Is Chronic Bronchitis Contagious?

Chronic bronchitis is one of the two main types of chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD). The other is emphysema. Most people with COPD have symptoms of both conditions. In chronic bronchitis, swollen airways and excessive mucus production cause a chronic cough and difficulty breathing. Many people hear the persistent cough associated with chronic bronchitis and wonder if it is contagious.

Over 16 million people have been diagnosed with COPD in the United States. Of these, over 3.8 million were diagnosed with emphysema, and 9 million were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. Chronic inflammation in the bronchi, airway obstruction, and chronic mucus production cause changes throughout the lungs. Many people who have chronic bronchitis eventually develop emphysema as well.

young woman having difficulty breathing

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Acute vs. Chronic Bronchitis

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi, which are branching tubes going into the lungs. These tubes carry air to and from the lungs. When the bronchial tubes become inflamed and swollen, less air can pass through them. Inflammation causes increased mucus production, which leads to an irritating cough when trying to clear the mucus. The inflammation may last a short period after an upper respiratory infection or may be chronic. 

Acute bronchitis usually develops after a cold or upper respiratory infection, and it improves within a few days without residual effects. Chronic bronchitis is more serious and develops slowly over time, sometimes months or even years. Because the symptoms of chronic bronchitis develop so slowly, many people do not notice how bad their symptoms have become.

Acute bronchitis usually starts with a runny nose, sore throat, chills, and low-grade fever. As the infection moves from the nose and throat into the lungs, a dry cough usually develops. The bronchi become inflamed and mucus production is increased. At this point, you may notice a productive cough, wheezing, and chest tightness.

In acute bronchitis, these symptoms are limited to no more than three weeks. Those with chronic bronchitis usually have a persistent cough and are frequently smokers. Smoking damages the cilia, tiny whip-like structures that beat dust and dirt out of the airway. Chronic bronchitis may develop after multiple episodes of acute bronchitis. 

Acute Bronchitis
  • Risk factor: Viral respiratory infection

  • Lasts less than three weeks

  • More common in children under age 5

  • No genetic predisposition

  • Usually no long-term effects on the lungs or airways

  • Diagnosed based on symptoms

  • Symptoms: Low-grade fever, sneezing and runny nose, sore throat, and cough

  • Treated with supportive care

Chronic Bronchitis
  • Risk factors: Smoking, multiple infections, and air pollution

  • Lasts at least three months

  • More common in adults over age 40

  • Can have a genetic predisposition

  • Can cause scarring

  • May require tests to diagnose

  • Symptoms: Productive cough, shortness of breath, excessive mucus production

  • Treated with anti-inflammatories and medications to open the airways

Chronic Bronchitis Generally Isn't Contagious

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways usually found in people with a long history of smoking, exposure to environmental chemicals, or genetic predisposition. Even though you may have a productive cough with chronic bronchitis, you are not contagious. The cough is secondary to mucus production and airway irritation, not a viral or bacterial infection.

Increased mucus and inflammation can increase the risk of a secondary infection. If you have chronic bronchitis and have a sudden worsening of symptoms, fever, increased sputum production, or discoloration of the sputum, you may have developed a secondary infection. A secondary infection with a virus or bacteria is contagious, and it can be passed from person to person. 

Chronic bronchitis is not contagious unless there is a secondary infection. The chronic cough and mucus production characteristic of this disease may seem similar to pneumonia or other respiratory infection, but it is not the same. 

Preventing Infections

Vaccines

Influenza A and B, parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus, and coronavirus are the most common viral causes of secondary lung infections. Getting an annual flu shot can help prevent secondary infections from influenza viruses, as can avoiding people who are ill.

The viruses that cause influenza vary each year, so it is essential to get the influenza vaccine yearly. Schedule your influenza vaccine between October and December, so you are protected for the entire influenza season (in the Northern Hemisphere).

Ensure all of your vaccines are up-to-date to minimize your risk of catching preventable respiratory infections. Verify whether you are a candidate for a pneumococcal vaccine. The pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for all adults 65 years and older and adults younger than age 65 with certain health conditions, including lung disease. Follow up with your healthcare providers regularly so any secondary infections can be detected early.

Lifestyle Changes

Practice good hand hygiene, avoid crowded areas and ones with poor ventilation. To keep lung secretions thinner and easier to handle, drink lots of fluids and use a humidifier or vaporizer if it eases symptoms. 

If you are a smoker, seek help to quit. Avoid being around secondhand smoke and air pollution. There are medications for nicotine replacement that have helped many smokers quit. Counseling and support groups may also help. 

Take care of your overall health by getting as much exercise as you can tolerate. Eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Get plenty of rest and sleep. Stress causes changes in hormone levels in the body. These changes can make chronic conditions worse. If possible, decrease stress using deep breathing or relaxation exercises.

A Word From Verywell

Chronic diseases can be hard to manage. It can be discouraging when you have a relapse and symptoms worsen, but there are many steps you can take to minimize the risk of worsening disease. Seek help if you are a smoker. There are many therapy options available to help you quit. 

Focus on your health by ensuring you get exercise, eat healthy, and get plenty of sleep. Advise family members and friends of your condition so they understand that your cough is not contagious, but you are at increased risk for secondary infections, which are contagious.

Ask them to let you know if they may be ill so you can protect your health. Follow all of your healthcare provider's instructions on medications to minimize your symptoms and improve your overall health. Finally, do not hesitate to seek help if managing your symptoms is emotionally overwhelming. 

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