What is bronchitis?
There are two types of bronchitis:
- Acute bronchitis usually comes on quickly and gets better after 2 to 3 weeks.
- Chronic bronchitis keeps coming back and can last a long time, especially in people who smoke. Chronic bronchitis means that you have a cough with mucus most days of the month for 3 months of the year and for at least 2 years in a row.
This topic focuses on acute bronchitis. Both children and adults can get acute bronchitis.
Most healthy people who get acute bronchitis get better without any problems. But it can be more serious in older adults and children and in people with other health problems, especially lung diseases such as asthma or COPD. Complications can include pneumonia and repeated episodes of severe bronchitis.
What causes acute bronchitis?
Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. Often a person gets acute bronchitis a few days after having an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold or the flu. Sometimes acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria.
Acute bronchitis also can be caused by breathing in things that irritate the bronchial tubes, such as smoke. It also can happen if a person inhales food or vomit into the lungs.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptom of acute bronchitis is a cough that usually is dry and hacking at first. After a few days, the cough may bring up mucus. You may have a low fever and feel tired.
Most people get better in 2 to 3 weeks. But some people continue to have a cough for more than 4 weeks.
If your symptoms get worse, such as a high fever, shaking chills, chest or shoulder pain, or shortness of breath, you could have pneumonia. Pneumonia can be serious, so it's important to see a doctor if you feel like you're getting sicker.
How is acute bronchitis diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. This usually gives the doctor enough information to find out if you have acute bronchitis.
In some cases, you may need a chest X-ray or other tests to make sure that you don't have pneumonia, whooping cough, or another lung problem. This is especially true if you've had bronchitis for a few weeks and aren't getting better. More testing also may be needed for babies, older adults, and people who have lung disease (such as asthma or COPD) or other health problems.
How is it treated?
Most people can treat symptoms of acute bronchitis at home and don't need antibiotics or other prescription medicines. (Antibiotics don't help with viral bronchitis. And even bronchitis caused by bacteria will usually go away on its own.)
The following may help you feel better:
- Don't smoke.
- Suck on cough drops or hard candies to soothe a dry or sore throat. Cough drops won't stop your cough, but they may make your throat feel better.
- Breathe moist air from a humidifier, a hot shower, or a sink filled with hot water. The heat and moisture can help keep mucus in your airways moist so you can cough it out easily.
- Ask your doctor if you can take nonprescription medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin, to relieve fever and body aches. Don't give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
- Rest more than usual.
- Drink plenty of fluids so that you do not become dehydrated.
- Use an over-the-counter cough medicine if your doctor recommends it. (Cough medicines may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems.) Cough suppressants may help you to stop coughing. Expectorants can help you bring up mucus when you cough.
If you have signs of bronchitis and have heart or lung disease (such as heart failure, asthma, or COPD) or another serious health problem, talk to your doctor right away. You may need treatment with antibiotics or medicines to help with your breathing. Early treatment may prevent complications, such as pneumonia or repeated episodes of acute bronchitis caused by bacteria.
What can you do to avoid getting bronchitis?
There are several things you can do to help prevent bronchitis.
- Avoid cigarette smoke. If you smoke, stop. People who smoke or are around others who smoke have acute bronchitis more often.
- Wash your hands often during the cold and flu season.
- Avoid contact with people who are sick with a cold or the flu, especially if you have other health problems.
- Get a flu vaccine every year, and talk to your doctor about whether you should get a pneumococcal vaccine.
Other Works Consulted
- Wenzel RP, Fowler AA III (2006). Acute bronchitis. New England Journal of Medicine, 355(20): 2125–2130.
Current as of: February 24, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
John Pope, MD, MPH - Pediatrics
Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine