Bronchitis and Exercise

Air passes through the lungs via branching airways that lead to air sacs, where gas exchange occurs. Bronchitis refers to inflammation of the lining of large to medium-sized airways, called bronchi. Acute bronchitis, commonly called a chest cold, is caused by a viral infection of the airways in more 90 percent of cases. A bacterial infection is sometimes to blame, particularly among people with preexisting health problems. Chronic bronchitis refers to long-standing inflammation of the bronchi, which is usually caused by smoking. Your exercise regimen may have to be tailored if you have bronchitis to avoid aggravating coughing and wheezing.

Coughing due to bronchitis can interfere with exercise. Credit: Liderina/iStock/Getty Images

Exercising With Acute Bronchitis

When you have a chest cold, inflammation of the bronchi causes a wet cough that typically lasts about 2 to 3 weeks. Wheezing also sometimes occurs, which typically disappears when phlegm in the airways is cleared by coughing. When you have acute bronchitis, the inflammation of your airways makes them more irritable, and coughing is easily triggered. Exercise doesn't make bronchitis worse, but vigorous activity that causes you to breathe deeply and rapidly is likely to trigger coughing. For your comfort, therefore, you might want to stick to less strenuous exercise until your cough goes away. Yoga, strength training, and light to moderate intensity walking, swimming or biking are good options if you feel up to exercising.

Resuming Your Normal Routine After Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is typically a mild illness that goes away within a few weeks without specific treatment. If you are otherwise healthy, you can usually resume your normal exercise routine as soon as you feel up to it. In some people, the airways remain more sensitive than normal for up to 8 weeks after a bout of acute bronchitis. If you find strenuous exercise with rapid breathing triggers coughing, you might want to reduce the intensity to a level you can tolerate without coughing. You can gradually increase your exercise intensity until you're back to your normal routine.

Exercising With Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Most people with chronic bronchitis also have some degree of emphysema, the other form of COPD. A long-term wet cough is the primary symptom of chronic bronchitis. Other symptoms include wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath, especially with physical exertion. The cough and shortness of breath associated with chronic bronchitis can make exercise difficult. However, exercise is an important recommended component of COPD treatment. COPD guidelines from the Global Initiation for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease, the American College of Chest Physicians, the American Thoracic Society and other professional medical organizations recommend supervised exercise training, which is usually part of a broader pulmonary rehabilitation program. If you have chronic bronchitis, talk with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program or altering your existing regimen.

Warnings and Precautions

In an otherwise healthy person, acute bronchitis is typically a mild illness. However, the illness can be more serious if you have a weakened immune system or preexisting lung disease, such as asthma or COPD. Contact your doctor if you have one of these conditions and develop symptoms of acute bronchitis to determine whether you require medical evaluation and treatment. Also seek medical care if your cough persists for longer than 3 weeks, or you have signs or symptoms that might indicate something more serious than a chest cold, such as pneumonia. These warning signs and symptoms include: -- chest pain or tightness -- fever higher than 100.5 F -- shortness of breath or difficulty catching your breath -- coughing up blood -- a rapid heart or breathing rate

Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.

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