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Acute Bronchitis

Your healthcare provider has told you that you have acute bronchitis. Bronchitis is infection or inflammation of the airways in the lungs (bronchial tubes). Normally, air moves easily in and out of the airways. Bronchitis narrows the airways. This makes it harder for air to flow in and out of the lungs. This causes symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing up yellow or green mucus, and wheezing.

Bronchitis can be acute or chronic. Acute means it happens quickly and goes away in a short time. Chronic means a condition lasts a long time and often comes back. Most people with acute bronchitis get better in 1 to 2 weeks. 

Outline of human chest showing trachea and lungs. Closeup of bronchial tube showing inflammation and mucus buildup.

What causes acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is often caused by a virus such as a cold or the flu. In some cases, it may be caused by bacteria. Certain factors make it more likely for a cold or flu to turn into bronchitis. These include being very young, being elderly, having a heart or lung problem, or having a weak immune system. Cigarette smoking also makes bronchitis more likely.

When bronchitis develops, the airways become swollen. The airways may also become infected with bacteria. This is known as a secondary infection.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis

Symptoms can include:

  • Coughing with mucus

  • Wheezing

  • Feeling short of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Fever

Diagnosing acute bronchitis

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and health history. He or she will give you a physical exam. This will include listening to your lungs while you breathe. You may have a chest X-ray to look for infection in the lungs (pneumonia) if you have had a fever. You may also have blood tests to check for infection.

Treating acute bronchitis

Bronchitis usually goes away in 1 to 2 weeks without treatment. You can help feel better by:

  • Taking medicine as directed. Talk to your healthcare provider before taking any over-the-counter medicines (OTC). Some OTC medicines help relieve inflammation in your bronchial tubes. They can also thin mucus. This makes it easier to cough up. Your healthcare provider may prescribe an inhaler to help open up the bronchial tubes. Most of the time, acute bronchitis is caused by a viral infection. Antibiotics are usually not prescribed for viral infections.

  • Drinking plenty of fluids, such as water, juice, or warm soup. Fluids loosen mucus so that you can cough it up. This helps you breathe more easily. Fluids also prevent dehydration.

  • Using a humidifier. This can help reduce coughing.

  • Getting plenty of rest

  • Not smoking. Also, don't let anyone else smoke in your home. In public places, move away from secondhand smoke.

Recovery and follow-up

Follow up with your doctor. You will likely feel better in 1 to 2 weeks. But you may have a dry cough for a longer time. Let your doctor know if you still have symptoms other than a dry cough after 2 weeks. Tell him or her if you get bronchial infections often.

Self-care tips

To get relief from your symptoms and prevent bronchitis:

  • Stop smoking. Stopping smoking is the most important step you can take to treat bronchitis. If you need help stopping smoking, talk with your healthcare provider.

  • Stay away from secondhand smoke and other irritants. Try to stay away from smoke, chemicals, fumes, and dust. Don’t let anyone smoke in your home. Stay indoors on smoggy days.

  • Prevent lung infections. Ask your healthcare provider about the flu and pneumonia vaccines. Take steps to prevent colds and other lung infections.

  • Wash your hands well. Wash your hands often with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer when you can’t wash your hands. Stay away from crowds during cold and flu season.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call the healthcare provider if you have any of these:

  • Fever of 100.4°F ( 38.0°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Symptoms that get worse, or new symptoms

  • Breathing not getting better with treatments

  • Symptoms that don’t start to get better in 1 week

Online Medical Reviewer: Alan J Blaivas DO
Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2019
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.