Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 26, 2019

Bronchitis blues

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

In late September I suffered one of the many colds that have plagued me over the years. Unlike most people who soldier on with Nyquil, I am usually barely able to get out of bed. They tend to form a predictable and woeful pattern. The first day or two begins with a sore throat that makes it difficult to swallow or speak. Then, the next phase migrates to the nasal passages with constant sneezing, sniffling, and feeling miserable that can last up to five days. The final phase, occurring in at least three of four colds, is a “wet” cough that yields yellow sputum and makes sleeping difficult. Add these phases together and you are talking about a week and a half of suffering.

In early October, the cold ran its course and life returned to normal, lasting for about five days, if memory serves me right. However, unaccountably, the final phase of the cold returned  on the sixth day. Then, for another five days, I had a recurrence of the cold’s “wet” cough that showed no signs of abating. At this point, my wife pressured me to go to one of those walk-in CityMD clinics to see what was going on. I generally don’t like going for exams and tend to stick my head in the sand like an ostrich. She, on the other hand, probably relies on them too much.

After using a stethoscope for about two minutes, the CityMD physician tells me that my lungs reveal an “abnormal” condition and that he needs to x-ray me to check for pneumonia. About twenty minutes after the x-ray, he said that I tested negative for pneumonia so the diagnosis was bronchitis instead, a viral-based illness for which antibiotics, the normal medication for bacteria-based pneumonia, were useless, if not ill-advised. As most of you know, there is a tendency to overprescribe antibiotics, which leads to bacteria developing a resistance and hence becoming more deadly.

He prescribed benzonatate, a cough suppressant that can actually be purchased OTC. But unfortunately, there is no medication that can halt the inflammation of the bronchial tubes that was producing the wet coughs. After taking benzonatate for a week, it did not even suppress the coughing. Perhaps that is just as well since some physicians believe that the best thing is to cough up the sputum that lines the bronchial tubes and make breathing easier. After the benzonatate ran out, I started taking Mucinex but gave up after it too did nothing to relieve the coughing. I also had decided that it was probably best to just keep coughing and spit out the sputum. Ironically, doctors call this wet cough “productive”. Productive not in these sense of vitamins keeping you healthy but in the sense of producing sputum.

Another odd bit of terminology. I have what they call acute bronchitis, which is distinguished from chronic bronchitis that afflicts many smokers and those living in highly air-polluted cities. So, what’s the alternative to acute bronchitis? Moderate bronchitis? It turns out that all bronchitis, except for the chronic kind, is acute. Don’t ask me why. What I can tell you is that it can last up to three weeks and I am now exactly at that point. This morning I had a couple of wet coughs but am pretty sure that by tomorrow or Monday at the latest I should be 100 percent.

When I learned that I had bronchitis, I had no idea of what this meant anatomically. The word bronchial tube summons up the image of something like the trachea, also called the windpipe. I assumed that the trachea led to the bronchial tubes, which then entered the lungs. But I had no idea that once they entered the lungs they became like the roots of a tree, growing narrower and narrower the deeper they penetrated the lungs. I could understand after seeing a graphic like this how they could produce such a large amount of sputum. If only medical science could figure out a way to reduce or better yet end the inflammation, I’d have a lot less to worry about. As with any illnesses produced by a virus, that’s easier said than done

If you factor in my head cold, I have been ailing for a full month this fall. It means that I could not go out for exercise or to see a film. I have been meaning to see “Joker” and weigh in on the controversy but just couldn’t chance getting worse. Although I feel a little weird even bothering to write about this illness in light of the real horrors many FB friends are enduring, including Neil Davidson’s battle with a stage 4 brain tumor, it does cast a pall over my generally carefree life.

When my mother was my age and in relatively good shape except for a growing crankiness that a young friend of hers attributed to old age, she came down with pneumonia twice. I never gave much thought to how she got it but assumed it was because she wasn’t “taking care of herself”. Looking back in retrospect, her life-style was not that much different than mine other than eating the wrong foods and too much of them, as well as being totally sedentary. Despite that, she lived to eighty-seven and I will be fine with matching that. It doesn’t seem out of the question since I have her genes rather than my father’s. Like me, she suffered brutal colds over the years and likely ended up with pneumonia like I ended up with bronchitis.

I told the doctor at CityMD that I didn’t understand how I could have gotten bronchitis just five days after my cold had ended. He told me that it was a weather change that could have done it. I didn’t want to tell him that this sounded like nonsense but I still can’t explain how a virus could have invaded my bronchial tubes out of the blue. I am sure it was related to the cold but I have no idea how. In discussing this with my wife, who is obviously concerned about my health, I told her that I had to take strict measures to prevent getting a cold ever again. This means being very conscious of not touching my mouth or nose with my fingers when I am out shopping or at a film screening. And when I get home, using Purell immediately.

During the first week of my illness, when I was feeling most desperate, I decided to buy CBD oil which is a derivative of the hemp plant that supposedly has medical uses. On October 16th, the NY Times ran an article on the benefits of CBD that reported on its value in reducing depression, insomnia and other neural disorders. Out of curiosity, I googled “CBD bronchitis” and found a number of articles recommending it as a home remedy. I spent $24 for a tiny bottle and urge you not to waste your money, at least if you get bronchitis. In fact, bronchitis is one of the most common ailments, especially for geezers like me, and just something you have to get used to unless you are like me and ready to take preventive measures to avoid three weeks of suffering.

As part of my search for some relief, I went to the NY Times archives and tried to find some remedies that might work. I figured that the Gray Lady might be reliable since it tends to have useful health articles, especially from Jane Brody who is a couple of years older than me and addresses geriatric issues in her weekly Tuesday column.

What I found shocked me. There were 5,107 articles about famous people who had come down with bronchitis, mostly the elderly like me. Among those listed in the first couple of dozen are: Konrad Adenauer, Boris Yeltsin, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Paul Robeson. None of them died from bronchitis but around half were hospitalized, a routine treatment for powerful heads of state (except for Robeson.)

About six months ago, I was crossing 88th Street on Third Avenue in the afternoon when I stepped into a shallow pothole and fell on my face, like a tree that had just been chopped down. Fortunately, I caught myself before hitting the pavement so the blow was not bad enough to break a bone. My glasses were broken but I was able to salvage the lenses. I’ll never forget the crowd of people standing over me asking if I was all right. I felt more embarrassed about the whole thing than anything else.

From that point on, I am always very watchful crossing the street but continue to wonder how I could have tripped. It finally dawned on me that I am not 35 years old any more. As with the bronchitis, I have to watch my step. Life is better for me than it has ever been with a marriage now in its seventeenth year to a Turkish woman who has a tenured position in the CUNY system. My fondest hope is to live as long as my mother since the next dozen years can really be great as long as I can avoid the potholes and the viruses.


  1. Trotsky said that old age was the most unexpected thing that happens to a man, but he must have had pretty good health as it crept up, because most of the people our age I know have had lots of warning signals like the one you now have. My assumption is that our immune systems are giving out. And people our age should be … annoyed … that, if we can just avoid a big war or something equivalent for another generation or two, most of these things will have gone the way of smallpox and polio. They already would have if we had not been spending umpty trillion dollars every year on planes that can fly backwards and shoot each other down at fifty miles distance adn other socially-useful technology.

    Comment by doug1943 — October 26, 2019 @ 7:16 pm

  2. Presuming you take D3, Sambucus Nigra (black elderberry) syrup, zinc swabs, curcumin, garlic, tree fungi and plenty of chicken broth with many purple, yellow, red and chard, bok choy, Napa, arugula, turnip greens, leeks…

    Comment by Philo Beddoh — October 26, 2019 @ 8:23 pm

  3. I have had three doses of flu/bronchitis/whatever this year with all the symptoms you describe. I was proper fed up with the last one. I get the flu shot every year but its effectiveness is limited to about 20% in our age group. Thank you God.

    re falling Do balancing exercises. Because I am on blood thinners a fall is very dangerous for me. What happened to you would likely kill me. Apart from that travel well Lou. We may yet get to see the Revolution.

    Much l&a


    Comment by Gary MacLennan — October 26, 2019 @ 10:52 pm

  4. Louis, sorry you’re suffering; I’ve had those too. I have no cure, but a few palliatives that have helped me are:
    — 1, gargling with salt water (preferably warm), to simply wash away the germ/virus-infested phlegm that lines the mouth and throat, several times daily;
    — 2, washing out the nasal passages with a Neti Pot (with a mixture of pure warm water and the one of the packets of bicarbonate of soda + salt sold with or in addition to the Neti Pot), this both flushes out germ/virus-infested mucus (which otherwise drips down into the throat) and works against allergic/inflammation reaction of nasal tissue to help open up the airway;
    — 3, chicken soup! (you knew this already) because of it’s magic for the belly and gut, and because its steam in your face helps with softening the mucus-gunk and opening the airway;
    — 4 a vaporizer for trying-to-sleep time, adding mentholated petroleum jelly to the vaporizer outlet can menthol to the steam you inhale and help give a feeling of greater relief, steam inhalation is always a mucus-softening (for easier post-nasal drip) airway opening tactic;
    — 5, mentholated “cough drops” (candy really), menthol is the useful ingredient so buy those drops with the highest dose of menthol, I found one variety of Halls (brand) drops to be the champ in this regard, sucking on such drops gives you a burst of menthol in your throat and upper bronchial tubes that can feel great, but does not last for long enough (everything helps!);
    — 6 a “Plan B” remedy I use when I’m really desperate (in addition to all the above) is to take an allergy pill, specifically an OTC 4 mg chlortimeton (Chlorpheniramine maleate), this gives 4 hour allergy “relief” (reduces histamines in the blood, which cause inflammation and mucus/stuffiness), but drowsiness can linger for longer (~6 hours);
    — 7 Fluticasone Propionate nasal spray, 50 mcg (available both by Rx and OTC, amazingly) is good (relatively) for relieving nasal congestion and allergic inflammation (and cold germ/virus infections seem to always trigger such allergic reactions, themselves autoimmune responses that are not always helpful), this is useful on its own, but recommended “after Neti Pot use for nighttime congestion or…daily for general allergies.” I have been using tactic 7 in place of tactic 6 this last year (I haven’t tried doing both at once, and am not sure that would be a good idea), no lingering grogginess with this one; the whole point of going after nasal congestion/infection is that the germs/viruses migrate from the schnoz down to the throat and then into the lungs, an you want to prevent that;
    — 8 a “Plan C” more speculative addition to all the above is to take an OTC anti-inflammation NSAID pill, (Ibuprofen, “Motrin” and its clones), I have felt relief doing so (placebo or real effect? not sure, I tend to think real), by a reduction of inflammation of the nasal and mouth/throat linings, and hence improved breathing, but don’t exceed dosage limits as this class of drugs puts stress on the liver;
    — 9 “sleep” (i.e., attempt to) in a more upright position, so gravity does not plug up the nose and close down the epiglottis (back-of-throat flap over the windpipe), so nasal drip (out the front) and post-nasal drip (down the throat) are less likely to entirely clog the passages they are coursing through (most annoyingly);
    — 10 take a hot steamy shower (if not in a drought), for steam inhalation and muscle relief;
    — 11 hot wet towels (or wrapping a gel hot-pack) placed on the face over the nasal cavities can soften mucus, reduce inflammation, and give very welcome relief (and are entirely drug-free;
    — 12 old-fashioned tactic was to rub Vicks Vap-o-Rub (mentholated petroleum jelly), or a “mustard plaster” (haven’t had one of the latter in over 60 years) can help send relieving heat-sensation into the chest as well as putting menthol vapor near the nose for inhalation;
    — 13 for prevention: frequent hand-washing with soap, never stick fingers into eyes (to clear away motes and hairs) so as not to deposit germs/viruses to the internal tissues surface layers (ears, eyes, nose, throat, and eventually lungs);
    — 14 wash face in warm water, this being a variant of several of the warm water wash techniques noted above;
    — 15 avoid sudden drastic changes of temperature (e.g., going from a hot building to a frigid outdoors without a great deal of warm, muffling clothing), also avoid being in very dry atmospheres (since air moisture tens to clear out airborne dust, pollen, allergens), and note that indoor heating drys out room air especially during cold weather, since cold air generally has a lower humidity than warm air;
    — 16 finally, try to eat: “feed a cold, starve a fever” is accurate folk wisdom, metabolic heat (from food, obviously) tends to kill germs/viruses through many mechanisms, you “starve a fever” because the problem there is too much heat which could cause major harm if in excess;
    — 17 even more finally, if experiencing asthma (bronchial constriction cutting off breathing), and sleep is impossible anyway, then drink coffee, since caffeine is a bronchial dilator, I got this from an emergency room doctor during a mid-night trip with a asthmatic child, it worked great (numerous times)) for breathing (opening bronchial tubes) but the patient is wired for hours after, and the minder/parent becomes wrecked from lack of sleep; but breathing is the #1 consideration;
    — 18 afterthought: the Flu shot also tends to reduce the incidence of colds, in my experience this is quite true, and once I had my yearly flu shot (these days the extra-dose version for seniors) I got fewer (many years no) colds from my minor aged child, which she picked up frequently at school (the population of children is a miasma of germs and viruses! sad but true, modern practice is to forbid child visitors to hospital wards with older patients);
    — 19 another afterthought: obviously, wash the patient’s clothing, bed-clothing, linens, towels often (perhaps using hot water) to get rid of germs/viruses.
    — 20 even more another afterthought: take Vitamin C (I do this daily), which message Linus Pauling made it the mission of his later years to transmit (germ/virus killing attributed to an antioxident action), many consider this ineffective, spurious, pointless, but I think it harmless at worst (in not insane doses) so I do it, and I believe it helps. Linus Pauling won two unshared Nobel Prizes, one for chemistry (1954?), one for peace (1962?), he also almost unraveled the molecular structure of DNA before Watson and Crick made their successful breakthrough.

    OK, get better, experiment, take data, and then report on the results to help advance the cloudy science of cold-relief.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — October 27, 2019 @ 12:19 am

  5. Louis, I used yo suffer from Bronchitis until the age of 45, but strangely it disappeared after I reduced my cigarettes from 10 to 3 daily. None of the medicines gave me relief. Another factor might be the warm and dry weather of Hyderabad, which is on the Deccan Plateau, which helps in keeping the lungs relatively dry.

    Comment by Vijaya Kumar Marla — October 27, 2019 @ 1:43 am

  6. Louis – “I feel your pain” –truly. I’m 81 now and just recovered from my first episode of viral bronchitis about 3 months ago. It was moderately distressing and lasted about 3 weeks. Haven’t had it again. In addition I have noticed that, as I age, I am more susceptible to the effects of a draft or even moderate cold temperatures. I deal with all of this by the simple remedy of making sure I get enough sleep in order to ensure I keep my “resistance” up. The majority of the population is sleep-deprived. If you are tired because of all your activities and writing, it would pay to ensure that you are not tired. An easy way to find out is to drink a small glass or two of wine and see it it makes you feel tired. What the wine does is to bring out your underlying tiredness. I always get a good 7-8 hours of sleep per night AND take a LONG nap in the afternoon — anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2+ hours. I even get back into my pjs. I also ensure NO ONE can disturb me when I take my daily nap. I put a sign on my door (I live in a condo) – Please do not disturb. I shut off the sound of my computer and iPad. And, importantly, I take my phone off the hook. No sounds come in to interfere with my sleep. Give it a try. If you truly don’t have any daily tiredness, I don’t know what to recommend.

    Comment by uh...clem — October 27, 2019 @ 5:42 am

  7. You go to CityMD? Don’t you have a regular doctor? If you did, and went every year for a check up, you might have avoided this.

    Comment by Maria Plant — October 27, 2019 @ 10:23 am

  8. Best wishes and get well soon.

    No advice, although I’m wondering whether, if you could spend a few of the warmer months somewhere like Sullivan County it might take a bit of the load off your respiratory system.

    I used to swear by echinacea, but then I stopped taking it and I found that I could go on swearing just fine without it.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — October 27, 2019 @ 4:14 pm

  9. Hi Lou: When you get better, you might want to get checked out for chronic asthma. Chronic just means all the time or long-term, acute just means short term. Bullshit medical jargon to make patients feel like the doctor must be smart. In any case, asthma, chronic pulmonary inflammation due to allergies to stuff in the air, is often undiagnosed and is often the starting point for viral and bacterial infections. Chronic asthma can be managed pretty well with inhalers that deliver small doses of a bronchodilator and a steroid. This kind of inhaler is different than an emergency inhaler designed for acute asthma attacks. You can combine daily use of one of these long-term inhalers with Montelukast. Since you live in a place where there is a lot of heavy particle air pollution, you cannot completely counteract inflammation in your lungs. You could move out of New York City, but that would require reinventing yourself, so it’s probably better to medicate yourself and stay put. All of the palliative ideas above are good, many are based on the simple dictum “stay hydrated”. In any case, get better fast.

    Comment by Ted Zuur — October 27, 2019 @ 5:07 pm

  10. Hope you continue to feel better, Louis!

    Comment by Bob Rosengard — October 28, 2019 @ 1:24 am

  11. I’ve ridden my genes happily into my nineties. I feel, maybe irrationally, that avoiding too much imbibing of health hints may have helped. Cheers, à votre santé.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 28, 2019 @ 2:02 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: