Key Points about Acute Bronchitis

  • Acute bronchitis is an infection of the bronchial tubes that can be caused by a virus or bacteria.
  • Symptoms of bronchitis may include coughing, expelling mucus that is yellow or green, a sore throat, and a wheezing sound when breathing.
  • A cough due to acute bronchitis can persist for up to eight weeks, even when other symptoms have subsided. 
  • Bronchitis usually resolves on its own without the use of antibiotics.
  • Call your doctor if you are having trouble breathing, if your cough persists past ten days, or if you have a persistent fever.
Common related conditions
Asthma

Overview

The bronchial tubes are the airways through which air enters the lungs. When the lining of these tubes becomes infected by a virus or bacteria, acute bronchitis, or a chest cold, develops. Once infected, the bronchial tubes become inflamed and begin to produce excess mucus.

The most severe symptoms typically last two to three weeks, after which time the infection generally clears on its own in otherwise healthy people.

The symptoms of acute bronchitis can be similar to other illnesses, including pneumonia. Acute bronchitis can cause a phlegm-producing cough, fatigue, a sore throat, and a wheezing sound while breathing. Acute bronchitis is not the same as chronic bronchitis, which persists indefinitely and is most often caused by long-term exposure to cigarette smoke.

A practitioner will help you determine your specific illness and provide treatment accordingly.    

Acute bronchitis causes

The inflammation that causes acute bronchitis symptoms can result from:

  • A viral infection, such as a cold, flu, or sinus infection
  • A bacterial infection
  • Exposure to lung irritants, such as tobacco smoke, chemicals, and allergens

Acute bronchitis risk factors

You may be at an increased risk of developing bronchitis if you:

  • Have been exposed to a person with a cold, flu, or bronchial infection
  • Are not up to date on appropriate immunizations
  • Have frequent exposure to tobacco smoke, chemicals, dust, and pollution

Acute bronchitis symptoms

Symptoms of acute bronchitis typically start a few days after the onset of a cold or flu, and may include:

  • Coughing
  • Yellow or green mucus production in lungs
  • Noisy breathing (wheezing or rattling sound in lungs)
  • Absence of fever or a low fever
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Chest soreness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache

Acute bronchitis complications 

Rare complications from bronchitis include:

  • Pneumonia, which occurs in approximately 5% of acute bronchitis cases
  • Bleeding airways
  • Progression to chronic bronchitis

Acute bronchitis prevention

Avoiding colds and flus is the best way to prevent acute bronchitis. In order to do this:

  • Get regular flu shots
  • Avoid contact with infected persons 
  • Reduce exposure to irritants and allergens (quit smoking, wear protective masks when exposed to fumes and chemicals)

Acute bronchitis agnosis

Your doctor will discuss your symptoms with you. Diagnosis may be made after listening to your breathing, or if still uncertain then your doctor may:

  • Order chest X-Rays
  • Test lung mucus for bacterial infection
  • Test blood oxygen levels
  • Perform a lung function test

Acute bronchitis treatment

Because most cases of acute bronchitis are viral and cannot be treated with antibiotics, treatment centers around symptom relief:

  • Drink plenty of fluids (avoid alcohol and caffeine)
  • Stop smoking
  • Take over the counter anti-inflammatory and pain relief medications (ibuprofen, acetaminophen) to reduce inflammation and fever 
  • Get ample rest
  • Use a warm air humidifier in your home or bedroom
  • Antibiotics or different treatments may be recommended if the cause of bronchitis is bacterial

When to seek care 

See your doctor if:

  • There is no improvement to your cough after ten days
  • You have a fever over 100 F or a fever that doesn’t go away
  • Unexplained weight loss occurs along with a cough
  • You have difficulty breathing, cough up blood, and/or have chest pain 

Next Steps

If your symptoms persist or recur often over the course of several months, you may have chronic bronchitis. Your doctor can refer you to additional specialists and offer guidance on how to proceed after a diagnosis.