Acute Bronchitis

What is acute bronchitis?

Bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchial tubes. These are the airways that carry air into your lungs. When these tubes get infected, they swell. Mucus (thick fluid) forms inside them. This narrows the airways, making it harder for you to breathe.

There are 2 types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. Chronic bronchitis is long-lasting and can reoccur. It usually is caused by constant irritation, such as from smoking. Acute bronchitis lasts only a short time. Most cases get better in several days, though the cough can last for several weeks.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis

The symptoms of acute bronchitis can include:

  • Chest congestion or tightness
  • Cough that brings up clear, yellow, or green mucus
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Body aches

Your cough can last for several weeks or more. This happens because the bronchial tubes take a while to heal. A lasting cough may signal another problem, such as asthma or pneumonia.

What causes acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is most often caused by a virus. The same viruses that cause colds can cause acute bronchitis. First, the virus affects your nose, sinuses, and throat. Then the infection travels to the lining of the bronchial tubes. As your body fights the virus, swelling occurs and mucus is produced.

You can catch a virus from breathing it in or by skin contact. You are at higher risk of catching the virus if you have close contact with someone who has a cold or acute bronchitis.

Lesser-known causes of acute bronchitis are:

  • Bacteria or fungal infections.
  • Exposure to irritants, such as smoke, dust, or fumes. You are at greater risk if your bronchial tubes already have damage.
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), which causes heartburn. You can get acute bronchitis when stomach acid gets into the bronchial tubes.

How is acute bronchitis diagnosed?

Your doctor can confirm acute bronchitis. He or she will do a physical exam and review your symptoms. He or she will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. Your doctor might order a chest X-ray to look at your lungs. This will help rule out pneumonia.

Can acute bronchitis be prevented or avoided?

You can help prevent acute bronchitis by staying healthy and avoiding germs. Wash your hands with soap often to kill any viruses.

If you smoke, the best defense against acute bronchitis is to quit. Smoking damages your bronchial tubes and puts you at risk for infection. Smoking also slows down the healing process.

Other steps you can take to avoid acute bronchitis include:

  • Wear a mask over your nose and mouth when using lung irritants. These could include paint, paint remover, or varnish.
  • Get a flu shot every year.
  • Ask your doctor if you should get a pneumonia shot, especially if you are over age 60.

Acute bronchitis treatment

Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a virus. This means that antibiotics won’t help. The infection needs to run its course. It almost always goes away on its own. Home treatment focuses on easing the symptoms:

  • Drink fluids but avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce inflammation, ease pain, and lower your fever. These could include acetaminophen (1 brand name: Tylenol) or ibuprofen (1 brand name: Advil). Never give aspirin to a child. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, which can affect the liver and brain.
  • Increase the humidity in your home or use a humidifier.

There are some over-the-counter cough medicines that help break up or loosen mucus. Look for the word “guaifenesin” on the label or ask your pharmacist for a suggestion.

Do not hold in a cough that brings up mucus. This type of cough helps clear mucus from your bronchial tubes. If you smoke, you should quit. It will help your bronchial tubes heal faster.

Some people who have acute bronchitis need inhaled medicine. You might need this if you are wheezing. It can help open your bronchial tubes and clear out mucus. You usually take it with an inhaler. An inhaler sprays medicine right into your bronchial tubes. Your doctor will decide if this treatment is right for you.

If your doctor thinks bacteria have caused your acute bronchitis, he or she may give you antibiotics.

Living with acute bronchitis

Most cases of acute bronchitis go away on their own in 7 to 10 days. You should call your doctor if:

  • You continue to wheeze and cough for more than 2 weeks, especially at night when you lie down or when you are active.
  • You continue to cough for more than 2 weeks and have a bad-tasting fluid come up into your mouth. This may mean you have GERD. This is a condition in which stomach acid gets into your esophagus.
  • Your cough produces blood, you feel weak, you have an ongoing high fever, and you are short of breath. These symptoms may mean you have pneumonia.

The risk of developing complications from acute bronchitis, such as pneumonia, is greater in some people. These include:

  • Young children
  • The elderly
  • People who have asthma
  • People who have other health issues (such as cancer or diabetes)
  • People who haven’t gotten vaccines for flu, pneumonia, or whooping cough

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What is causing my acute bronchitis?
  • Are there over-the-counter medicines or prescriptions that can help relieve my symptoms?
  • Am I contagious?
  • Am I at risk for getting pneumonia or other lung infections?
  • What should I do if my cough doesn’t respond to treatment or gets worse?