Bronchitis is inflammation in your bronchial tubes. It can be either acute or chronic. When this inflammation is acute — which means it’s a short-term issue — it may be contagious.

Acute bronchitis is commonly caused by an infection, which is what makes acute bronchitis contagious. The infection itself typically takes 7 to 10 days to leave your system, but you may continue coughing for a few weeks after the initial symptoms have passed.

Acute bronchitis often begins as an upper respiratory infection caused by the same viruses that are also responsible for causing colds and the flu.

While bronchitis can also be caused by bacterial infections, this type of transmission accounts for only about 5 percent of all cases.

Chronic bronchitis is inflammation in your bronchial tubes that can last for many years. It’s typically caused by smoking, but can also be due to prolonged exposure to other noxious irritants.

Individuals with chronic bronchitis often have a phlegmy cough. But as long as it’s not caused by an infection, it’s not contagious.

Acute bronchitis due to infection is often transmitted through microscopic, airborne droplets that contain a germ and are produced when someone speaks, sneezes, or coughs.

It can also be transmitted by shaking hands or other types of physical contact with a person who has the infection.

Many cases of acute bronchitis are diagnosed during flu season, so you may be able to prevent it or at least lessen your chances of getting it by receiving an annual flu shot.

Acute bronchitis caused by bacterial infections may be easily transmitted to people with compromised immune systems or chronic infections. Older people and small children may also be susceptible.

Some common types of bacteria which might cause bronchitis include:

  • Bordetella pertussis
  • Streptococcus species
  • Mycoplasma pneumonia

How long before I know I have it?

During the first couple of days of infection, the symptoms of acute bronchitis can mimic those of a cold or the flu. However, after a few days, you may notice symptoms like:

  • chest congestion
  • wheezing while breathing
  • a phlegmy cough

How long will I be contagious?

The length of time that you’re contagious has a lot to do with the type of virus that has caused your acute bronchitis.

Most people can actively pass the virus to others a few days, and possibly as long as a week, after infection.

How is bronchitis spread?

Acute bronchitis is mainly spread via coughing. When a person with bronchitis coughs, small droplets are released into the air. If you’re close enough to get those droplets in your mouth, nose, or eyes, you could contract the virus.

It’s also possible to get sick if you touch hands that are coated with these droplets (like when someone coughs into their hands and shakes your hand right after).

If you’re a smoker or have asthma, you may be more predisposed to developing acute bronchitis.

The symptoms of acute infectious bronchitis typically start with a feeling of being tired, a headache, coughing, a runny nose, and a sore throat.

While most of these symptoms usually start to fade within 1 to 2 weeks after onset, your coughing may continue for several weeks.

Other symptoms include:

  • wheezing
  • trouble breathing
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • phlegm (mucus) ranging from clear to yellowish-green
  • a low-grade fever

The most prevalent symptom of chronic bronchitis is a cough that lasts for 3 months or more. Many times, this cough will be “productive,” meaning you’ll cough up phlegm.

If your acute bronchitis is caused by a virus, the treatment is very similar to what a doctor would recommend for a cold or the flu: Get plenty of rest, and drink fluids.

Your doctor may also recommend an over-the-counter medication to bring down your fever, if you have one. Some people find humidifiers helpful as well.

Antibiotics do not work on viruses, so your doctor won’t prescribe them for you unless they determine that your bronchitis is bacterial.

Treating chronic bronchitis

Treating chronic bronchitis is a little more complicated and is usually focused on managing symptoms and stopping the condition from progressing. A few treatment options for chronic bronchitis include:

  • stopping smoking
  • bronchodilators, which can help increase the airway in the bronchial tubes
  • glucocorticoids, which can lower inflammation
  • phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors, which decrease inflammation and promote muscle relaxation

Acute bronchitis usually resolves on its own within several weeks. If you’re feeling very ill, you should check in with your doctor regardless of how long you’ve been sick.

If you have any of the following symptoms, you should call your doctor immediately:

  • fever over 100.4°F (38°C)
  • a cough that has lasted for more than 3 weeks
  • continued wheezing or shortness of breath that stops you from activities
  • discolored or bloody mucus from the mouth or nose

Your doctor will ask you questions about your health history, including whether you smoke and have had a flu shot. They’ll listen to your breathing through a stethoscope. They may want you to undergo a chest X-ray to help determine what’s causing your cough.

Infectious bronchitis can sometimes lead to pneumonia, so it’s important to see a doctor if you have any symptoms that concern you or that last longer than they should.

Repeated episodes of acute bronchitis may also mean you’re developing chronic bronchitis. Let your doctor know if this is happening.

You can catch acute bronchitis at any time, but it can be more common during cold weather, which is traditionally when people get colds and the flu.

To reduce your risk for bronchitis, follow these tips:

  • Avoid being in close contact with anyone who’s sick.
  • Avoid sharing cups or utensils with someone who has bronchitis, a cold, or the flu.
  • Don’t touch used tissue, since viruses that cause bronchitis can be spread through mucus.
  • Get the flu shot annually.
  • Wash your hands often in warm, soapy water.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with dirty hands.
  • Stop smoking, if you smoke.

Bronchitis is inflammation in your bronchial tubes. The most noteworthy symptom of bronchitis is a persistent cough.

Bronchitis can be either acute or chronic. When it’s acute, it can be contagious, since most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by the same viruses that cause colds and the flu. Chronic bronchitis is typically seen in individuals who have a history of smoking or working around certain irritants.

Most cases of acute bronchitis go away on their own in a week or so. Chronic bronchitis can last for several months to years.