Bronchitis: Is it Contagious?

Medically reviewed by Stacy Sampson, DO on November 10, 2016Written by Corey Whelan on November 10, 2016

Overview

There are two types of bronchitis, chronic and acute. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term inflammation of the surface lining of the bronchial airways. It’s often caused by smoking cigarettes, but can also be due to prolonged exposure to other noxious irritants. It’s usually not contagious, so you typically can’t get it from another person or pass it onto someone else. People with this condition often have a phlegmy cough, but even if you are in close contact with them when they are coughing, if the illness is not caused by infection, you won’t catch it.

Acute bronchitis, which is a short-term inflammation of the surface lining of the bronchial airways, is most commonly caused by an infection that causes acute bronchitis to be contagious. The infection typically lasts for seven to 10 days, but you may continue coughing for many weeks after the initial symptoms have passed. Acute bronchitis often begins as an upper respiratory infection and is usually caused by viruses, such as those that cause colds and flu. There are hundreds of types of viruses which can cause bronchitis.

Read more: Is it allergies or a cold? »

Bronchitis can also be caused by bacterial infections, although this type of transmission accounts for less than 10 percent of all cases.

Infectious acute bronchitis is transmitted from person to person, just like the common cold. While avoiding this type of bronchitis may be challenging, it can be done.

Transmission

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 an infected person.

Viruses and bacteria can also live outside of the body for minutes, hours, or even days, depending on the type. You can catch infectious acute bronchitis by touching a germ harboring object, such as a door knob or a subway pole, and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Many cases of acute bronchitis start as the flu, so you may be able prevent it by getting an annual flu shot.

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

Some common types of bacteria which might cause bronchitis include:

  • Bordetella pertussis
  • Streptococcus species
  • Mycoplasma pneumonia
  • Chlamydia pneumonia

Symptoms and incubation

Acute infectious bronchitis has an incubation period of four to six days. In the hours leading up to the start of your symptoms, you may feel tired, have a headache, and have a runny nose and sore throat.

The symptoms of acute bronchitis typically start to fade within one to two weeks after onset, with the exception of coughing, which may continue for several weeks.

Symptoms include:

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

Seeing a doctor

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

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

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

Your doctor will ask you questions about your health history, including if you smoke and if you had a flu shot. They will listen to your breathing through a stethoscope and may want you to have a chest x-ray to help determine what is 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 are developing chronic bronchitis and should be reported to your doctor.

Treatment

If your bronchitis was caused by a virus, get plenty of rest and drink fluids. Your doctor may also recommend an over-the-counter medication to bring down your fever. Antibiotics do not work on viruses, so your doctor won’t prescribe them for you unless they determine that your bronchitis is bacterial.

Outlook

Acute bronchitis is very common. As uncomfortable as it may make you feel, it usually resolves on its own. If you have bacterial bronchitis, you may benefit from seeing a doctor to get medications which can help you feel better and help you avoid complications, including pneumonia.

Prevention

You can catch acute bronchitis at any time, but it is more common during cold weather.

To reduce your risk for bronchitis, follow these tips:

  • avoid being in close contact with anyone who’s sick
  • avoid sharing glasses 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
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