Last Updated 11/02/2020
Author:Alex H. Gifford, MD, FCCP
About Acute Bronchitis
- Acute bronchitis comes on suddenly.
- It causes the tubes that carry air to your lungs to swell.
- It usually gets better on its own without the need for medication.
- The infection usually lasts for 3 to 10 days, but the cough can continue for several weeks.
- It is different from chronic bronchitis, a long-term disease. There is no cure for chronic bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis is a sudden swelling in the major airways into your lungs, called bronchi. It is usually caused by a virus, but it can also be caused by breathing in things that irritate your lungs, such as tobacco smoke, fumes, dust, and air pollution. Bacteria sometimes cause acute bronchitis.
How Acute Bronchitis affects your body
When you have acute bronchitis, the cells that line your airways, called bronchi, become inflamed. The infection usually starts in the nose or throat and travels to the lungs. When the body tries to fight the infection, it causes the tubes leading to your lungs to swell. This causes you to cough. Sometimes it is a dry cough, but often you will cough up mucus.
Because your airways are swollen, less air can move through the tubes to your lungs. This can cause wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.
Eventually, your body fights the infection and heals. Acute bronchitis usually lasts for 3 to 10 days. However, you may cough and produce mucus for several weeks after the infection heals.
The swelling lasts only a short time. It usually does not cause any long-term breathing problems. However, it is possible for people with a weakened immune system or other major health problems to develop severe problems, such as pneumonia or respiratory failure. In general, those who develop major problems are:
- Older adults
- Young children
- People with other major health conditions, including cancer or diabetes
- People who have not received an immunization for the flu, pneumonia, and pertussis (whooping cough)
Symptoms of Acute Bronchitis
Acute bronchitis is sometimes diagnosed as pneumonia, but a chest X-ray can help health care providers make an accurate diagnosis.
The most common symptoms of acute bronchitis are:
- Coughing up yellow or green mucus
- Runny and stuffy nose starting a few days before chest congestion
- Feeling run down or tired
- Sore ribs from long periods of coughing
- Not being able to be as active
- Wheezing or a whistling sound while breathing
Contact your provider if you have these symptoms.
What causes Acute Bronchitis?
Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. In rare cases it is caused by bacterial infection, although this occurs in fewer than 10% of cases.
What are risk factors for Acute Bronchitis?
You may have a higher risk of getting acute bronchitis if you:
- Are in close contact with someone who has a cold or acute bronchitis
- Have not had age-appropriate immunizations (shots)
- Are exposed to tobacco smoke, fumes, dust, and air pollution
Diagnosing Acute Bronchitis
Your health care provider diagnoses acute bronchitis by asking you questions about symptoms and doing a physical examination. Providers rarely order other tests to diagnose this infection. If you have or recently had a fever, your provider may order a chest X-ray to make sure you do not have pneumonia.
Treating Acute Bronchitis
If you are diagnosed with acute bronchitis, you may miss school or work for a few days because of your symptoms. You also may have a cough that lasts up to 3 weeks but slowly improves.
This infection usually lasts no longer than 1 to 2 weeks. Your provider may recommend rest, fluids, a cough suppressant, and a pain reliever. A humidifier or steamer may also help. You may need inhaled medicine to open your airways if you are wheezing.
Antibiotics have not been proven to heal acute bronchitis or reduce symptoms. Because viruses cause most cases of acute bronchitis, antibiotics are not used. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria.
In addition, using antibiotics when they aren’t recommended can cause side effects. Using antibiotics too often also may mean that your body won’t respond to antibiotics when it needs to. If your provider thinks that bacteria caused your acute bronchitis, he or she might then prescribe antibiotics.
Managing Acute Bronchitis
Usually, the symptoms of acute bronchitis last only a couple of weeks. However, if you have a cough that won’t go away, it may be the sign of a more serious disease. Contact your health care provider to describe these long-term symptoms.
Preventing Acute Bronchitis
Avoiding things that irritate your lungs is important for preventing acute bronchitis as well as treating it. If you smoke, quit. To help protect your lungs, wear a mask over your mouth and nose when using lung irritants such as paint, paint remover, or varnish.
Other ways to help prevent acute bronchitis include:
- Washing your hands often to reduce your exposure to viruses and bacteria
- Getting a flu shot every year
Ask your provider if you should get a pneumonia shot, especially if you’re 60 years of age or older.
The American Lung Association recommends patients and caregivers join our Living with Lung Disease Support Community to connect with others facing this disease. To talk to a trained lung professional, call the American Lung Association’s Lung Helpline at 1-800-LUNGUSA. They can help answer your questions and connect you with additional support.
Questions to ask your health care provider
Making notes before your visit and taking along a trusted family member or friend can help you through the first appointment with your provider.
The following are some questions to help you discuss acute bronchitis with your provider:
- Am I contagious?
- Do I need to get a chest X-ray? (Most of the time, the answer is “No.”)
- Should I be concerned about having a fever?
- Should I take over-the-counter cough and cold products?
- When should I seek emergency help?