Acute vs Chronic Bronchitis: What's the Difference?

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Millions of people get bronchitis every year. It is an inflammation in the bronchial tubes that carry air to your lungs. When you have bronchitis for a short time, it’s called acute bronchitis. If you have bronchitis that doesn’t go away, chances are you have chronic bronchitis. While there are some similarities, it’s important to understand the differences.


Symptoms

The main symptom of acute bronchitis is a cough. It can last several weeks and may produce clear, yellow or green mucus. Other symptoms can include chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, or a fever.

Chronic bronchitis causes many of the same symptoms as acute bronchitis. The difference is that these symptoms do not go away. Since many people with chronic bronchitis are smokers, it may take some time to realize that the cough is more than just “smoker’s cough.” Smoker’s cough is a persistent cough that may also bring up mucus.

Causes

Acute bronchitis is most often caused by a virus, such as the viruses that cause colds and the flu. In rare cases, bacteria can also cause bronchitis. You may also get acute bronchitis from inhaling certain substances, such as smoke, dust, or other irritants.

Smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis. Cigarette smoke irritates the airways and causes mucus. You can also develop chronic bronchitis if you are exposed to other irritants, such as dust or chemical fumes, over a long period of time.

Treatment

In most cases, acute bronchitis clears up without medical treatment. You can try a few tips to help relieve your symptoms so you feel better sooner:

  • Drink extra fluids and get plenty of rest.
  • Use an over-the-counter pain reliever to help reduce inflammation and lower your fever.
  • Try using steam or a humidifier to loosen mucus. This makes it easier to cough up.
  • Take an over-the-counter cough suppressant if you have a dry cough. However, if your cough is bringing up mucus, it’s best to skip these medicines. Coughing up mucus helps clear it from your airways faster.

  • Ask your doctor if you need any other medicines, such as an inhaler to help you breathe better. Antibiotics do not help treat acute bronchitis unless it is caused by a bacterial infection.

If you have chronic bronchitis, it is likely you will need long-term treatment to relieve your symptoms and help you breathe easier. Common treatments include:

  • Medicine. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to help clear mucus and open your airways. These medicines may include bronchodilators that you breathe in using an inhaler and steroids you take in pill form.

  • Oxygen therapy. If you have severe bronchitis, your doctor may prescribe oxygen therapy. This treatment helps get oxygen to your body and makes breathing easier.

  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. This is an exercise program that teaches you ways to improve your breathing.

Prevention

The best way to protect yourself from acute bronchitis is to wash your hands often to prevent the spread of viruses. Getting a pneumonia vaccine and a yearly flu shot can also help. Quitting smoking is another way to reduce your odds, since smoking increases your risk of bronchial infections.

Quitting smoking is the best way to prevent chronic bronchitis. Smoking is the number one cause of chronic bronchitis—the more you smoke, the higher your risk.

Outlook

Most cases of acute bronchitis clear up in a few days with no long-lasting problems. If you are coughing or wheezing for more than two weeks, call your doctor.

Chronic bronchitis is a serious, ongoing condition. Many people who have chronic bronchitis also have emphysema. Together, these conditions are called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a disease that gets worse over time and can make it hard to breathe. It requires regular treatment. If you think you may have COPD, it is important to talk with your doctor and get a diagnosis.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Sep 20
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