How Contagious Is Bronchitis?

If you’ve been struck with a cough you can’t shake, you may be wondering if it is contagious. If you’re coughing for more than a week, you probably have bronchitis, usually lasting up to three weeks.

The contagiousness of bronchitis depends on how you got it and what’s causing it. Read on for more on the signs of bronchitis, how long bronchitis lasts, and how long bronchitis is contagious.

Coughing due to bronchitis

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Types of Bronchitis

There are two main kinds of bronchitis, acute and chronic. Different mechanisms commonly cause them. Acute bronchitis is often contagious, but chronic bronchitis is not.

During bronchitis, 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 ways this reaction is triggered:

  • By an infection, caused by a virus or (less often) bacteria or fungi. Acute bronchitis is often brought on by an infection, and it is contagious. Acute bronchitis is also called a chest cold. It lasts less than three weeks.
  • By long-term exposure to pollutants or irritants, like tobacco smoke. Long-term exposure to irritants causes swelling and mucus production, leading to chronic bronchitis, which is not contagious. It lasts at least three months. This is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and you should see your healthcare provider about long-term treatment for it.

The 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

In chronic bronchitis, it’s possible to contract a secondary infection by a virus or bacteria, in which case the germ may be contagious to others.

How It’s Spread

Acute bronchitis is caused by the same viruses and bacteria that cause colds and the flu. 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 spread through talking, coughing, and sneezing, so being in close quarters with an infected person is a big danger.

It is also easily passed between people when an infected person deposits bacteria or virus on a surface by touching it. When another person comes by and touches that surface and then touches their face, the viruses 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

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. So, there’s a good number of days between when you’re exposed to when you start feeling sick, but 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, and if viral bronchitis develops, you will likely be contagious for a few days, even a week.

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

How to Prevent Catching or Spreading Bronchitis

To avoid catching bronchitis, stay away from sick people. If you have to be around people and you don’t know if they’re sick, make sure to wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer if you can’t. If you’re worried about getting sick, you can wear a face mask to avoid inhaling germs.

If you’re already sick and worried about spreading your infection, the best advice is to stay away from other people. Don’t go out running errands yourself if you don’t have to. Don’t go to work. Stay home and focus on feeling better. 

If you do have to go out, cover your mouth and nose (a face mask is a good option here, too) and cough or sneeze into your elbow. Avoid touching people and surfaces, especially if they’re shared (like a doorknob or credit card machine at the store).

If you’re sick at home and want to avoid getting others in your household sick, you can use these same precautions. Wear masks, wash hands often, don’t stay in close quarters (sleep in another room if your spouse is sick, for example).

A good idea to help prevent yourself from getting sick, especially if you’re older, is to make sure you get your flu shot every year and consider a pneumonia vaccine.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Most of the time, your 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 does acute bronchitis develop?

    Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus, including the one that causes the common cold. When you first get sick, the virus affects your nose, throat, and sinuses. After a few days, the infection may travel to the lining of your bronchial tubes causing swelling and mucus.

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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.
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