How Acute Bronchitis Is Treated

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Coughing is one of the top complaints that brings people to their doctor's office, and acute bronchitis, also called a chest cold, is a common culprit. This condition is usually caused by a virus, but it can also be caused by bacteria.

In most cases, acute bronchitis resolves on its own. Treatment mainly focuses on managing symptoms and supportive care, such as drinking lots of fluid and resting. Even when the acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria, antibiotics are not recommended and will not help you get better.

a sick woman coughing at home

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Home Remedies and Lifestyle

Supportive care and symptom management are the primary treatment focus for acute bronchitis. In most cases, the infection just has to run its course.

Supportive care at home include:

  • Resting and getting plenty of fluids
  • Drinking lots of water, which helps loosen chest congestion
  • Using a humidifier or steam, which helps moisturize the air and loosen your mucus

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

Over-the-counter medications for cough can help with acute bronchitis. Examples of medication that can help control cough or clear mucus include:

  • Antitussives, also called cough suppressants, like Tessalon Perles (benzonatate) or Delsym (dextromethorphan)
  • Expectorants, which help clear mucus from the airways, like Mucinex (guaifenesin)
  • A pain reliever and fever reducer, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)

When To See a Doctor

You should seek help from a healthcare professional for your cough if you have the following:

  • Temperature of 100.4°F or greater
  • A cough with bloody mucus
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • A cough that lasts more than three weeks
  • Recurrent episodes of bronchitis

Prescriptions

If your cough has gone on for several weeks or is accompanied by shortness of breath or a drop in your oxygen level, your doctor may take a more aggressive approach. They will want to rule out chronic bronchitis or other respiratory problems.

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection, so antibiotics are usually avoided. Antibiotics may only be warranted when your acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria.

Skip the Antibiotics for Acute Bronchitis

About 90% of all acute bronchitis cases are caused by viruses, yet from 1996 to 2010, antibiotics were prescribed at 76% of doctor's visits for this condition. In most cases, these prescriptions were issued at the request or expectation of the patient, even if the doctor felt antibiotics would be useless.

Rather than antibiotics, your doctor is more likely to prescribe medications that can help reduce inflammation and open the spaces in your airways. These include beta2 agonists, a bronchodilator that typically comes in the form of an inhaler.

Bronchitis Doctor Discussion Guide

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Complementary and alternative medicines are popular when it comes to the treatment of colds and flus. The same goes for acute bronchitis.

There have been some studies into the use of African geranium preparations (Pelargonium sidoides) to treat acute bronchitis, but the quality of these studies is low.

Recent research on the use of ivy leaf (Hedera helix) has shown some benefit in treating acute bronchitis, although there are currently no formal recommendations in support of this treatment.

Instead, honey is viewed as a generally safe and effective alternative for manufactured medications.

Summary

Acute bronchitis doesn't generally require treatment and resolves on its own. However, you can use over-the-counter medications to alleviate your symptoms, such as pain relievers and cough suppressants. The best things to do are getting plenty of rest and fluids and letting your infection run its course.

A Word From Verywell 

Acute bronchitis is unpleasant but short-lived. It usually clears up on its own. If you see a doctor, they will not prescribe antibiotics since most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses and not bacteria. Even if your acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria, antibiotics generally won't help. Rest, supportive care, and over-the-counter medications to treat your cough and fever are generally the best strategies to treat acute bronchitis.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chest cold (acute bronchitis). Updated April 14, 2021.

  2. Kinkade S, Long NA. Acute bronchitis. Am Fam Physician. 2016 Oct 1;94(7):560-565.

  3. Kruttschnitt E, et al. Assessment of the efficacy and safety of ivy leaf (Hedera helix) cough syrup compared with acetylcysteine in adults and children with acute bronchitisEvidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2020. doi:10.1155/2020/1910656