Acute Bronchitis

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Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, the airways that carry air to your lungs. It causes a cough that often brings up mucus. It can also cause shortness of breath, wheezing, a low fever, and chest tightness. There are two main types of bronchitis: acute and chronic.Most cases of acute bronchitis get better within several days. But your cough can last for several weeks after the infection is gone.The same viruses that cause colds and the flu often cause acute bronchitis. These viruses spread through the air when people cough, or though physical contact (for example, on unwashed hands). Being exposed to tobacco smoke, air pollution, dusts, vapors, and fumes can also cause acute bronchitis. Less often, bacteria can also cause acute bronchitis.To diagnose acute bronchitis, your health care provider will ask about your symptoms and listen to your breathing. You may also have other tests.Treatments include rest, fluids, and aspirin (for adults) or acetaminophen to treat fever. A humidifier or steam can also help. You may need inhaled medicine to open your airways if you are wheezing. Antibiotics won't help if the cause is viral. You may get antibiotics if the cause is bacterial.


Symptoms of both acute and chronic bronchitis include breathing problems, such as:

Chest congestion, when your chest feels full or clogged

A cough that may bring up mucus that’s clear, white, yellow, or green

Shortness of breath

Wheezing or a whistling sound when you breathe

Symptoms of acute bronchitis also may include:

Body aches and chills

Feeling “wiped out”

Low fever

Runny, stuffy nose

Sore throat

Even after the other symptoms of acute bronchitis are gone, the cough can last a few weeks while your bronchial tubes heal and the swelling goes down. If it goes on much longer than that, the problem might be something else.If you have a new cough, fever, or shortness of breath, call your doctor to talk about whether it might be COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.With chronic bronchitis, your cough lasts for at least 3 months and comes back at least 2 years in a row.


Causes of acute bronchitis include viral and bacterial infections, environmental factors, and other lung conditions.

Viral infection: Viruses cause 85 to 95 percentTrusted Source of acute bronchitis cases in adults. The same viruses that cause the common cold or flu can cause acute bronchitis.

Bacterial infection: In rare cases, bacterial bronchitis can develop after a viral infection of bronchitis. This can result from infections by bacteria such as Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Chlamydia pneumoniae, and Bordetella pertussis (which causes whooping cough).

Irritants: Breathing in irritants such as smoke, smog, or chemical fumes can cause inflammation in your trachea and bronchial tubes. This can lead to acute bronchitis.

Other lung conditions: People with chronic bronchitis or asthma sometimes develop acute bronchitis. In these cases, acute bronchitis isn’t likely to be contagious because it’s not caused by an infection.

Risk factors

There are certain lifestyle risk factors that increase the risk of having acute bronchitis. If you have the following factors, talk to your healthcare provider.2


Exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke or smoking yourself is one of the most common lifestyle risk factors. Using products such as cigarettes or cigars can damage your lungs and make it more likely that you will have bronchitis. 

If you do get acute bronchitis, it can last longer and cause more severe symptoms because you smoke. For example, you may have more trouble breathing or produce more mucus in the lungs. Ask your healthcare provider for help if you have problems quitting smoking on your own.1 

 How to Successfully Complete a Smoking Cessation Program

Chemical Products 

If you are exposed to chemical products that can be inhaled, then you may be at a higher risk of getting acute bronchitis.

Exposure can happen at work, school, or in other areas.

Protect Yourself

If you are around chemical products or fumes, make sure to wear protective gear and limit how much time you spend in the setting.2

Air Pollution 

Air pollution is considered a lifestyle risk factor for bronchitis. You are more likely to be exposed to air pollution in urban environments with more cars and factories. However, anyone can come in contact with air pollutants that irritate the bronchi.4 

Exposure to Infections 

If you work or live in a setting that creates a high risk of coming into contact with viruses or bacteria, this increases your chance of developing acute bronchitis. Work settings such as hospitals are one example.

You may be able to reduce your risk by following hygiene best practices, such as:

Washing your hands or using hand sanitizer 

Wearing a mask or protective gear

Not touching your face

Avoiding people who are sick if possible

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While acute bronchitis usually runs its course, complications such as secondary bacterial infection (“superinfection”) may occur in 5% to 10% of people.

Can Acute Bronchitis Become Chronic Bronchitis?

It’s important to note that, in addition to these complications, repeated episodes of acute bronchitis (especially in people who smoke or who are exposed to dust at work) can eventually lead to chronic bronchitis.

This progression from acute bronchitis to chronic bronchitis is an important reason to talk to your healthcare provider if you are experiencing repeated symptoms and to eliminate potential causes, such as smoking.

Secondary Infections

Secondary bacterial infections or “superinfections” are not uncommon following an episode of acute viral bronchitis and can both lengthen and worsen the illness.

Viral infections affect the body in a few ways that predispose to these infections:

Damage to the airways (the cilia that catch debris and bacteria) can make it easier for these foreign invaders to gain access to areas such as the sinuses or lungs.

Viral infections can also affect the immune system (for example, by reducing the number of macrophages that “eat” bacteria) such that bacteria are allowed to grow and multiply.

Viruses such as influenza may disrupt the normally tight junctions between the cells lining the airways such that bacteria can more easily attach to and penetrate these normal barriers. The buildup of bacteria in the airways that may occur with viral infections is referred to by scientists as “bacterial colonization.”

Bacteria that are commonly responsible for superinfections (and are often present on the skin and in the environment) include Streptococcus pneumoniae (the bacteria that causes pneumococcal pneumonia), Haemophilis Influenzae, and Staphylococcus aureus.

Some potential secondary infections include:

Middle ear infections (otitis media), especially in children

Sinus infections (sinusitis)

Pneumonia (discussed next)

Sepsis (occurs when bacteria multiply in the bloodstream causing a body side and often very serious infection)


Pneumonia is the most common complication of viral acute bronchitis, occurring in roughly 5% of people. Among children aged 5 and over, as well as adults, the most common cause is Streptococcus pneumonia.

This is the reason why the pneumonia vaccine is recommended for children and for adults over the age of 65, as well as for people with lung conditions—such as COPD or asthma—or who are immunosuppressed for some reason.

In children under the age of 5, the most common cause of pneumonia is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which may be responsible for initial bronchitis as well as a secondary viral infection.


You can help prevent acute bronchitis by doing your best to stay healthy and keep others healthy, including: Clean your hands. Get recommended vaccines, such as the flu vaccine. Don't smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.

Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face to reduce your exposure to viruses and bacteria. ...

Avoid standing near people who are coming down with an illness or are visibly fighting cold or flu symptoms.

Avoid cigarette smoke. ...

Get your annual flu shot.

Consider wearing a mask.