Tracheobronchitis occurs when the windpipe or bronchi become inflamed. This is usually due to a viral or bacterial infection, but it can also be the result of some kind of irritant, such as cigarette smoke.

The windpipe and bronchi both carry air to the lungs, so when they become inflamed it usually results in some difficulty breathing and a severe cough.

The condition is usually acute, which means it only lasts for a few weeks.

The term tracheobronchitis refers to the set of symptoms experienced, so it’s technically not contagious. However, if the symptoms are the result of a viral or bacterial infection, it could be contagious.

There are two types of bronchitis — acute and chronic. Tracheobronchitis is usually acute, which means the symptoms can be treated to make you more comfortable, but the infection itself usually passes naturally. If the condition is caused by a bacterial infection, then antibiotics may be needed.

Chronic bronchitis is caused by extended exposure to irritants, such as cigarette smoke, dust, or fumes. This is a permanent condition. With the correct treatment the symptoms can be eased or slowed, but there is no cure for chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is one type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The common symptoms of tracheobronchitis are:

  • severe cough
  • sore throat
  • fatigue
  • nasal congestion
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • cyanosis (a blue tinge around the mouth)

Tracheobronchitis is generally caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Viral infections will pass on their own, whereas bacterial infections may require antibiotic treatment.

The condition can also be caused by an allergic reaction, so you should avoid known allergens. If you develop tracheobronchitis as a reaction to an allergen that you weren’t aware of, then take care to identify the cause so you can avoid it in the future.

People who smoke or work in environments where they’re exposed to excessive dust or fumes are at increased risk of developing chronic bronchitis.

If tracheobronchitis is caused by a viral infection, then treatment focuses on relieving symptoms, since the condition will soon pass unaided. It’s recommended that you drink plenty of fluids. You may also take over-the-counter pain medications and cough suppressants. Some find that a humidifier is useful in helping them to breathe more easily and loosening the mucus in their lungs.

If tracheobronchitis is caused by a bacterial infection, then antibiotics may be needed to clear it. But all of the above methods can still be used to help relieve symptoms.

If you have chronic bronchitis, then the first step to limit damage is to remove the substance that is irritating your lungs. So, for example, smokers should seek help to quit smoking immediately. Anti-inflammatory medications, inhalers, and oxygen can also be prescribed.

It’s rare for people with acute tracheobronchitis to develop complications. However, in a very small number of cases, people may go on to develop pneumonia. It’s also possible for an extremely severe cough to cause rib fractures, vomiting, or urinary incontinence.

The outlook for a person with acute tracheobronchitis is very good. The condition usually lasts between one and two weeks and often passes by itself. Even in cases where the condition is caused by a bacterial infection, if antibiotics are prescribed promptly, the symptoms should still be eliminated within one to two weeks.

In the rare event that you develop pneumonia as a result of tracheobronchitis, seek immediate treatment, as this condition can be fatal. Around 5–10 percent of patients who are treated in hospital for pneumonia will die from the condition. However, it’s important to remember that this is an extremely rare complication of tracheobronchitis.

Generally, a person with chronic bronchitis will experience symptoms that gradually worsen for the rest of their life. There is no way to predict life expectancy in chronic bronchitis, but regular exercise, a healthy diet, and medical treatments can all help to relieve the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.