Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, or bronchi. It can be either acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis may be contagious when symptoms are present, as it usually occurs due to an infection.

Acute bronchitis is usually due to infection, which is what makes it contagious. The infection itself typically takes around a week to leave a person’s system, during which time they can spread the infection to others.

This article explains how bronchitis transmits from person to person and how long symptoms last.

It also discusses the contagion timeline, how to treat and prevent bronchitis, and when to speak with a doctor.

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Bronchitis, or the infection causing it, can easily spread from person to person. A person may choose to avoid close contact with an individual who has symptoms of bronchitis or take precautions, such as washing hands regularly, to prevent the spread of infection.

It depends on the cause. If bronchitis is due to a bacterial infection, antibiotics sometimes help. However, this is not a first-line treatment for the condition.

Many people say a bronchitis cough sounds like a rattle or wheeze. If the cough is particularly productive, it may have a ‘wet sound’ due to the mucus present.

Acute bronchitis can be contagious. It is possible to spread it to others in different ways.

Acute bronchitis is typically the result of a viral infection. Common viral infections that can lead to acute bronchitis include:

  • cold
  • influenza, or flu
  • respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • COVID-19 viruses

This means that acute bronchitis can spread in the same ways any other virus spreads. Generally, this is through airborne droplets that result when a person coughs, sneezes, and talks. A viral infection can also spread through touching objects or surfaces that a person with the infection has also touched.

Occasionally, acute bronchitis may be the result of a bacterial infection. Two common bacteria that can lead to acute bronchitis are Streptococcus pneumonia and Staphylococcus aureus.

Bacterial infections can spread in much the same ways as viral infections.

Timeframe of infection

How long it takes for someone to get better after having bronchitis depends on whether it is chronic or acute.

Acute bronchitis typically lasts for 7–10 days, although certain symptoms, including coughing, can last for longer, according to the American Lung Association.

Chronic bronchitis lasts for longer than acute bronchitis, with symptoms typically persisting for at least 3 months and recurring multiple times over a period of at least 24 months. It is not uncommon for symptoms to last even longer.

Contagion timeline

Acute bronchitis is the result of the same viruses that cause cold and flu. This means that typically, a person will continue to be contagious as long as they are experiencing cold and flu symptoms, such as fever and cough.

However, the amount of time an individual is contagious depends largely on the cause of the bronchitis. To be safe, a person should take precautions to not spread the infection to others, such as covering their mouth when they cough and washing their hands regularly.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis are typically the same.

Bronchitis symptoms include:

  • cough, typically with mucus
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • tiredness
  • wheezing
  • low-grade fever

What makes it chronic?

To receive a diagnosis of chronic bronchitis, a person must have two episodes of coughing most days for a period of 3 months, occurring at least 2 years in a row.

Around half of people with chronic bronchitis will have a productive cough that produces sputum or phlegm. Depending on the infection causing bronchitis, the color of sputum may vary from clear, yellow, or green, or it may sometimes appear rust-colored if it is blood-tinged.

Treatments for bronchitis depend on the cause. In many cases, bronchitis will clear up on its own without treatment once the infection clears. A person can try the following to optimize their recovery time:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking lots of water to help thin mucus
  • taking cough suppressants
  • taking over-the-counter pain relievers
  • using a humidifier or steam to help clear the airways

Antibiotics do not work in treating viral infections. However, if a doctor believes that a bacterial infection is causing bronchitis, they may prescribe antibiotics.

Treating chronic bronchitis

There is no permanent cure for chronic bronchitis. However, people can manage their symptoms with treatments, including:

  • Bronchodilators: Medications that relax and open the bronchi or airways
  • Glucocorticoids: Steroid hormones that help fight inflammation and reduce mucus production.
  • Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors: These decrease inflammation, promoting airway smooth muscle relaxation to help a person breathe more easily.

As well as medications, doctors will also recommend lifestyle and habit changes to treat chronic bronchitis, such as:

  • doing regular physical activity
  • avoiding irritants, such as pollutants or allergens
  • quitting smoking if applicable and avoiding secondhand smoke as much as possible

Bouts of acute bronchitis typically clear up by themselves within a few weeks.

However, a person should speak with a doctor if they experience a cough that does not go away after a few weeks or if they have experienced frequent bouts of acute bronchitis, as this may indicate a more serious underlying health condition.

A person can develop bronchitis at any time of year or in any climate. However, it is more common during cold and flu season, as these infections are common causes of bronchitis.

To reduce their chances of developing bronchitis, a person can:

  • Have an annual flu vaccination.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are ill.
  • Avoid sharing utensils, cups, bottles, and other objects that may touch the mouth with anyone who is ill.
  • Avoid touching surfaces that may carry germs, such as used tissue paper.
  • Practice good hand hygiene by washing their hands, especially before touching their eyes, mouth, or nose.
  • Quit smoking, if applicable.

The infections that cause acute bronchitis can easily spread, which may lead to a person having bronchitis if they develop an infection. Individuals should take precautions to help prevent spreading the infection to others. This includes covering their mouth when they cough and washing their hands regularly.

People can reduce their chances of developing bronchitis by taking steps to avoid getting sick with colds or flu. An individual can do this by practicing good hand hygiene, not touching surfaces that may carry germs, and not sharing utensils or cups with anyone who is ill.

If a person experiences a cough that lasts longer than a few weeks, a high fever, or symptoms that worsen, they should contact a healthcare professional.