Bronchitis is a condition affecting the lungs and airways. It is an inflammation of the bronchi, which are the main breathing passages within the lungs. In some cases, bronchitis may be contagious.

When determining whether bronchitis is contagious or not, it helps to understand the different types of the condition.

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People should assume they are contagious even if they are not yet certain that the illness is bronchitis.

There are two different types of bronchitis, acute and chronic. In most cases, acute bronchitis is caused by a virus. Chronic bronchitis is a type of chronic lung disease.

People with the chronic form of bronchitis can also get acute bronchitis by being exposed to the virus. A cough is a common symptom of both types.

A person with acute bronchitis can be contagious as soon as symptoms first appear.

In the early stages, it is often difficult to determine whether a cough is caused by bronchitis or some other condition. As such, it is best for a person to assume that they are contagious.

Typically, people are most contagious during the early stages of illness.

How is bronchitis transmitted?

The bronchitis virus can be transmitted from person to person when they are close to one another.

If a person with bronchitis coughs or sneezes, infected droplets will go into the air and land on surfaces.

These infected particles can infect another person and cause bronchitis if they come into contact with the:

  • nose
  • mouth
  • airway

Late symptoms

In many cases of acute bronchitis, symptoms such as an ongoing cough may persist long after the infection is gone. In fact, the cough can persist for several weeks afterward.

Once the infection is gone, bronchitis is no longer contagious. However, it is important that people maintain good hygiene and continue to wash their hands regularly.

The primary symptom of bronchitis is a persistent cough. The primary symptom of bronchitis is a persistent, usually wet cough that contains lots of mucus. A wet cough occurs because the airways have become inflamed, and they produce mucus in response.

The main differences between acute and chronic bronchitis are explained below.

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis is defined as short-term inflammation of the lungs and airways, usually lasting less than 3 weeks. Acute bronchitis is most common in the elderly, infants, and young children.

A virus usually causes acute bronchitis, which makes it more likely that a person will develop the condition during the winter months when viral infections are more common.

With acute bronchitis, symptoms can be similar to that of a cold or the flu. For this reason, it is often called a “chest cold.” In addition to a cough, symptoms can include:

Chronic bronchitis

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People with a history of smoking are more likely to develop chronic bronchitis.

As opposed to the acute variation, chronic bronchitis is diagnosed when symptoms:

  • are ongoing
  • have lasted at least 3 months within one year
  • have occurred for 2 consecutive years

Chronic bronchitis is one of several conditions also known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

If the symptoms of bronchitis are present and last for over 3 consecutive weeks, then a medical diagnosis is required. This diagnosis helps the doctor to determine whether the condition is chronic bronchitis.

With chronic bronchitis, symptoms are more likely to include:

  • a long-term cough with significant mucus and sputum production
  • ongoing shortness of breath
  • a history of COPD
  • a history of smoking

Since the symptoms of bronchitis can be similar to a range of other diseases, a medical professional will need to diagnose the condition to treat it correctly.

A range of different factors may cause acute or chronic bronchitis. The causes of both types of bronchitis are explored below.

Virus and bacteria

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection, similar to the viruses that cause colds and flu, which means acute bronchitis may be contagious.

Rarely, bacterial infections are a cause.

Environmental factors

Some environmental factors can increase the chances of developing acute bronchitis. These conditions cause airway inflammation and make the lungs more prone to infection.

It is best to avoid the following irritants where possible:

  • Air pollution: also known as smog.
  • Strong chemicals: inhaling these can irritate the lungs and airways.
  • Tobacco smoke: a person who smokes increases not only their own chances of developing both acute and chronic bronchitis, but also the risks for those who inhale the secondhand smoke around them.
  • Other environmental factors: other factors hat inflame the airways include dust, smoke, and large fires.

There are some steps that people can take to avoid or reduce the risk of developing both acute and chronic bronchitis. These include:

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Maintaining good hygiene and washing hands regularly can help prevent the spread of bronchitis.
  • Stopping smoking: It is essential to take steps to quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. Smoking weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight infections. Quitting smoking is the single best thing a person can do to improve their lung health.
  • Avoiding pollution: Avoiding areas with high levels of air pollution, dust, or fumes can help lower the risk of bronchitis and other lung conditions, such as asthma.
  • Wearing a mask: A mask that covers both the mouth and the nose can help to prevent exposure to lung irritants and decrease airway inflammation.
  • Getting vaccinated: In most cases, people should get a yearly flu shot, along with routine vaccinations for pneumonia and whooping cough. Preventing lung infections keeps people healthier year round.
  • Hand washing: Washing hands regularly, as well as keeping surfaces clean, may help to prevent viruses from infecting others.

The treatments for bronchitis may differ according to whether it is acute or chronic.

Treating acute bronchitis

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibiotics are not used to treat acute bronchitis because it is caused by a virus, and antibiotics only work against bacterial infections.

For most cases of acute bronchitis, the condition will pass within a few weeks.

Recommended treatments include:

  • lots of fluids
  • plenty of rest
  • a cool mist humidifier to ease your cough
  • steam from a shower or bowl of hot water
  • over-the-counter medications suggested by your doctor

Smoking can exacerbate your illness, worsening symptoms and lengthening recovery. It is important to cut back or quit smoking whenever possible.

Treating chronic bronchitis

Unfortunately, chronic bronchitis has no known cure. Instead, treatment options for chronic bronchitis involve managing and reducing symptoms.

Lifestyle changes are often recommended to control symptoms of chronic bronchitis. These include ensuring you eat a healthful diet and exercising as tolerated.

Pulmonary rehabilitation may also be useful to many individuals with chronic bronchitis. In some cases, doctors will recommend medicines. These can come in various forms, including:

  • inhalers and breathing treatments
  • mucolytic medicines
  • steroids
  • bronchodilators

Mucolytic medicines thin out mucus, while bronchodilators help to open up the airways. Steroids help to treat inflammation.

Keeping hydrated is also crucial in the treatment of bronchitis. Good fluid intake thins out secretions, making them easier to cough up and out.

It is important to seek the advice of a medical professional when considering treatment options for acute and chronic bronchitis. They will be able to provide recommendations that are best for a person’s overall health and any pre-existing conditions.