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Acute Bronchitis
Learn about the causes and treatment of acute bronchitis.

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What is acute bronchitis?

Your bronchial tubes are responsible for delivering air to your lungs. When these tubes become inflamed, mucus can build up. The coughing and shortness of breath this causes is known as bronchitis. Acute bronchitis usually occurs due to a viral chest infection. Several types of viruses can cause it. Approximately 5 percent of adults report having acute bronchitis annually, and acute bronchitis is the ninth most common reason why adults visit their doctors.

It’s important to distinguish acute bronchitis from chronic bronchitis. Acute bronchitis usually lasts less than 10 days. However, the coughing can continue for several weeks while the inflammation is clearing. Chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, can last for several weeks and usually comes back. This is more common in people with asthma or emphysema.

Acute bronchitis could be contagious if the virus that causes it is contagious.

Symptoms of acute bronchitis

The symptoms of acute bronchitis aren’t specific. They mimic symptoms of other conditions, such as:

  • chronic cough
  • chronic bronchitis
  • postnasal drip
  • pneumonia

Therefore, acute bronchitis must always be diagnosed by a doctor.

Common symptoms of acute bronchitis include:

  • a cough, which may continue beyond 10 days and contain clear or colored mucus
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • a low-grade fever or a high fever may be an indication of a secondary infection such as pneumonia
  • chest pain
  • chest tightness
  • a sore throat from persistent coughing

Children with acute bronchitis may experience:

  • a runny nose
  • chills
  • back pain
  • muscle pain
  • a sore throat

If you experience any of the following symptoms, call your doctor:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • a deep, barking cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain
  • a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • a cough that last more than 10 days

Causes of acute bronchitis

The most common cause of acute bronchitis is a lower respiratory viral infection. Both the common cold and influenza can lead to acute bronchitis. In rare cases, the bacterium that causes whooping cough can also cause acute bronchitis. This bacterium is called Bordetella pertussis.

Risk factors for acute bronchitis

While anyone can develop acute bronchitis, certain risk factors can make you more likely to get it.

Risk factors for acute bronchitis include:

  • inhaling cigarette smoke, including secondhand smoke
  • having low resistance to illnesses, which occurs in older adults, the very young, and those who have otherwise weakened immune systems
  • having gastric reflux
  • being frequently exposed to irritants, including dust or chemical fumes

Older adults and those who are immunocompromised should take special care to avoid infectious illnesses and adopt preventive measures, like regular hand-washing, as they’re highly susceptible to developing acute bronchitis.

Diagnosing acute bronchitis

In many cases, acute bronchitis will go away without treatment. A physical examination may be the only thing your doctor needs to do to diagnose your condition. During the physical exam, your doctor will listen to your lungs as you breathe. They’ll also you ask about coughing, at night, whether your cough produces mucus, or whether you have other problems breathing. They may also ask about recent colds or viruses.

Blood tests, X-rays, or cultures usually aren’t necessary. However, if your doctor is uncertain about your diagnosis, they may suggest additional testing. Tests might also be necessary if your doctor thinks you have a secondary infection.

Treatment of acute bronchitis

You may think you need antibiotics to treat your bronchitis. However, antibiotics cannot treat viral bronchitis or any viral infection.

Only rarely can prescription medications treat the cause of viral bronchitis. However, certain home remedies can relieve the symptoms:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, and naproxen, may soothe your sore throat.
  • Humidifiers create moisture in the air you breathe. This can help loosen mucus in your nasal passages and chest, making it easier to breathe.
  • Drinking plenty of liquids, such as water or tea, can help thin out mucus. This makes it easier to cough it up or blow it out through your nose.
  • Ginger, which can easily be mixed with tea or hot water, is a natural anti-inflammatory that can relieve irritated and inflamed bronchial tubes.
  • Consuming honey can help soothe your cough. Honey also soothes your throat and provides antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Although prescriptions are not normally used for acute bronchitis, talk to your doctor if you are wheezing or having trouble breathing. They can prescribe inhaled medication to open your airways.

Acute bronchitis in children

Like those who are older and those who have compromised immune systems, children are also more likely to develop acute bronchitis than the average adult.

This is partially due to risk factors specific to them, which may include:

  • increased exposure to viruses (they spread through schools like wildfire, increasing the odds that your child could catch a cold that could give them acute bronchitis)
  • asthma (if your child has asthma, they are more likely to develop acute bronchitis)
  • breathing in debris, including dust

Symptoms that children with acute bronchitis will be likely to have include:

  • a fever
  • fatigue
  • body aches
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • soreness or a feeling of tightness in the chest
  • a cough, which may bring up white, yellow, or green mucus

Acute bronchitis treatment for children may be different than treatment plans prescribed to adults. Most treatment will be focused on relieving symptoms the child is experiencing. Treatments include:

  • acetaminophen, for a fever and aches
  • decongestants
  • increased fluid intake

You shouldn’t give OTC medications to children younger than 6 years old without a doctor’s approval. You shouldn’t give them cough medications without a doctor’s approval either, as they may not be safe.

Prognosis for people with acute bronchitis

The symptoms of acute bronchitis usually clear up within a few weeks. Occasionally, secondary infections can make it take longer to heal.

Acute bronchitis rarely has long-term health implications.

Preventing acute bronchitis

When you’re around people with acute bronchitis, avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. These body parts are very susceptible to infection. You should also practice good hygiene. Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, particularly during cold season. This can help you avoid viral infections.

If you’re frequently exposed to dust, chemical fumes, or other pollution that could increase your change of developing acute bronchitis, limit exposure as much as possible. Wear a mask if necessary to prevent inhaling debris.

Make sure that you’re well-rested, as this can help fight off infections that can lead to bronchitis.

In addition to these prevention methods, you can also make several lifestyle changes to prevent bronchitis. These include:

  • stopping smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
  • eating a healthy diet, which can keep your body as healthy as possible
  • avoiding sharing glasses or eating utensils
  • washing your hands consistently before eating or touching your face

There’s no way to completely prevent acute bronchitis because it has a variety of causes. You can help decrease your risk by getting the pneumonia vaccine, PPSV23, and the whooping cough vaccine. Getting a yearly flu shot can also help prevent acute bronchitis.

Written by: April Khan, Ana Gotter and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: [Ljava.lang.Object;@413c8f3e
Published: Jul 16, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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