What is bronchitis?
Bronchitis is a condition that develops when the airways in the lungs, called bronchial tubes, become and cause coughing, often with mucus production. Bronchitis can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).
Acute bronchitis, which is very common, usually results, from an infection, and may be contagious. Most people recover after a few days or weeks.
Chronic bronchitis is defined as lasting for at least three months and returning at least two years in a row. In chronic bronchitis, breathing can be more difficult because the airway lining stays inflamed, which leads to swelling and more mucus production.
Acute bronchitis is usually caused by airway inflammation from viral infections, such as the cold, influenza (flu), respiratory syncytial virus RSV, or COVID-19 viruses. Occasionally, a bacterial infection can cause acute bronchitis.
Chronic bronchitis is a frequent symptom, along with emphysema and asthma, in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). There are a number of risk factors for chronic bronchitis:
- Cigarette smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke (cigarette smoke from someone else)
- Older age
- Exposure to fumes or certain kinds of dust
- A family history of COPD
- A history of respiratory diseases such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, or bronchiecstasis.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Chronic bronchitis does not increase the risk of COVID-19; however, it does increase the risk of complications after getting COVID-19.
Taking steps such as the following may prevent bronchitis or lower your chances of getting it again.
- Quit smoking if you smoke.
- Avoid fumes, air pollution, or secondhand smoke (cigarette smoke from someone else).
- Get the flu shot every year.
- Get the pneumonia vaccine when appropriate, based on your age or risk factors.
- Get the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots at the recommended times.
The symptoms are the same for both acute and chronic bronchitis:
- Cough with mucus
- Chest pain
- Low fever of below 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
- Shortness of breath
Symptoms of acute cases clear on their own after 2 − 3 weeks. With chronic bronchitis, a productive cough can last three months or longer.
When to see a doctor
See your healthcare provider if your cough does not go away after 2 − 3 weeks, gets worse, or if you have trouble breathing.
To diagnose bronchitis, your healthcare provider will do a physical exam and ask about your medical history and symptoms. Your provider may also order a blood test to look for signs of infection, or a chest X-ray to check whether your lungs and bronchial tubes look normal. These additional tests are required because cough is a symptom for many other conditions, such as pneumonia, COVID-19, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), and asthma.
Bronchitis has also been linked with other diseases such as pneumonia, which includes other symptoms like high fever (100.4 degrees or above), fast breathing, and a higher heart rate. A history of wheezing and coughing is linked to asthma. Two of three people who had bronchitis at least twice in five years also had asthma.
Acute bronchitis often goes away on its own without treatment. However, you can take steps at home to feel better.
- Use over-the-counter (OTC) medicines containing dextromethorphan or guaifenesin to possibly relieve cough symptoms or to loosen mucus.
- Drink hot tea or water with honey.
- Suck on throat lozenges.
- Keep a humidifier nearby.
- Use inhaled medicines such as albuterol, if prescribed. They may relieve symptoms.
Healthcare providers typically prescribe antibiotics only if they find that you have a bacterial infection, which is more common in young children. If you are taking any prescribed medicines or have other diseases, talk to your healthcare provider before taking any over-the-counter medicines.
The goal of the treatment for chronic bronchitis is to help you breathe better and control your symptoms. Your healthcare provider may talk to you about:
- Quitting smoking
- Taking medicines to help clear your airways or prevent symptoms from getting worse
- Oxygen therapy to help you breathe better
- Pulmonary rehabilitation to learn breathing techniques such as pursed-lip breathing and to help you prevent symptoms from getting worse