Bronchitis is one of the most common types of chest colds. You may be interested to learn how antibiotics, even those regularly prescribed, are not always the best for treating bronchitis.

Antibiotics can be a lifesaving medication when used at the right time for the right reason.

They’re only effective when it comes to treating bacterial infections and infections caused by viruses can’t be cured or treated with these medications. In fact, using antibiotics against viral infections and other illnesses they aren’t designed to treat can actually make antibiotics less effective when you do need them.

Bronchitis is one of the most common types of chest cold, but this inflammation of the lower lungs can be caused by either a virus or bacteria. Bacterial bronchitis is less common, and it’s important to know which type of bronchitis you have if you’re considering taking antibiotics as treatment.

Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses.

These are usually the same viruses that cause other respiratory infections, such as influenza. Antibiotics should not be used to treat a case of acute bronchitis caused by a virus.

Less often, acute bronchitis can be caused by bacteria. Antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial bronchitis, but your healthcare professional may need to take a sample of the mucus you’re coughing up to correctly diagnose your bronchitis as viral or bacterial.

Bacterial bronchitis is most common in younger children, but bacterial causes of bronchitis aren’t usually considered until a few weeks into your illness.

Acute bronchitis will resolve on its own without prescription medications in most cases, regardless of whether it’s caused by a virus.

Since viral bronchitis is more common, it’s likely that your healthcare team will treat your bronchitis as a viral illness unless there’s reason to believe it’s caused by a bacterial infection or you aren’t getting better after a few weeks.

There are no diagnostic tests to distinguish between viral and bacterial bronchitis. Your doctor will rely on the appearance or color of your sputum as a way to determine which type of bronchitis you have.

Ruling out pneumonia is important since that can be successfully treated with antibiotics and is often caused by the same pathogens.

Antibiotics that are often prescribed for bronchitis may include:

  • macrolides (azithromycin)
  • fluoroquinolones (ciprofloxacin)
  • aminopenicillins (amoxicillin)
  • cephalosporins (cefdinir)

However, not everyone is advised to take antibiotics for all bronchitis.

There’s limited evidence on the benefits of using antibiotics to treat acute bronchitis.

The American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP) 2020 guidelines also recommend not giving immunocompetent adults antibiotics or other prescription medications on the basis that acute bronchitis is considered a self-limiting condition. Yet, many doctors often prescribe these medications anyway in an effort to help people.

You can consult your doctor and healthcare team for the best guidance on when antibiotics may be appropriate for treating different types of bronchitis.

Both viral and bacterial infections can be contagious, so acute bronchitis can be spread from person to person in many cases.

Chronic bronchitis — with a cough lasting 3 months or more — actually falls under the umbrella of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and this form of bronchitis is not contagious.

The main symptom of bronchitis is a dry-sounding but productive cough. You may cough up thick, colored mucus, and have other symptoms common in respiratory illnesses such as:

  • fever
  • congestion
  • fatigue
  • sore throat
  • hoarse voice
  • body aches

In severe cases of bronchitis, pain when breathing or coughing and shortness of breath are also possible.

No matter what the cause of your acute bronchitis is, most cases will get better on their own within a few weeks. For severe cases of viral bronchitis, your healthcare professional may also prescribe steroids or breathing treatments.

Beyond that, there’s a variety of home remedies you can try to help relieve the symptoms of viral or bacterial bronchitis as your body fights the infection. These include:

  • hot tea
  • honey
  • a humidifier
  • throat lozenges
  • over-the-counter coughing suppressants, decongestants, or expectorants
  • beta 2 agonists in the form of an inhaler or solution

How do steroids treat bronchitis?

Corticosteroids are often used to treat both acute and chronic bronchitis. They help to dilate or open the airways and reduce inflammation. Learn more here.

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The goal of bronchitis treatments is to reduce the severity of your cough and ease symptoms. However, you don’t want to suppress your cough too much since it’s the cough that will help move mucus out of your airway.

Medications like steroids and bronchodilators may be used to help clear and open your airways, but may cause side effects like:

Antibiotics, if used, can also come with side effects like allergic reactions, upset stomach, nausea, or diarrhea. Perhaps the most important is the risk of developing resistance to antibiotics if you use them for the wrong reason.

When this happens, bacteria change and become less susceptible to antibiotic medications, putting you at risk for more severe infections later on.

Antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial bronchitis, but they aren’t always necessary. Most cases of acute bronchitis will clear up without treatment, and even when they don’t, these infections are often caused by viruses.

Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections and should not be used due to the risk of developing antibiotic resistance and other side effects.

If your bronchitis isn’t improving after a few weeks, your doctor may consider a bacterial cause, a secondary bacterial infection like pneumonia, or even a new, ongoing medical condition like chronic bronchitis.