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People with bronchitis have swelling and inflammation in their bronchial tubes, the air passages that link the mouth and nose with the lungs.

Symptoms of bronchitis include a cough, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. People may also have trouble clearing heavy mucus or phlegm from their airways.

Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis usually clears up, but chronic bronchitis is persistent and never completely goes away. Quitting or avoiding smoking can help prevent bronchitis.

This article looks at the causes, symptoms, treatments, and prevention of bronchitis.

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A person with bronchitis may experience a sore throat, a persistent cough, and a fever.

Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. If it is acute, it happens once, and then a person recovers. If it is chronic, it never goes away, and a person lives with it constantly, although it may get better and worse at times.

Signs and symptoms of both acute and chronic bronchitis include:

  • a persistent cough, which may produce mucus
  • wheezing
  • a low fever and chills
  • a feeling of tightness in the chest
  • a sore throat
  • body aches
  • breathlessness
  • headaches
  • a blocked nose and sinuses

A person with bronchitis may have a cough that lasts for several weeks or even a few months if the bronchial tubes take a long time to heal fully.

The symptoms of chronic bronchitis can flare up regularly. For many people, this happens during the winter months.

However, bronchitis is not the only condition that causes a cough. A cough that refuses to go away may be a sign of asthma, pneumonia, or many other conditions. Anyone with a persistent cough should see a doctor for a diagnosis.

What causes a cough? Find out here.

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis lasts for a specific length of time. It commonly follows a similar pattern to a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu, and it may stem from the same virus.

The person may have:

  • a cough with or without mucus
  • chest discomfort or soreness
  • fever
  • a mild headache and body aches
  • shortness of breath

Symptoms usually go away after a few days or weeks.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis has similar symptoms to acute bronchitis, but it is an ongoing illness.

One definition states that a person has chronic bronchitis if they have a daily, productive cough for at least 3 months of the year, 2 or more years in a row.

The National Library of Medicine describe it as a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in which the bronchial tubes produce a lot of mucus. It either does not go away, or it goes away and keeps coming back.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that a person who develops emphysema alongside chronic bronchitis will receive a diagnosis of COPD. This is a serious and potentially life threatening condition.

Learn more here about COPD.

If bronchitis is due to a viral or bacterial infection, it is possible to transmit the infection to another person through droplets when coughing.

To reduce the risk of passing on an infection, a person should:

  • wash their hands often
  • cough into a tissue
  • take extra care around young children, older people, and those with a weakened immune system

Learn more here about the transmission of acute bronchitis.

Bronchitis happens when a virus, bacteria, or irritant particles trigger an inflammation of the bronchial tubes. Smoking is a key risk factor, but nonsmokers can also develop bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis

Acute bronchitis can result from:

  • a virus, for example, a cold or flu virus
  • a bacterial infection
  • exposure to substances that irritate the lungs, such as tobacco smoke, dust, fumes, vapors, and air pollution

People have a higher risk of developing acute bronchitis if they:

  • experience a virus or bacteria that causes inflammation
  • smoke or inhale secondhand smoke
  • have asthma or an allergy

Ways to avoid infection include regular hand washing and avoiding smoke and other particles.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis results from repeated irritation and damage to the lung and airway tissues. The most common cause is smoking, but not everyone with bronchitis is a smoker.

Other possible causes include:

  • long term exposure to air pollution, dust, and fumes from the environment
  • genetic factors
  • repeated episodes of acute bronchitis
  • a history of respiratory disease or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Exposure to pesticides may increase the risk.

People with asthma or allergies have a higher risk of both types of the disease. The best way to avoid chronic bronchitis is to avoid smoking.

A doctor may advise a person with bronchitis to:

  • rest
  • drink fluids
  • take over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as ibuprofen

Taking OTC medication will help relieve a cough and ease any accompanying pain. In time, acute bronchitis will go away, often without treatment.

The symptoms of chronic bronchitis may resolve or improve for a while. However, they will come back or become worse again, especially if there is exposure to smoke or other triggers.

Options that may help include:

Cough medicine: Coughing is useful for removing mucus from the bronchial tubes, but medication can help bring relief, for example, at night.

Cough medicine is available for purchase online.

Taking honey: Taking 2 spoonfuls of honey may bring relief of cough symptoms.

Using a humidifier: This can loosen mucus, improve airflow, and relieve wheezing.

Bronchodilators: These open the bronchial tubes and may help clear out mucus.

Mucolytics: These loosen or thin mucus in the airways, making it easier to cough up sputum.

Anti-inflammatory and steroid drugs: These can help reduce inflammation that can cause tissue damage.

Oxygen therapy: In severe cases, a person may need supplemental oxygen to ease their breathing.

Which home remedy is best for bronchitis? Find out here.

Behavioral remedies

Other strategies for treating bronchitis include the following:

  • removing a lung irritant, for example, by not smoking
  • exercising to strengthen the chest muscles to help breathing
  • improving breathing technique through pulmonary rehabilitation

Doing breathing exercises, such as pursed-lip breathing, can help slow down breathing, and make it more effective.

Should people exercise when they have bronchitis? Find out here.

Antibiotics

If acute bronchitis results from a bacterial infection, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Taking antibiotics may also help prevent a secondary infection, in some cases.

These drugs are not suitable for a person with a virus, however.

Most doctors will not prescribe antibiotics unless they have identified bacteria as the cause of an illness. One of the reasons for this is concern about antibiotic resistance, as overuse of antibiotics makes it harder to treat an infection in the long term.

Find out more about antibiotics, their uses, and the problem of antibiotic resistance.

A doctor will carry out a physical examination, using a stethoscope to listen for unusual sounds in the lungs.

They may also ask an individual about:

  • their symptoms, and especially the cough
  • their medical history
  • any recent bouts of cold or flu
  • whether they smoke
  • exposure to secondhand smoke, dust, fumes, or air pollution

The doctor may also:

  • take a sputum swab to test for bacteria or viruses in the lab
  • check the oxygen levels in the person's blood
  • recommend a chest X-ray, pulmonary lung function test, or blood tests

The most common complication of bronchitis is pneumonia. This can happen if the infection spreads further into the lungs. In a person with pneumonia, the air sacs within the lungs fill with fluid.

Pneumonia is more likely to develop in older adults, smokers, those with other medical conditions, and anyone with a weakened immune system. It can be life threatening and needs medical attention.

Learn more here about pneumonia.

Most people with bronchitis can recover at home with rest, anti-inflammatory medication, and plenty of fluids.

However, a person should see a doctor if they have the following:

  • a cough that lasts more than 3 weeks
  • a fever that lasts 3 days or longer
  • blood in their mucus
  • rapid breathing, chest pains, or both
  • drowsiness or confusion
  • recurring or worsening symptoms

Anyone with an existing lung or heart condition should see a doctor if they start to have symptoms of bronchitis.

It is not always possible to prevent acute or chronic bronchitis, but several things can reduce the risk.

These include:

  • avoiding or quit smoking
  • avoiding lung irritants, such as smoke, dust, fumes, vapors, and air pollution
  • wearing a mask to cover the nose and mouth when pollution levels are high
  • washing the hands often to limit exposure to germs and bacteria
  • asking about vaccinations to protect from pneumonia and the flu

Find out more about the flu and how to prevent it.

Acute bronchitis is a common condition. It can be uncomfortable, but it will usually resolve on its own within a few days.

Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing condition. If a person smokes and continues to smoke, they may develop worsening symptoms, emphysema, and COPD. All these conditions can be life threatening.

Anyone who has concerns about the possible symptoms of bronchitis should see a doctor.

Q:

Some people say you shouldn’t take cough medicine because coughing helps get rid of phlegm. Should we or shouldn’t we use it?

A:

There are different types of cough medicine.

Some cough medications are antitussives, or suppressants, such as dextromethorphan. Examples are OTC Robitussion or Triaminic. Other cough medications are expectorants, which encourage you to cough. Examples are OTC Mucinex or other types of Robitussin.

If your cough is keeping you up at night, then you may want to use a suppressant to help with the cough. If you want to cough up the phlegm, then an expectorant should help.

Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.