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Acute Bronchitis

Written by April Khan and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD on July 16, 2012

What Is Acute Bronchitis?

Your bronchial tubes are responsible for delivering air to your lungs. When these tubes become inflamed, mucus can build up. The coughing and shortness of breath this causes is known as bronchitis. People often develop acute bronchitis after a viral chest infection.

It is important to distinguish acute bronchitis from chronic bronchitis. Acute bronchitis usually lasts less than 10 days. However the coughing can continue for several weeks after the inflammation has cleared. Chronic bronchitis can last for several weeks and usually comes back.

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Causes of Acute Bronchitis

The most common cause of acute bronchitis is a viral upper respiratory infection. Both the common cold and influenza can lead to acute bronchitis. In rare cases, the bacterium that causes whooping cough can also cause acute bronchitis. This bacterium is called Bordetella pertussis.

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Symptoms of Acute Bronchitis

The symptoms of acute bronchitis are not specific. They mimic symptoms of other conditions such as chronic cough, chronic bronchitis, postnasal drip, and pneumonia. Therefore, acute diagnosis must always be diagnosed by a doctor.

Common symptoms of acute bronchitis include:

  • chronic cough, which may continue beyond 10 days and contain clear or colored mucus
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • low-grade fever (a high fever may be an indication of a secondary infection such as pneumonia)
  • chest pain
  • chest tightness
  • sore throat from persistent coughing

Children with acute bronchitis may experience:

  • runny nose
  • chills
  • back or muscle pain
  • sore throat

If you experience any of the following symptoms, call your doctor:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • deep, barking cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain
  • a fever of 100.4º F or higher
  • a cough that last more than 10 days

Diagnosing Acute Bronchitis

In many cases, acute bronchitis will go away on its own. There is usually no need for blood tests, X-rays, or cultures. However, if your physician is uncertain about your diagnosis, he may suggest additional testing. Tests might also be needed if your doctor thinks you have a secondary infection.

Treatment of Acute Bronchitis

You may think you need antibiotics to treat your bronchitis. However, antibiotics can not treat viral bronchitis. Therefore, you should not pressure your doctor for these drugs.

Only rarely can prescription medications treat the cause of viral bronchitis. Fortunately, there are home remedies which can relieve the symptoms.

  • Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen may soothe your sore throat.
  • Humidifiers create moisture in the air you breathe. This can help loosen mucus in your nasal passages and chest, making it easier to breathe.
  • Drinking plenty of liquids, such as water or tea, can help thin out mucus. This makes it easier to cough it up or blow it out through your nose.

Although prescriptions are not normally used for acute bronchitis, talk to your doctor if you are wheezing or having trouble breathing. He can prescribe inhaled medication to open your airways.

Prognosis of Acute Bronchitis

Usually the symptoms of acute bronchitis clear up within a few weeks. Occasionally, secondary infections can make it take longer to heal.

Acute bronchitis rarely has long-term health implications.

Preventing Acute Bronchitis

When you are around people with acute bronchitis, avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. These body parts are very susceptible to infection. You should also practice good hygiene. Wash your hands regularly and well, particularly during cold season. This can help you avoid viral infections.

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