Symptoms of bronchitis include a cough, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Treatment includes rest and drinking plenty of fluids.

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

Learn more about the causes of coughs.

What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is a condition that affects the bronchial tubes in the lungs. They may become inflamed, resulting in symptoms such as coughing and mucus production.

It affects the body by narrowing the airways due to swelling, meaning less air can pass through.

What are the types of bronchitis?

Types of bronchitis include:

  • 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
  • Chronic bronchitis: Chronic bronchitis has similar symptoms to acute bronchitis, but it is an ongoing illness. The National Library of Medicine describes 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) notes that a person who develops emphysema alongside chronic bronchitis will receive a diagnosis of COPD. This is a serious and potentially life threatening condition.

Who does bronchitis affect?

Acute bronchitis can affect anyone of any age, but it is most common in children under the age of five.

Learn more about bronchitis.

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 three weeks
  • a fever that lasts three 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.

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 washing of the hands 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)

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.

Is bronchitis contagious?

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.

Is bronchitis a side effect of COVID-19?

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), viral infections such as COVID-19 can cause airway inflammation, leading to bronchitis.

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
  • recommend a pulmonary lung function test
  • conduct blood tests

Antibiotics will not help acute bronchitis, so doctors tend to avoid prescribing them. A doctor may advise a person with bronchitis to:

Natural treatments to feel better

Options that may help include:

  • using honey in tea or hot water to bring relief to cough symptoms
  • using a humidifier to help loosen mucus, improve airflow, and relieve wheezing
  • resting
  • drinking fluids
  • exercising to strengthen the chest muscles to help with breathing
  • improving breathing technique through pulmonary rehabilitation
  • removing a lung irritant, for example, by not smoking

What medications treat bronchitis?

Taking over-the-counter (OTC) medication such as ibuprofen will help relieve a cough and ease any accompanying pain. In time, acute bronchitis will go away, often without treatment.

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

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.

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 medications 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.

Learn more about home remedies for bronchitis.

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.

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

These include:

  • avoiding or quitting 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

Learn more about the flu and how to prevent it.

Below are some commonly asked questions about bronchitis.

How contagious is bronchitis?

Bronchitis can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). Acute bronchitis, which is very common, usually results from an infection and may be contagious. However, this is not the case for chronic bronchitis.

Can bronchitis go away on its own?

Most cases of acute bronchitis go away on their own. The infection simply has to run its course over several weeks. However, symptoms of chronic bronchitis never completely go away and lead to long-term breathing difficulties.

How serious is bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is not a serious illness and usually resolves itself in a week or two. Meanwhile, chronic bronchitis is a more serious, lifelong, incurable condition, and symptoms never completely go away.

Can you prevent bronchitis?

A person can prevent bronchitis by keeping themselves clean and healthy, including washing hands and avoiding smoking.

Can bronchitis turn into pneumonia?

Bronchitis links with other lung conditions, such as pneumonia. It is important to treat bronchitis early on.

Can I use cough medicine with bronchitis?

A person should avoid cough medicine for bronchitis unless in the case of a severe cough. This is because cough medicines do not treat the inflamed mucus membranes of the lungs but aim to suppress the cough instead.

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.