Bronchitis means that the tubes that carry air to the lungs (the bronchial tubes) are inflamed and irritated. When this happens, the bronchial tubes swell and produce mucus. This makes you cough.
There are two types of bronchitis:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
There are several things you can do to help prevent bronchitis.
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 StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineJohn Pope, MD, MPH - PediatricsMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
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
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2020 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.