers if you are in a lot of discomfort.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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