Bronchitis: Frequently Asked Questions

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Bronchitis, either acute or chronic, is a common respiratory condition. It occurs when the lining along the bronchial tubes, the passage ways to your lungs, become inflamed. Learn about bronchitis, bronchitis symptoms, how long bronchitis lasts, and more.

What is bronchitis?

Sometimes, the narrow bronchial tubes that bring air to the lungs become irritated and inflamed. This inflammation causes you to cough and produce more than usual amounts of mucus. The mucus further irritates the bronchial tubes and narrows them even more. And, the more you cough, the more irritation resulting in more coughing.

Bronchitis itself isn’t usually a medical emergency, but it can be scary if you feel like you can’t breathe. Some people may go on to develop pneumonia. 

What is the difference between acute and chronic bronchitis?

Both types of bronchitis cause you to cough and produce mucus. Acute bronchitis is a short episode of bronchial tube inflammation, lasting from a few days to a few weeks. It usually comes on quite suddenly. Bronchitis is chronic if it lasts longer. Chronic bronchitis can last anywhere from a few months to years, and it can return after symptoms have gone away. Chronic bronchitis could be part of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. COPD is a serious, chronic respiratory condition that makes it difficult to breathe over time.  

What causes bronchitis?

Most of the time, acute bronchitis is caused by a virus, like a cold or flu virus. Bacterial infections can cause acute bronchitis, but they are not as common.

Chronic bronchitis can have several causes, but the most common one is cigarette smoking, followed by other respiratory irritants, such as dust, allergens, and chemical fumes. 

Risk factors for developing bronchitis include:

  • Smoking

  • Decreased immune system function that increases your risk of developing a respiratory infection

  • Constant exposure to airborne irritants, particularly at work

  • Untreated gastric reflux

What are bronchitis symptoms?

Symptoms for acute bronchitis may include:

  • Constant, strong cough

  • Excessive mucus (phlegm) production

  • Fatigue

  • Sore throat (from coughing or from the virus that triggered the bronchitis)

  • Fever

  • Shortness of breath

  • Muscle aches

  • Pain in your chest or rib area, worse when coughing

If you have chronic bronchitis, you may also have:

  • Wheezing or a high-pitched whistle when you breathe

  • Using chest and back muscles (called accessory muscles) to take breaths

How is bronchitis diagnosed?

Acute bronchitis is usually diagnosed based on your history of cough and infection. If your doctor suspects there may be another problem, like pneumonia, you may need a chest X-ray. A diagnosis of chronic bronchitis takes more time. After a physical examination and taking your medical history, your doctor may recommend:

  • Pulmonary function testing to see how much air goes into your lungs

  • Chest X-ray to rule out any other conditions associated with the lungs

  • Sputum sample testing

  • CT scan called high-resolution computed tomography, which uses X-rays but gives better images of your lungs than an X-ray alone

Is bronchitis contagious?

Bronchitis itself is not an actual infection. It is your body’s response to an infection in the respiratory tract. You cannot catch bronchitis from another person but you can catch the infection that caused it (if a cold or influenza virus is the cause). Coughing and sneezing can send invisible droplets of contaminated mucus into the air around you. If someone comes into contact with a contaminated droplet, they have a risk of getting infected. However, they would develop a cold or the flu, which may or may not develop into bronchitis. 

Are there complications associated with bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis can cause other health problems, such as pneumonia or even respiratory failure. This could happen to anyone, but those at highest risk are older people, the very young, people with a weakened immune system, or those with chronic illnesses like diabetes.

Severe coughing can cause pain in the chest and rib area. 

How is bronchitis treated?

Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a virus. Since there is no treatment for the virus, treatment focuses on comfort. Your doctor may prescribe a cough suppressant to use at night so you can sleep. Your doctor also may prescribe an inhaler containing a bronchodilator medicine, which helps open your airways and helps you breathe easier. 

There is no cure for chronic bronchitis. Doctors prescribe inhaled bronchodilators and oral or inhaled corticosteroids to help reduce the inflammation. A respiratory therapist can help you with a breathing program—pulmonary rehabilitation—giving you exercises and tips on how to breathe more efficiently. If the condition becomes severe, you may need to use oxygen from an oxygen tank.

People with chronic bronchitis are at higher risk for catching respiratory infections like influenza and pneumonia. Doctors recommend the annual flu vaccine as well as a pneumonia vaccine for people with chronic bronchitis or other lung diseases.

When should I see a doctor if I think I have bronchitis?

You should always see your doctor if you are concerned about your health, including symptoms of bronchitis. However, if you aren’t sure, here are some tips of when you should make an appointment or go to an urgent care clinic:

  • You are still coughing as badly or your cough is worse after 7 to 10 days.

  • You can’t sleep because of your coughing.

  • You have chest pain while coughing.

  • You are having difficulty breathing.

  • You are wheezing.

  • You have a fever.

  • You are coughing up blood.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jul 24
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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