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Kill your cough with water, not antibiotics

GEHA | November 22, 2023

The next time you feel a tickle in your throat or cough coming on, slow down.

As the weather turns cooler, it's not unusual to discover a cough or soreness in the chest. These symptoms may be caused by acute bronchitis.

Bronchitis is when the airways in the lungs swell and create mucus. Oxygen has a harder time moving through the restricted airway and collides with the mucus, causing you to cough. Typically, these symptoms last less than three weeks, if you don't have heart or lung problems or a weakened immune system.

In addition to coughs, you may experience the following symptoms while fighting bronchitis:

  • Soreness in chest
  • Fatigue
  • Mild headache
  • Mild body aches
  • Watering eyes
  • Sore throat

The symptoms of bronchitis may be similar to those for COVID-19. You may use viral tests like Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) performed by a health care provider or rapid at-home tests to determine if you are sick with COVID-19.

See your physician if you have any of the following symptoms. If you don't have a primary care physician, use the GEHA Find Care tool to locate an in-network physician near you.

  • Temperature greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Bloody mucus with cough
  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Symptoms persisting longer than three weeks
  • Frequent, consecutive bouts of bronchitis

In addition, GEHA makes it easier than ever for our members to receive health advice and access to convenient health care options. The GEHA 24-hour Nurse Advice Line is available to our members at $0 and can connect you to nurses who can help evaluate symptoms and determine an appropriate method of treatment, which may include home-based remedies, referral to an urgent care facility or walk-in clinic, or accessing our telemedicine service to speak with a physician. Call 888.257.4342 to speak to a nurse as needed, 24/7/265.Left untreated, bronchitis usually gets better on its own. Make sure you get plenty of rest and fluids, and use a clean humidifier, mist vaporizer or breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or shower. Drinking plenty of water helps thin the buildup and drainage in your lungs and throat, making it easier to clear them out.

Avoid taking antibiotics for acute bronchitis. As the name implies, antibiotics work by fighting bacteria. Bronchitis is caused by a virus, not a bacteria. Therefore, an antibiotic has no effect on bronchitis. Even worse, taking an antibiotic unnecessarily may lower how effective that antibiotic might be when you do need to take it in the future.

The next time you feel a tickle in your throat or cough coming on, slow down. Before rushing to get medicine, get more rest, drink more fluids and be patient to see if the condition improves on its own.

"Preventing and Treating Bronchitis." (PDF), Centers for Disease Control.
"Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis).", Centers for Disease Control, 1 July, 2021.
"Antibiotics.", National Institutes of Health, 14 January, 2022.
"Bronchitis.", Cleveland Clinic, 8 September, 2022.

This is a brief description of the features of Government Employees Health Association, Inc.'s medical plans. Before making a final decision, please read the GEHA Federal brochures. All benefits are subject to the definitions, limitations and exclusions set forth in the Federal brochures.

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