Acute bronchitis is a temporary condition where the bronchial tubes that carry air into the lungs swell. This swelling makes it harder for air to pass in and out.

Acute bronchitis can cause a cough, chest discomfort, and other general cold symptoms.

It usually only lasts a few weeks. The swelling from acute bronchitis is typically the result of a viral infection. Usually, the infection will go away on its own without medical treatment. If a person has a high fever, difficulty breathing, or coughs up blood, they should contact a healthcare professional.

Read on to learn more about how to manage and prevent acute bronchitis.

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The common term for acute bronchitis is a chest cold. During acute bronchitis, the bronchial tubes swell. The bronchial tubes, or bronchi, are the larger tubes that carry the air directly into a person’s lungs. That’s why a person may feel some chest discomfort with acute bronchitis.

The infection does not usually start at the bronchial tubes. It typically begins in a person’s nose or throat. The infection can move to the lungs and bronchial tubes if the body does not fight it off.

Acute bronchitis is temporary. Symptoms typically last about 3 weeks, which is how long the immune system takes to get rid of the infection.

This type of infection is widespread in the United States, especially during the flu season. It’s one of the top ten most common illnesses. About 5% of adults develop acute bronchitis each year.

When the bronchial tubes swell, they can also create mucus. This narrows them and limits the amount of air that can move in and out of the lungs. This causes wheezing, which a doctor can hear with a stethoscope.

Other common symptoms include:

Some people may cough up green mucus when they have acute bronchitis. Other people experience a drier cough. It depends on how much mucus the bronchial tubes create. Sometimes, the bronchial tubes create a lot of mucus, which can cause breathing difficulties.

The cough is usually the last symptom to go away. It may last for 4 weeks or more. This does not mean a person is still contagious. It means the bronchi are still sensitive from the infection. The smallest of irritants can produce a cough at this point. With time, the coughing will lessen.

An infection usually causes acute bronchitis. About 95% of cases of acute bronchitis are due to secondary infection. The common cold, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and the flu are viral infections that can cause acute bronchitis. Occasionally, a bacterial infection may be the cause.

An infection is not always the underlying reason for acute bronchitis. Sometimes, the bronchial tubes can swell after a person breathes in an irritant. Some irritants that can cause acute bronchitis include:

  • tobacco smoke
  • dust
  • pollution
  • fumes

Sometimes, inhaled allergens may cause acute bronchitis. Breathing in a strong perfume or vapor can irritate the respiratory tract in the same way as other irritants do. People with asthma may have greater sensitivity to this type of reaction.

Acute bronchitis usually goes away on its own without treatment. Since the infection is typically viral, antibiotics are not an effective treatment.

The standard recommendation is the management of symptoms until the infection clears.

This may include:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • breathing in steam from a bowl or shower
  • using a saline spray or nasal drops
  • sucking on throat lozenges
  • using honey to relieve cough

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are medications a person can buy from a pharmacy without a prescription. A doctor or pharmacist can help explain the best medications for acute bronchitis.

Cough and cold medication may temporarily help with symptoms. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen may help ease symptoms in children over 6 months and adults with headaches or body aches.

Always take these medications exactly how the doctor or the pharmacy label recommends. Talk with a doctor before starting a new medication and about any other concerns around treatment for acute bronchitis.

Usually, acute bronchitis goes away on its own without medical intervention. Some people may develop symptoms that need medical attention.

A person should seek medical attention if they:

Consider contacting a healthcare professional for advice if experiencing repeated episodes of acute bronchitis or if the cough lingers longer than 3 weeks.

Acute bronchitis is typically preventable for most people. This is because it is usually due to infection or irritants, which people can often avoid.

Frequent handwashing can dramatically improve a person’s chances of avoiding an infection. Washing the hands with warm soap and water for at least 20 seconds multiple times throughout the day can help keep germs at bay.

If a person feels sick, they should stay home to prevent the spread of germs and cover their nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze.

Check with a doctor to make sure all vaccines are up to date. Getting a yearly flu vaccine and a pneumococcal vaccine can help. Vaccines can help prevent a person from contracting common viruses that cause acute bronchitis.

People can also try to protect themselves from inhaling irritants, and wearing a face mask around paint, pollution, vapors, or dust can help.

Avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke can also help prevent acute bronchitis.

The following are some questions people frequently ask about acute bronchitis.

Is acute bronchitis serious?

Usually, acute bronchitis does not cause permanent damage to a person’s body or lungs. If a person has a high fever or shortness of breath, they should consider contacting a healthcare professional for advice.

What is the main cause of acute bronchitis?

A viral infection is the primary cause of acute bronchitis.

What are three symptoms of bronchitis?

Three symptoms of acute bronchitis are a cough with mucus, fever, and a runny nose.

Acute bronchitis is a temporary chest cold. It is usually due to a viral infection. The infection causes the bronchial tubes to swell and create mucus, often making breathing difficult.

It can also cause a cough, congestion, and fever. Contact a healthcare professional if symptoms include a high fever or coughing up blood. People who experience frequent bouts of acute bronchitis might benefit from talking with a healthcare professional.

It is possible to prevent acute bronchitis by adopting certain habits, such as frequent handwashing, wearing a mask, and not smoking. It typically goes away on its own.