Acute Bronchitis: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and More

What is bronchitis?

Fast facts

  1. Bronchitis is inflammation of your bronchial tubes.
  2. The most common symptom for acute bronchitis is a cough that produces mucus.
  3. Acute bronchitis lasts less than 10 days, but symptoms can last for a few weeks.
  4. This condition is contagious and can spread through droplets from coughing, sneezing, or talking.

Your bronchial tubes are responsible for delivering air to your lungs. When these tubes become inflamed, mucus can build up. This is called bronchitis, and it causes symptoms of coughing, shortness of breath, low fever, and more.

Bronchitis can be acute or chronic:

Acute bronchitis may last less than 10 days, but the coughing can continue for several weeks while the inflammation is clearing.

Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, can last for several weeks and usually comes back. This is more common in people with asthma or emphysema.

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, approximately 5 percent of adults report having acute bronchitis each year. The same article states that acute bronchitis is the ninth most common reason why adults visit their doctors. People with acute bronchitis tend to miss one to a few days of work or school.

Read on to learn more about symptoms, causes, and treatment of acute bronchitis.



Symptoms of acute bronchitis

A cough that produces mucus is the most common symptom of acute bronchitis. Called a productive cough, it usually develops after the symptoms of a cold or flu, which include:

  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • fatigue
  • sneezing
  • easily cold
  • back and muscle aches
  • fever of 100°F to 100.4°F (37.7°C to 38°C)

After the initial infection, you’ll likely develop a cough, usually dry first, and then productive. This signals the infection has developed into acute bronchitis.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis
cough lasts from 10 days to three weeks
mucus small amounts produced from coughing
wheezing follows coughing
fever in severe cases, may be higher than 100.4°F (38°C)

You may also notice a change of color in the mucus from white to green or yellow. This doesn’t indicate whether the infection is viral or bacterial. It only means that your immune system is at work.

Older people may also experience shortness of breath and confusion rather than a fever and a cough.

Emergency symptoms

Call your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms in addition to the ones listed previously:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • a deep, barking cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain
  • a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • a cough that last more than 10 days


Is bronchitis contagious?

Acute bronchitis is contagious and can spread through droplets from coughing, sneezing, or talking. Chronic bronchitis is not. This is because acute bronchitis is caused by an infection that lasts 7 to 10 days. Chronic bronchitis is due to long-term inflammation, usually caused by irritants such as smoking.


Causes and risks

Causes and risk factors of acute bronchitis

Causes of acute bronchitis include viral and bacterial infections, environmental factors, and other lung conditions.

Viral infection: Viruses cause 85 to 95 percent of acute bronchitis cases in adults. The same viruses that cause the common cold or flu can cause acute bronchitis.

Read more: Causes of the common cold »

Bacterial infection: In rare cases, bacterial bronchitis develops after a viral infection. This can result from infections by bacteria such as Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Chlamydia pneumoniae, and Bordetella pertussis (which is responsible for whooping cough).

Irritants: Breathing in irritants such as smoke, smog, chemical fumes, and more can cause inflammation in your windpipe and bronchial tubes. This causes similar symptoms to acute bronchitis.

Other factors: People with chronic bronchitis or asthma sometimes develop acute bronchitis. In this case, acute bronchitis isn’t likely to be contagious as it’s not caused by an infection.

Certain factors that can increase your risk include:

  • inhaling cigarette smoke, including secondhand smoke
  • having low resistance to illnesses or a weakened immune system
  • having gastric reflux
  • being frequently exposed to irritants, including dust or chemical fumes
  • not getting vaccinations for the flu, pneumonia, and whooping cough
  • being older than 50


Diagnosing acute bronchitis

In many cases, acute bronchitis goes away without treatment. If you see your doctor for an acute bronchitis diagnosis, they will look at your symptoms during a physical examination.

Your doctor will listen to your lungs as you breathe. They may hear wheezing. They’ll also you ask about your coughs — for example, how frequent they are, whether they produce mucus, or whether you have other problems breathing. They may also ask about recent colds or viruses.

If your doctor is uncertain about your diagnosis, they may suggest a chest X-ray. This helps eliminate pneumonia, which produces a crackle or congestion in your lungs and shortness of breath. Blood test and cultures might be necessary if your doctor thinks you have a secondary infection.



Home treatment for acute bronchitis

Treatment for acute bronchitis usually involves home care.

Do this
  • Take OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), which may soothe your sore throat.
  • Get a humidifier to create moisture in the air. This can help loosen mucus in your nasal passages and chest, making it easier to breathe.
  • Drink plenty of liquids, such as water or tea, to thin out mucus. This makes it easier to cough it up or blow it out through your nose.
  • Add ginger to tea or hot water. Ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory that can relieve irritated and inflamed bronchial tubes.
  • Consume dark honey to soothe your cough. Honey also soothes your throat and has antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Talk to your doctor if you’re wheezing or having trouble breathing. They can prescribe inhaled medication to open your airways.

Read more: Is it safe to exercise with bronchitis? »



Treatment with antibiotics

Antibiotics aren’t recommended for people with acute bronchitis. Antibiotics provide minimal benefit compared to the increased risk of antibiotic resistance. One analysis found that there was no difference in improvement between azithromycin and vitamin C treatments.

Acute bronchitis vs. pneumonia

If you have a high risk for lung infection (pneumonia), your doctor may prescribe antibiotics when it’s cold and flu season. Acute bronchitis may develop into pneumonia if the bacteria multiples and spreads to the lungs. Pneumonia is often ruled out if you don’t show symptoms of rapid breathing, fever, fast heartbeat, and lung inflammation.


In children

Acute bronchitis in children

Children are more likely to develop acute bronchitis than the average adult. This is partially due to risk factors specific to them, which may include:

  • increased exposure to viruses, for example, at schools and on playgrounds
  • asthma
  • allergies
  • chronic sinusitis
  • enlarged tonsils
  • inhaled debris, including dust

Symptoms in children

Children with acute bronchitis are likely to experience:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • body aches
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • soreness or a feeling of tightness in their chest
  • a cough, which may bring up white, yellow, or green mucus
  • gagging or vomiting, caused by coughing

Treatment for children

Acute bronchitis treatment for children will focus on relieving symptoms. Treatments include:

  • acetaminophen (Tylenol), for a fever and aches
  • decongestants
  • increased fluid intake
  • bed rest

You shouldn’t give over-the-counter (OTC) medications to children younger than 6 years old without a doctor’s approval. Avoid cough medications as well, as they may not be safe.


Outlook for people with acute bronchitis

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

Those with a weakened immune system due to a health condition or older age should take special care to avoid infectious illnesses. These groups are more likely to develop complications, such as acute respiratory failure or pneumonia, from acute bronchitis. Adopting preventive measures like regular hand-washing can help decrease this risk.



Preventing acute bronchitis

Do this
  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes if you’re around people with bronchitis.
  • Avoid sharing glasses or utensils.
  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, particularly during cold season.
  • Stop smoking or avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Eat a balanced diet to keep your body as healthy as possible.
  • Get vaccines for the flu, pneumonia, and whooping cough.
  • Limit exposure to air irritants such as dust, chemical fumes, and other pollutants. Wear a mask, if necessary.

There’s no way to completely prevent acute bronchitis because it has a variety of causes. But taking the steps mentioned above can decrease your risk.

Article Resources