Is Bronchitis Contagious?

Sometimes, but not in every case

Bronchitis is contagious when the cause is bacterial or viral. Infected saliva, respiratory droplets from a cough or sneeze, and contaminated surfaces can pass on an acute case. Chronic bronchitis, however, is usually not contagious since it is caused by long-term irritation to the lungs (e.g., from smoking).

Read on for more on the signs of bronchitis, how long bronchitis lasts, and how long bronchitis is contagious.

Countertop and germ spores (How Long Are You Contagious With Bronchitis?)

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How Do You Get Bronchitis?

You get bronchitis when the bronchi—the tubes that lead from your mouth to your lungs—swell up and start producing protective mucus that triggers coughing.

There are two main reasons this happens:

  • Acute bronchitis is often contagious and caused by an infection—viral or, less often, bacterial or fungal
  • Chronic cases are not contagious and are caused by long-term exposure to pollutants or irritants, like tobacco smoke; this type often co-occurs with other respiratory diseases

How Contagious Bronchitis Is Spread

Acute bronchitis is caused by the same viruses and bacteria that cause colds and the flu. Bronchitis can also be a symptom of COVID-19, which is caused by a coronavirus.

When someone is infected with either viral or bacterial acute bronchitis, they are contagious and can spread to others.

The virus or bacteria causing their bronchitis can be spread by:

  • Talking
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Being in close quarters with others
  • Touching shared surfaces, like doorknobs

If you touch a surface an infected person has touched and then touch your face, the virus or bacteria can cause an infection.

Bacterial bronchitis can turn into bacterial pneumonia. The bacteria that cause bacterial bronchitis are usually the same ones that cause pneumonia: Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus.

How Long You’re Contagious

If you develop acute bronchitis, it will be several days or more before you are no longer contagious.

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.

Bronchitis, especially if it’s viral, can be contagious from just hours after you’ve been exposed, long before you develop symptoms. Because of this, there’s a good number of days between when you’re exposed to when you start feeling sick, and you can pass the infection on during that time. 

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.

You’ll be contagious through the cold or flu sickness phase. If viral bronchitis develops, you will likely be contagious for a few days or even a week.

Antibiotics are not generally recommended for viral or bacterial bronchitis. However, in the cases where they are given appropriately, you should no longer be contagious about 24 hours after you start taking them.

When Bronchitis Is Not Contagious

Chronic bronchitis is not something that resolves in a few days. These cases are not due to infections that can be passed from one person to the next.

Rather, they are due to exposures—especially cigarette smoke—that promote and sustain long-term inflammation of the airways.

Having another lung diseases makes you more likely to develop chronic bronchitis. Some examples include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Emphysema
  • Asthma
  • Scarring of the lungs
  • Tuberculosis

It’s possible to contract a secondary infection by a virus or bacteria when you have chronic bronchitis, as the condition makes you more susceptible. In that case, the germ causing that acute infection may be contagious to others.

What to Do If You're Contagious

If you’re sick and worried about spreading your infection, the best advice is to stay away from other people and limit the extent to which your germs may spread.

To do this:

  • Do not go to work until you are well.
  • Try to keep your distance from those you live with. For example, sleep in another room from your spouse until you feel better.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow, rather than your hand.
  • Disinfect common spaces at home.
  • Wear a mask over your mouth and nose and have the sick person do the same
  • Avoid touching people and surfaces, especially if they’re shared (e.g., a credit card machine); if unavoidable, use hand sanitizer first.

How to Prevent Catching Bronchitis

To avoid catching contagious bronchitis, stay away from sick people.

If you have to be around people and who might have contagious bronchitis:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Use hand sanitizer when you can't get to a sink.
  • Wear a face mask to avoid inhaling germs.

If you're older, getting your annual flu shot and considering a pneumonia vaccine can also protect you from developing bronchitis and experiencing complications should you get it.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Symptoms and signs of bronchitis include: 

  • A cough that keeps you up at night
  • A sore chest from coughing
  • A sore throat from coughing
  • Lingering tiredness, headaches, and body aches 
  • A low-grade fever

Most of the time, bronchitis should resolve on its own with time and rest. Get in touch with your healthcare provider if:

  • Your temperature is above 100.4 degrees F
  • You’re coughing up bloody mucus
  • You’re having trouble breathing or are wheezing
  • Symptoms aren’t improving after three weeks
  • Your cough goes away and comes back

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should you stay home from work or school with bronchitis?

    Yes. You should stay home for a few days so you can get rest and prevent others from getting sick.

  • How can you tell if bronchitis is viral or bacterial?

    Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. But without laboratory testing, it's hard to know if an infection is viral or bacterial. Studies have shown that the color of the sputum (what you cough up) isn't an accurate way to tell if you have a bacterial infection.

8 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. Cleveland Clinic. Bronchitis.

  2. Park JY, Park S, Lee SH, Lee MG, Park YB, et al. Microorganisms causing community-acquired acute bronchitis: the role of bacterial infection. PLOS ONE 2016;11(10):e0165553. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0165553

  3. Lessler J, Reich NG, Brookmeyer R, Perl TM, Nelson KE, Cummings DA. Incubation periods of acute respiratory viral infections: a systematic review. Lancet Infect Dis. 2009;9(5):291-300. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(09)70069-6

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chest Cold (Acute Bronchitis).

  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Chronic Bronchitis.

  6. MedlinePlus. Acute Bronchitis.

  7. American Academy of Family Physicians. Acute Bronchitis—Persistent Cough.

  8. Kinkade S, Long NA. Acute bronchitis. Am Fam Physician. 2016;94(7):560-5.

Additional Reading

By Jennifer Welsh
Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor with over ten years of experience under her belt. She’s previously worked and written for WIRED Science, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, LiveScience, and Business Insider.