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Acute Bronchitis: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and More

What is bronchitis?

Your bronchial tubes deliver air from your trachea (windpipe) into your lungs. When these tubes become inflamed, mucus can build up. This condition is called bronchitis, and it causes symptoms that can include coughing, shortness of breath, and low fever.

Bronchitis can be acute or chronic:

  • Acute bronchitis typically lasts less than 10 days, but the coughing can continue for several weeks.
  • Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, can last for several weeks and usually comes back. This condition is more common in people with asthma or emphysema.

Read on to learn more about symptoms, causes, and treatment of acute bronchitis.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis

The first symptoms of acute bronchitis are similar to those of a cold or flu.

Typical symptoms

These symptoms can include:

After the initial infection, you’ll probably develop a cough. The cough will likely be dry at first, and then become productive, which means it will produce mucus. A productive cough is the most common symptom of acute bronchitis and can last from 10 days to three weeks.

Another symptom you may notice is a change of color in your mucus, from white to green or yellow. This doesn’t mean that your infection is viral or bacterial. It just means that your immune system is at work.

Emergency symptoms

Call your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms in addition to the ones listed above:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • a deep, barking cough
  • trouble breathing
  • chest pain
  • a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • a cough that lasts longer than 10 days

Diagnosing acute bronchitis

In many cases, acute bronchitis will go away without treatment. But if you see your doctor because of symptoms of acute bronchitis, they will start with a physical exam.

During the exam, your doctor will listen to your lungs as you breathe, checking for symptoms such as wheezing. They’ll also you ask about your coughs — for instance, how frequent they are and whether they produce mucus. They may also ask about recent colds or viruses, and whether you have other problems breathing.

If your doctor is uncertain about your diagnosis, they may suggest a chest X-ray. This test helps your doctor know if you have pneumonia.

Blood tests and cultures might be needed if your doctor thinks you have another infection in addition to bronchitis.

Treatment for acute bronchitis

Unless your symptoms are severe, there’s not a lot your doctor can do to treat acute bronchitis. In most cases, treatment is largely comprised of home care.

Home care tips

These steps should help relieve your symptoms as you get better.

These tips can help ease most symptoms, but if you’re wheezing or having trouble breathing, talk to your doctor. They can prescribe inhaled medication to help open your airways.

Treatment with antibiotics

When you feel sick, you may really hope your doctor will prescribe medication to make you feel better.

It’s important to know, though, that antibiotics aren’t recommended for people with acute bronchitis. Most cases of the condition are caused by viruses, and antibiotics don’t work on viruses, so the drugs wouldn’t help you.

However, if you have acute bronchitis and are at high risk of pneumonia, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics during cold and flu season. This is because acute bronchitis can develop into pneumonia, and antibiotics could help prevent this from happening.

Acute bronchitis in children

Children are more likely to develop acute bronchitis than the average adult. This is partly due to risk factors that only affect them, which may include:

  • increased exposure to viruses in locations such as schools and playgrounds
  • asthma
  • allergies
  • chronic sinusitis
  • enlarged tonsils
  • inhaled debris, including dust

Symptoms and treatment

The symptoms of acute bronchitis in children are pretty much the same as those in adults. For that reason, the treatment is very similar as well.

Your child should drink lots of clear fluids and get lots of bed rest. For fever and aches, consider giving them acetaminophen (Tylenol).

However, you shouldn’t give OTC medications to children younger than 6 years old without a doctor’s approval. Avoid cough medications as well, as they may not be safe.

Causes and risk factors of acute bronchitis

There are several potential causes of acute bronchitis, as well as factors that increase your risk of getting it.

Causes

Causes of acute bronchitis include viral and bacterial infections, environmental factors, and other lung conditions.

Viral infection: Viruses cause 85 to 95 percent of acute bronchitis cases in adults. The same viruses that cause the common cold or flu can cause acute bronchitis.

Bacterial infection: In rare cases, bacterial bronchitis can develop after a viral infection of bronchitis. This can result from infections by bacteria such as Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Chlamydia pneumoniae, and Bordetella pertussis (which causes whooping cough).

Irritants: Breathing in irritants such as smoke, smog, or chemical fumes can cause inflammation in your trachea and bronchial tubes. This can lead to acute bronchitis.

Other lung conditions: People with chronic bronchitis or asthma sometimes develop acute bronchitis. In these cases, acute bronchitis isn’t likely to be contagious because it’s not caused by an infection.

Risk factors

Factors that increase your risk of acute bronchitis include:

  • breathing in cigarette smoke, including secondhand smoke
  • low resistance to illnesses or a weakened immune system
  • gastric reflux
  • frequent exposure to irritants, including dust or chemical fumes
  • lack of vaccinations for the flu, pneumonia, and whooping cough
  • age older than 50 years

Acute bronchitis vs. pneumonia

Both bronchitis and pneumonia are infections in your lungs. Two of the main differences between these conditions are what causes them, and what part of your lungs they affect.

Causes: Bronchitis is most often caused by viruses, but can also be caused by bacteria or irritants. Pneumonia, however, is most often caused by bacteria, but can also be caused by viruses or other germs.

Location: Bronchitis causes inflammation in your bronchial tubes. These are tubes connected to your trachea that carry air into your lungs. They branch into smaller tubes called bronchioles.

Pneumonia, on the other hand, causes inflammation in your alveoli. These are small sacs at the ends of your bronchioles.

Treatment is different for these two conditions, so your doctor will be careful to make the correct diagnosis.

Is bronchitis contagious?

Acute bronchitis is contagious. This is because it’s caused by a short-term infection that can spread from person to person. The infection can spread through mucus droplets discharged when you cough, sneeze, or talk.

Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, isn’t contagious. This is because it’s not caused by an infection. Rather, it’s caused by long-term inflammation, which is usually a result of irritants such as smoking. The inflammation can’t be spread to another person.

Outlook for people with acute bronchitis

The symptoms of acute bronchitis usually clear up within a few weeks. However, if you get another infection following the first one, it may take longer for you to heal.

Preventing acute bronchitis

There’s no way to completely prevent acute bronchitis because it has a variety of causes. However, you can decrease your risk by following the tips listed here.

If you have a weakened immune system due to a health condition or older age, you should take special care to avoid getting acute bronchitis. This is because you’re more likely to develop complications from it such as acute respiratory failure or pneumonia. Be sure to follow the prevention tips above to help decrease your risk.


Content licensed from:

Written by: April Khan, Ana Gotter, and Elizabeth Boskey, PhDon: Mar 02, 2017

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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