Bronchitis causes coughs and other symptoms that can be distressing. Can common over-the-counter medicine like ibuprofen really help in treating bronchitis symptoms?
Research has shown that ibuprofen has marginal benefits in relieving fever and chest pain caused by bronchitis, but it does not seem to be really effective in alleviating coughs, the main symptom of bronchitis.
Besides ibuprofen, there are other home remedies and medications that can help in easing bronchitis symptoms. This article will detail a few of them.
What is bronchitis?
Bronchitis is an inflammation that affects the bronchial tubes, which are the airways that branch from the trachea (also known as the windpipe) and direct airflow towards the lungs. Sometimes bronchitis can also affect the trachea.
Types of bronchitis
Bronchitis can be broadly categorised as:
Acute bronchitis is characterised by a cough (with or without sputum) that lasts for about 1-3 weeks. Viral infections are the most common cause of acute bronchitis, and because of this, some people experience cold or flu-like symptoms alongside it.
Chronic bronchitis is characterised by a cough with sputum production which lasts ≥3 months every year for ≥2 successive years.1 Smoking is the main cause of chronic bronchitis.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) are a group of respiratory conditions that cause obstruction to airflow, mainly due to inflammation of the respiratory system. COPD includes chronic bronchitis.
Effects of having bronchitis
The main symptoms that you might experience if you are suffering from bronchitis are:2
- A cough - may last for 2-3 weeks and remain even after other symptoms have resolved.
- Sputum production - sputum is the sticky substance you cough up, especially during inflammation and infection. It is produced in the airways and contains mucus, white blood cells, and pathogens or foreign substances.
Other symptoms that may accompany bronchitis coughs and sputum are:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain as a result of coughing
- Sore throat
Acute bronchitis may cause similar symptoms to a common cold in the first few days, including fever. Fever is less common in the days after the onset of acute bronchitis.2
Chronic bronchitis can be caused by prolonged exposure to irritants or contaminants that impair the functioning of the cells in the airways. Examples include:3
- Cigarette smoke
- Chemical fumes
- Biomass smoke
These contaminants cause goblet cells in the airways to secrete excess mucus. The mucus cannot be effectively removed because the ‘sweeping’ function of ciliary cells is damaged. Therefore, bronchitis results in excess sputum production, which can irritate the throat and cause coughing. Excess mucus in the airway can also block airflow and cause difficulty in breathing.
Acute bronchitis is most commonly caused by viral infections – for example, influenza viruses (flu viruses) and rhinoviruses (cold viruses). Only about 1-10% of acute bronchitis cases are due to bacterial infections.2 Some health conditions also increase the risks for bronchitis, for example:3
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) - the reflux of stomach acid into the trachea and bronchi can trigger coughs and cause inflammation in the airways.4
- Asthma and other long-term respiratory conditions
- Allergic rhinitis
What Helps You Feel Better When You Have Bronchitis?
Acute bronchitis normally gets better within a week or so. Medicine is not always needed, although it may help in relieving symptoms. As for chronic bronchitis, there is currently no cure and patients may have to rely on medications to alleviate the symptoms. NHS also suggests patients with chronic bronchitis adopt a healthy lifestyle to help improve the symptoms, such as eating a balanced diet, practising regular exercise and quitting smoking.
List of medications
While acute bronchitis symptoms usually subside on their own, they can still be irritating and can cause inconvenience to your daily life. Here is a list of over-the-counter medicines that may help relieve your symptoms:
Expectorants are drugs that help loosen your sputum and make it easier to cough up. This helps remove sputum and prevent it from irritating the throat, therefore relieving coughs. An example of a commonly used expectorant for easing bronchitis cough is guaifenesin.5
Cough suppressants such as codeine and dextromethorphan can help in reducing coughs.6 It is not recommended for patients with wet coughs (coughs with sputum) to use cough suppressants as they can make it more difficult to cough up sputum. Cough suppressants should not be given to children below 4 years old.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
NSAIDs are a class of drugs that have anti-inflammatory, pain and fever-relieving functions. These are commonly used for alleviating fever and chest pain in patients with bronchitis.7 They may not be suitable for people who have asthma or people allergic to NSAIDs.
Patients with bronchitis often have inflamed and narrowed airways that hinder airflow. Bronchodilators help widen the airways by relaxing the airway muscles, therefore relieving breathlessness.
When using the above-mentioned over-the-counter medications, you should always read the instructions and consult your GP about the dosage for your symptoms.
Sometimes, antibiotics are prescribed to patients with acute bronchitis. However, their effectiveness is not likely to be high.8 This is because most acute bronchitis cases are caused by viral infections, and antibiotics are not effective against viruses. Antibiotics should be used for patients who have bronchitis due to bacterial infection. Inappropriate use of antibiotics to treat bronchitis can lead to adverse effects (e.g. diarrhoea and nausea) and could cause resistance to antibiotics.2
Will ibuprofen help bronchitis?
Ibuprofen is a type of commonly used NSAID.
Ibuprofen may be able to relieve the symptoms of bronchitis, particularly fever and chest pain due to inflammation. There were suggestions that ibuprofen can moderately reduce the severity and amount of coughs, even though some researchers question its effectiveness in doing so.9 You should get advice from your GP before using ibuprofen for bronchitis, especially if you are allergic to NSAIDs or have asthma.
Treatment and home remedies
There may be no cure for bronchitis. However, there are some methods that you can try at home to relieve bronchitis symptoms, mainly cough and sputum production.
- Honey - Honey helps to soothe a sore throat and to relieve bronchitis coughs by reducing the severity and amount of coughs.2
- Drink more water - Water helps sputum be more easily removed.
- Use a humidifier or inhale steam (e.g. warm shower) - The moist air that you breathe in helps make sputum less sticky, which makes it easier to be removed.
- Getting enough rest
- Stop smoking
- Avoid irritants
When to seek medical attention?
If you experience the following, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible:
- A cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks.
- High fever (>38℃) for 3 days or more.
- Breathing difficulties.
- Producing sputum with blood.
Bronchitis can worsen and contribute to pneumonia; therefore, it is important that you get treated immediately if your symptoms persist.
Bronchitis is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes that causes coughing, sputum production, and other accompanying symptoms. There are several over-the-counter medications that can help relieve bronchitis symptoms, such as NSAIDs, expectorants, cough suppressants, and bronchodilators. Ibuprofen is a commonly used NSAID that may help alleviate fever and chest pain caused by bronchitis. You should get advice from your GP regarding the dosage and side effects if you wish to use ibuprofen to treat bronchitis. There are also some home remedies that you can try if your symptoms are mild. You should seek medical attention promptly if your symptoms are not improving, if you have had a high fever for more than 3 days, or if you are feeling breathless.
- Mejza F, Gnatiuc L, Buist AS, Vollmer WM, Lamprecht B, Obaseki DO, et al. Prevalence and burden of chronic bronchitis symptoms: results from the BOLD study. Eur Respir J [Internet]. 2017 Nov 23 [cited 2022 Oct 12];50(5):1700621. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5699921/
- Kinkade S, Long NA. Acute bronchitis. afp [Internet]. 2016 Oct 1 [cited 2022 Oct 12];94(7):560–5. Available from: https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2016/1001/p560.html
- Kim V, Criner GJ. Chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Am J Respir Crit Care Med [Internet]. 2013 Feb [cited 2022 Oct 12];187(3):228–37. Available from: https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/10.1164/rccm.201210-1843CI
- Hasegawa K, Sato S, Tanimura K, Fuseya Y, Uemasu K, Hamakawa Y, et al. Gastroesophageal reflux symptoms and nasal symptoms affect the severity of bronchitis symptoms in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Respiratory Investigation [Internet]. 2018 May 1 [cited 2022 Oct 14];56(3):230–7. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212534518300054
- Albrecht HH, Dicpinigaitis PV, Guenin EP. Role of guaifenesin in the management of chronic bronchitis and upper respiratory tract infections. Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine [Internet]. 2017 Dec 11 [cited 2022 Oct 13];12(1):31. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s40248-017-0113-4
- Treating acute bronchitis [Internet]. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2020 [cited 2022 Oct 13]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK458286/
- Raherison C, Poirier R, Daurès JP, Romand P, Grignet JP, Arsac P, et al. Lower respiratory tract infections in adults: non-antibiotic prescriptions by GPs. Respiratory Medicine [Internet]. 2003 Sep 1 [cited 2022 Oct 14];97(9):995–1000. Available from: https://www.resmedjournal.com/article/S0954-6111(03)00030-1/fulltext
- Tackett KL, Atkins A. Evidence-based acute bronchitis therapy. Journal of Pharmacy Practice [Internet]. 2012 Dec [cited 2022 Oct 13];25(6):586–90. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0897190012460826
- Llor C, Moragas A, Bayona C, Morros R, Pera H, Plana-Ripoll O, et al. Efficacy of anti-inflammatory or antibiotic treatment in patients with non-complicated acute bronchitis and discoloured sputum: randomised placebo controlled trial. BMJ [Internet]. 2013 Oct 4 [cited 2022 Oct 13];347:f5762. Available from: https://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f5762