How Long Does Bronchitis Last?

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If you think you have bronchitis, It’s normal to wonder how long it takes to get over it. In many cases, a doctor won’t prescribe anything except rest and over-the-counter treatments. So how long will you have to endure this hacking, productive cough?

Figuring out how long your bronchitis will last is a complicated question. There are two different types of bronchitis, acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term). Within each type, there can be multiple causes. Individual causes have unique treatments and recovery times. 

Generally, acute bronchitis caused by an infection will last a few weeks, but chronic bronchitis caused by pollution or smoking can last months and come back yearly. Either way, you’ll probably have a worn-out, bronchitis-fatigue feeling for several weeks.

This article will review the types of bronchitis, their causes, and how long they last.

Doctor examining patient for bronchitis


Science Photo Library / Getty

Chronic vs. Acute Bronchitis

There are two main kinds of bronchitis—acute and chronic. During bronchitis, the tubes that lead from your windpipe into your lungs (called the bronchi) swell up and produce protective mucus that triggers coughing.

The more common and less severe type of bronchitis is acute bronchitis. An infection like the common cold or flu triggers acute bronchitis. This infection can be a virus or (less often) bacteria or fungi. With acute bronchitis, sometimes called a chest cold, you may still be contagious.

Without complications, acute bronchitis lasts less than three weeks. You should be able to recover on your own, without prescription medication. Rest and over-the-counter medications to treat your cough, loosen mucus, and ease pain and fever should be enough to treat your symptoms.

The second trigger for bronchitis is environmental and causes chronic bronchitis. Long-term exposure to pollutants or tobacco smoke irritates the bronchi and causes the buildup of mucus.

Chronic bronchitis is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a kind of illness that makes it hard to breathe. It lasts at least three months and comes back year after year. You should get long-term treatment for it.

Symptoms of Bronchitis

Though the causes of bronchitis differ, acute and chronic bronchitis have similar symptoms. 

Acute bronchitis will have initial symptoms similar to a cold or respiratory infection, including:

  • A stuffy, runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Scratchy or painful throat
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Decreased appetite

Lingering symptoms of both acute and chronic bronchitis include:

How Long Each Lasts

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis lasts at least three months out of the year and recurs each year for at least two years. It can be a persistent problem that lasts for the rest of your life.

A medical professional can help treat the symptoms of bronchitis with inhalers, drugs, and other therapies. Quitting smoking can also help improve symptoms of chronic bronchitis. 

While chronic bronchitis itself isn’t contagious, it can lead to frequent colds, flu, and other respiratory illnesses that can spread to other people.

Acute Bronchitis

Generally, you should be feeling better from acute bronchitis within a week or two, though you may have a lingering cough and fatigue for three weeks or more.

The types of viruses and bacteria that cause bronchitis will usually have been in your system from two to six days before you start feeling cold symptoms. Once you start feeling sick, you’ll feel like you have a cold or flu that lasts a few days to up to 10. Other symptoms may resolve, but you can develop a lingering cough for potentially a few weeks.

Bronchitis, especially if it’s viral, can be passed on to others just hours after you come into contact with it, long before you develop symptoms. You’ll be contagious through the cold or flu sickness phase—at least a few days, maybe even a week.

Antibiotics

A doctor will only prescribe antibiotics for bronchitis if they think bacteria are causing your symptoms and you’re at high risk of the infection not resolving on its own. This may apply to you if you are older, frail, or have other conditions that may make bronchitis worse. Antibiotics won’t heal your viral bronchitis any faster.

Complications

The prolonged coughing and irritation from bronchitis can cause some complications. Extended or aggressive coughing fits can irritate or injure the tissues in the throat, causing bleeding and injury. 

The irritation of the airways can allow bacteria to move in and set up shop, creating a new “secondary” infection that’s different from what initially caused your bronchitis.

Bronchitis can also turn into pneumonia, a more severe and potentially deadly infection of your lungs. The lungs fill up with fluid, which makes it difficult to breathe. You may also have a fever, chills, and chest pain.

You’ll need to see a doctor for your pneumonia. If a bacteria caused your pneumonia, you’ll likely be prescribed antibiotics to treat it. Viral pneumonia will often go away on its own in a few weeks. But it may be treated with antiviral drugs if it’s severe or the patient is at risk of being hospitalized.

It may take a while to recover from pneumonia. Some feel better in a week or so. In others, the illness lingers for a month or more. 

When To See a Doctor

Chronic bronchitis can get worse over time, and so it needs to be treated. You should see a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you may have chronic bronchitis.

Most of the time, acute bronchitis should resolve on its own. But contact a medical professional if you have:

  • A temperature above 100.4 degrees Farenheit
  • Bloody mucus from too much coughing
  • Wheezing and trouble breathing
  • Symptoms that persist for longer than three weeks 
  • Bronchitis that goes away and comes back

If you think your bronchitis has developed into a secondary infection or moved into your lungs and caused pneumonia, contact a doctor.

Summary

Acute bronchitis is typically caused by an infection. It will usually begin to clear up in a week or two, but you may have a cough for three weeks. Chronic bronchitis is caused by environmental irritants. It lasts for at least three months and recurs yearly. It is a long-term condition that needs ongoing treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Chronic bronchitis is a life-long condition, but you can manage it with the help of a health professional. If you've been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, it’s essential to maintain a relationship with your provider and manage your condition appropriately.

Lifestyle changes can reduce the symptoms of chronic bronchitis and prevent it from getting worse. Ask a medical professional for help quitting smoking and work on reducing your exposure to other irritants. Physical activity can help strengthen your lungs, so ask about your options. You can prevent future infections by getting vaccines for the flu and pneumonia.

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7 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.
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