Bronchitis is a common infection of the lower respiratory tract. Typically, the same viruses that cause the common cold cause bronchitis.
Bronchitis causes irritation and inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which are the airways that carry air to the lungs. This inflammation produces excess mucus, which can lead to coughing. Mucus and coughing are the two main symptoms of bronchitis.
Bronchitis can be either acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis comes on quickly and lasts for a few days or weeks. Some people refer to this type as a chest cold. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition that may flare up throughout a person's lifetime.
This article outlines the symptoms of bronchitis and how to differentiate them from other illnesses. We also provide information on the causes of bronchitis, the treatment options available, and when to see a doctor.
The most common symptoms of bronchitis are:
- a cough which produces clear, yellow, or greenish mucus
- shortness of breath
- sore ribs and stomach due to coughing
- sore throat
- nasal congestion
- a headache
- body aches
- a slight fever, below 101 °F
Anyone can contract or develop bronchitis. However, the following people are at increased risk:
- people who have recently experienced a cold or respiratory infection
- people with chronic lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other chronic health conditions.
- people who have a weakened immune system
- children under 5 years of age, particularly those with allergies or poor nutrition
- older adults, particularly those with emphysema or other chronic respiratory problems
In some cases, acute bronchitis can lead to further health complications, such as pneumonia. This is where fluid builds up in the air sacs within the lungs. The risk of pneumonia is highest among young children, older adults, and people with significant health problems.
Chronic bronchitis can be particularly dangerous for people with COPD. A 2017 study found that people with COPD who also have chronic bronchitis may experience a greater decline in lung function. Having both conditions also increased the risk of death from respiratory disease.
Viruses cause most cases of acute bronchitis. According to the American Lung Association, bacteria cause less than 10% of acute bronchitis cases.
According to some sources, viruses that cause bronchitis can live on surfaces, such as doorknobs and keyboards, for up to 24 hours. Once these surfaces become contaminated, anyone who touches them within 24 hours is at risk of contracting bronchitis.
The following actions can help to minimize the spread of bronchitis:
- covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing
- washing hands frequently
- using hand sanitizer when it is not possible to wash hands
- avoiding touching the mouth, nose, and eyes, unless it is with clean hands
- monitoring and limiting contact with people who may have bronchitis
Bronchitis can also develop as a result of breathing in irritating substances, such as:
- pollutants in the air
- tobacco smoke
- household cleaners
- industrial contaminants, such as textile fibers, chlorine, ammonia, and grain dust
Bronchitis that develops as a result of breathing in irritants is not contagious.
Bronchitis symptoms are similar to those caused by other illnesses, including:
Pneumonia is much more serious than acute bronchitis and typically has more severe symptoms, such as:
- pain when breathing
- quick, shallow breathing
- fast heart rate
- a high fever
A person should see a doctor if they are in any doubt about the cause of their symptoms. A doctor will conduct the following tests to help determine whether the symptoms are due to bronchitis or another illness:
- physical examination
- chest X-rays
- lab tests to check for viruses and bacteria
According to reports, 85% of people with bronchitis get better without seeing a doctor. People usually recover from the initial infection in 3-10 days. However, they may continue to cough for a few weeks.
The best ways to treat acute bronchitis symptoms at home include:
- getting plenty of rest
- drinking plenty of fluids, especially hot beverages with honey
- using a humidifier. A range of humidifiers is available for purchase online.
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, to reduce discomfort
- taking OTC cough medicines
Chronic bronchitis keeps coming back or never goes away. It is more complicated to treat than acute bronchitis. A person with chronic bronchitis may need to make certain lifestyle changes, such as:
- quitting smoking
- avoiding irritants
- learning and practicing breathing techniques to support the lungs
Since viruses cause most cases of bronchitis, antibiotics are usually not part of the treatment plan. However, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics if they suspect whooping cough, or if the person has lung disease.
With rest and proper home care, bronchitis symptoms usually go away within 3 weeks. If symptoms do not improve after 3 weeks, a person should make an appointment with their doctor.
People should also see a doctor if they experience any of the following symptoms:
Bronchitis is a respiratory tract infection that irritates the airways within the lungs. Coughing, congestion, and shortness of breath are some of the most common symptoms.
Most people recover from bronchitis in less than 10 days, although some bronchitis symptoms, such as coughing, may linger for a few weeks. People who do not show signs of improvement after 3 weeks should see a doctor. The doctor will carry out tests to see if their symptoms are due to bronchitis or another health condition.