What Is Acute Bronchitis?

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Acute bronchitis is inflammation that happens in the breathing tubes called the bronchi. The bronchi carry the air to your lungs, so you can breathe. When these airways to the lungs are inflamed, they can swell and make mucus, which makes you cough. Another name for acute bronchitis is a chest cold.

Woman coughing

Mallika Wiriyathitipirn / EyeEm / Getty Images

Types of Bronchitis 

The two main categories of bronchitis are:

  • Acute: Temporary and usually will not cause permanent breathing problems
  • Chronic: Can last for a long time and may keep coming back, but it is possible to manage this condition

In some cases, acute bronchitis can get worse and become chronic.

Acute Bronchitis Symptoms

The most common symptoms of acute bronchitis are:

  • Coughing (usually with mucus) 
  • Sore throat and chest 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Wheezing 
  • Fatigue  
  • Body aches 
  • Headache
  • Low-grade fever  

Causes

The most common cause of acute bronchitis is a virus. Sometimes, bacteria can cause this condition. Acute bronchitis often occurs after you have the common cold or flu. It can also happen after an upper respiratory infection. In other cases, breathing in toxic or chemical compounds can lead to bronchitis. 

Other causes of acute bronchitis include breathing in:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Dust 
  • Vapors 
  • Strong fumes
  • Allergens 
  • Chemical cleaning products 

Diagnosis

To diagnose acute bronchitis, your healthcare provider will start by asking about your symptoms and medical history. They will do a physical exam and may order additional tests. You may need a chest X-ray to rule out the possibility of another condition causing your symptoms.

Treatment

If your bronchitis is caused by bacteria, you may receive antibiotics. However, your doctor will not prescribe antibiotics for a viral infection.

Other treatment options include:

  • Drinking fluids
  • Resting
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers 
  • Taking acetaminophen for fevers 
  • Taking cough medicine 
  • Using a humidifier or steam to help breathing
  • Using an inhaler with a bronchodilator to help breathing

Prognosis 

In general, acute bronchitis can go away on its own, and some people start to feel better in a few days. However, most people have symptoms for about two weeks. It is also possible for the cough to last up to eight weeks.

If you have the following conditions, you are more likely to get acute bronchitis and for it to return: 

  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Allergies
  • Enlarged tonsils or adenoids

Acute bronchitis can be serious if you have heart or lung diseases that may affect your breathing. Talk to your doctor if you have these medical conditions, as you may need additional treatment. 

In rare cases, complications such as pneumonia occur after bronchitis. You are more likely to get pneumonia if you:

  • Are more than 65 years old or are less than two years old
  • Have chronic health problems that affect your breathing, such as asthma
  • Have a weak immune system or take medications that suppress your immune system
  • Have smoked in the past or currently smoke

Coping 

There are steps you can take to make coping with bronchitis easier. Since acute bronchitis can make you feel tired and achy, it is important to rest as much as you can. Reach out to friends and family if possible for additional support. 

Bronchitis can make it more difficult to breathe, so you want to avoid smoking or smoky environments. Using a humidifier or breathing in steam from a hot bowl of water can help. Another option is to take hot showers with steam.  

A Word From Verywell

Although most cases of acute bronchitis clear up on their own, you should see a doctor if your symptoms do not go away or get worse. Talk to a healthcare professional right away if you have a fever over 100 degrees F for more than three days or cough up mucus with blood. A doctor can also determine if there are complications from bronchitis that require additional treatment. 

Some of the symptoms of acute bronchitis are similar to those found in other health conditions, such as lung infections. Your doctor can determine what you have by ordering tests like chest X-rays. It is important to discuss any concerns you have about the diagnosis or treatment process. 

Acute bronchitis is one of the most common infections to affect the lungs and is also one of the top reasons for seeing a doctor. Although it is more common in children, adults at any age can have this condition.

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Article Sources
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  1. MedlinePlus. Acute bronchitis. Updated December 10, 2020.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Acute bronchitis

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chest cold (acute bronchitis). Updated August 30, 2019.

  4. American Lung Association. Bronchitis (acute).