Bronchitis happens when your bronchial tubes become swollen and inflamed. Your bronchial tubes are responsible for delivering air from your windpipe to your lungs. Bronchitis makes it harder for air to pass in and out of your lungs.
There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. When people say bronchitis, they’re usually talking about the acute form.
Symptoms are similar for both acute and chronic bronchitis, but someone with chronic bronchitis might not experience certain signs of a cold, such as fever and chills. A nagging cough is the hallmark sign of bronchitis.
Read on to learn more about the symptoms of bronchitis and when you should seek help.
Bronchitis makes it harder to pass air in and out of your lungs. Lung tissue often becomes aggravated, and you may develop more mucus.
Bronchitis might start with a dry, bothersome cough that turns into a productive cough. A productive cough means you’ll produce mucus that’s clear, white, yellowish, or green in color.
Other symptoms include:
- sore throat
- shortness of breath
- chest discomfort or tightness
People with acute bronchitis may also have symptoms of a fever, such as headache, body aches, or chills.
Cough is a signature symptom of bronchitis. At first, your cough will probably be dry and unproductive. As the condition progresses, you’ll probably cough up mucus.
The cough may linger even after other symptoms have resolved.
Your mucus might start out looking white. Often, the color changes from white to green or yellow. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have a bacterial infection. It only indicates that cells related to inflammation have moved into your airway.
Both kids and adults can develop bronchitis. In children, the most common cause is a virus.
Children with bronchitis typically experience the same symptoms as adults do, but very young children might also vomit or gag when they cough.
Acute bronchitis most often develops after you’ve had a viral or bacterial infection. But, other irritants, such as smoke, dust, or fumes, can also cause acute bronchitis. Acute bronchitis symptoms usually subside after 7 to 10 days, but you might still cough for several weeks.
Chronic bronchitis happens when you have repeated attacks of bronchitis. It’s defined as having a productive cough that lasts at least three months, with recurring episodes for at least two straight years. Smoking causes more than 80 percent of all cases of chronic bronchitis.
Sometimes, people who have frequent episodes of acute bronchitis go on to develop chronic bronchitis.
Bronchitis can happen after you have a cold or the flu. These are both common respiratory illnesses, but they’re caused by different viruses.
Typically, symptoms of the flu are much more severe than those of the common cold. But, a lot of the symptoms are the same.
People with the flu might have:
- sore throat
- runny nose
- body aches
If you have a cold, you’re more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose.
A special test that’s taken within the first few days of being sick can tell your doctor if you have the flu.
Bronchitis and pneumonia both affect the lungs and cause similar symptoms, but they’re different illnesses. While bronchitis affects the bronchial tubes, pneumonia affects the tiny air sacs in your lungs, causing them to fill with fluid.
Pneumonia is usually more serious than bronchitis and is often caused by bacteria rather than a virus. But, you can still develop viral pneumonia.
In addition to bronchitis symptoms, people with pneumonia might also experience:
- severe breathing trouble
- chest pain
- heavy sweating
- shaking chills
- confusion, usually in older adults
Acute bronchitis usually goes away without any treatment in a couple of weeks.
You could benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation if you have chronic bronchitis. Pulmonary rehabilitation is a breathing exercise program.
If you have additional underlying medical conditions, you might also need to take an inhaler or other medication to reduce inflammation in your lungs.
You may not be able to avoid getting bronchitis, but certain measures can help lower your risk. These include:
- avoiding smoke and other irritants
- getting the seasonal flu vaccine
- washing your hands to prevent the spread of germs
- getting plenty of rest
- following a healthy diet
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to seek help if your cough:
- doesn’t go away after three weeks
- interrupts your sleep
- produces discolored mucus or blood
- is accompanied by wheezing, shortness of breath, or a high fever (above 100.4 F)
Seek medical help right away if you have symptoms of bronchitis and you’re older or have another medical problem, such as heart trouble, asthma, cancer, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
If your doctor suspects bronchitis, they might perform a:
- physical exam
- spit test
- blood test to check for infection
- pulmonary function test
- chest X-ray
Bronchitis is a common illness that can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or certain irritants. You can have acute bronchitis, which lasts only a short time, or chronic bronchitis, which causes frequent episodes that last for years.
Usually, acute bronchitis will go away on its own. But, you should see your doctor if your symptoms are severe or persistent.