Symptoms of Bronchitis

Bronchitis is irritation and inflammation of the airways that bring air in and out of your lungs. Acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis have similar symptoms, including a dry or productive cough and shortness of breath, but they are different illnesses that last for different lengths of time.

Acute bronchitis is a relatively short-term illness that usually results from a viral infection and does not require treatment with antibiotics. If you are diagnosed with acute bronchitis, you can expect to recover in a period of days to weeks. In contrast, chronic bronchitis is a lifelong, serious illness. 

If you have chronic bronchitis, you may also have emphysema, which affects the lungs, not the bronchi. While emphysema and chronic bronchitis can occur at the same time, there are differences between emphysema and bronchitis.

bronchitis symptoms
Illustration by Verywell

Common Symptoms

Acute and chronic bronchitis share many of the same symptoms because they are both caused by inflammation of the bronchi.

The most common symptoms include:

  • A dry cough 
  • A productive cough, which brings up thick and/or discolored mucus. This mucus mixed with saliva is often referred to as sputum. 
  • Sinus congestion
  • Chest congestion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches or chills
  • Chest discomfort from coughing

Here's a snapshot of the symptoms that distinguish acute bronchitis from chronic bronchitis.

Acute Bronchitis
  • Short-term illness caused by an infection lasting a few days or weeks

  • Short-term illness

  • Low-grade fever

  • Sneezing and runny nose

  • Sore throat

Chronic Bronchitis
  • Long-term lasting at least three months within two consecutive years

  • Chest tightness or pain

  • Persistent fatigue

  • Swelling of ankles, feet, and (sometimes) legs

Acute Bronchitis

The typical progression of acute bronchitis symptoms starts with a runny nose, sore throat, productive cough, and low-grade fever. Three or four days later, a dry, hacking cough may develop.

With acute bronchitis, the symptoms can often be more severe than those seen with chronic bronchitis.

Most cases of acute bronchitis last between three and 10 days. However, the cough can linger for several weeks, even after the infection that caused it is resolved. 

Acute bronchitis normally improves on its own but may require treatment if it is caused by a bacterial infection. 

In addition to the general effects of bronchitis, symptoms of acute bronchitis include:

  • Low-grade fever
  • Sneezing, runny nose
  • A sore throat

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is characterized by a productive cough lasting for at least three months in two consecutive years. Chronic bronchitis is not a disease that can be cured, but symptoms can be managed with medication.

In addition to the general effects of bronchitis, symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:

  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Persistent tiredness or fatigue
  • Swelling of the ankles or feet; leg swelling (related to heart complications of bronchitis)

Symptoms in Children

Children can develop acute bronchitis with an infection, and it is rare for a child to develop chronic bronchitis. In addition to the usual symptoms of acute bronchitis, children are more likely to vomit with acute bronchitis because they may swallow sputum. Vomiting can occur suddenly and without warning, along with a gagging cough.

Normal Lungs vs. Bronchitis

Verywell / Emily Roberts

Less Common Symptoms

Bronchitis is generally recognizable by a productive cough. There are a few other, less common, symptoms of bronchitis including: 

  • Bad breath: Bad breath can develop quickly in people with acute bronchitis. Chronic bad breath can also be a sign of chronic bronchitis. This can occur when nasal congestion forces you to breathe through your mouth, enabling growth of bacteria on the tongue and mucous membranes. This bacteria may produce an odor. In general, it is not recommended to take antibiotics to reduce this bacteria that causes bad breath. 
  • Coughing up blood: The persistent coughing of acute and chronic bronchitis can cause traumatic tears, with bleeding in the bronchi or the throat. This can make you cough up blood-tinged sputum. 
  • Lack of physical endurance: When you have acute or chronic bronchitis, you may become short of breath very easily with physical exertion, sometimes limiting your ability to exercise or walk long distances. If you have acute bronchitis, this will improve a few days after the illness resolves. If you have chronic bronchitis, you may need physical therapy to improve your endurance. 
  • Trouble sleeping: The persistent coughing and nasal congestion of bronchitis can interrupt your sleep, making it difficult for you to rest, no matter what time of the day or night you attempt to sleep. 

Complications

There are several serious complications of bronchitis, but they are not common. Complications can occur with chronic or acute bronchitis, but they are far more likely to occur as a result of chronic bronchitis due to the long-standing impact of the disease. 

  • Infection: You can become more susceptible to another respiratory tract infection if you have bronchitis. If you get another infection while you have acute bronchitis, it can delay your recovery. If you develop a respiratory infection when you have chronic bronchitis, this can produce an attack of acute bronchitis on top of your chronic illness. An episode of acute bronchitis is likely to be more severe and last longer with chronic bronchitis.
  • Pneumonia: If you have bronchitis of any type, your lungs are more likely to become infected, resulting in pneumonia. Pneumonia is a prolonged infection that makes you feel sicker than acute bronchitis does. 
  • Aspiration pneumonia: The coughing of bronchitis can make you choke on your food if you cough while eating. This can cause the food that you eat to go down the wrong pipe, into your lungs, instead of your stomach. Aspiration pneumonia can be a persistent infection that takes a toll on your health and takes months to recover from. 
  • Heart disease: The long-term breathing difficulties of chronic bronchitis can put additional strain on your heart, causing heart disease or exacerbating heart failure. 

When to See a Doctor

If you have symptoms that seem to be more disabling than symptoms of a regular cold, or if you have trouble catching your breath, you should call your doctor.

Other warning signs to look for:

  • Delay in recovery: If you have symptoms of acute bronchitis, but you don’t start to feel better fairly quickly, contact your doctor because you may have a serious respiratory disorder.
  • Recurrent symptoms after recovery: If your cough lasts for more than four to six weeks after diagnosis, contact your doctor. If your symptoms improve and then come back worse or different than before, you may have developed another infection and should seek medical attention. 
  • Shortness of breath: If you find that you cannot catch your breath when you exert minimal physical effort or when you are at rest, you should seek medical attention. 
  • Vomiting blood or spitting up blood: If you have blood or blood clots in your sputum, or if you vomit blood, this could be a symptom of a more serious illness than bronchitis.
  • Swelling: If you have swelling or puffiness in your hands and feet, this could be a symptom of a serious respiratory or cardiac problem, and you should get medical attention.

Frequently Asked Questions

When will my bronchitis symptoms go away?

Non-cough symptoms of acute bronchitis (stuffy nose, fever, headache, fatigue) typically last only a few days. Your cough, however, may linger for up to two to three weeks; the average is 18 days.

Chronic bronchitis is a life-long condition in which you'll have periodic episodes of symptoms that last at least three months at a time.

How do I know my symptoms are bronchitis and not pneumonia?

Both conditions affect the respiratory tract and share certain symptoms, including headache, fatigue, muscle aches, a productive or non-productive cough, and wheezing. However, acute bronchitis tends to cause a high fever (up to 105 degrees) and mild or no shortness of breath, while pneumonia causes a low or no fever and difficulty breathing.

Why does my bronchitis seem worse at night?

At night (or any time you're lying down) you may feel more congested and stuffed up because mucus can pool in your upper respiratory tract. Your cough may be worse at night because the airways tend to be more sensitive and prone to irritation when your airway muscles are relaxed.

What triggers the symptoms of bronchitis?

The gradual accumulation of mucus in the lining of the bronchi (airways) is responsible for the characteristic cough of bronchitis. At first, the cough is likely to be dry, but as the mucus builds up, the cough becomes productive, bringing up excess mucus. Wheezing is the sound air makes as it travels through narrowed airways.

What other conditions cause symptoms similar to those of bronchitis?

Many illnesses cause a persistent cough including:

The similarities between these conditions and bronchitis can sometimes make diagnosis difficult. However, there usually are symptoms other than a cough that help distinguish them from bronchitis.

Is bronchitis contagious?

Chronic bronchitis is not contagious, but a viral or bacterial infection of the respiratory tract that leads to acute bronchitis certainly can be passed from one person to another. If you're around someone who has a cough and other symptoms of bronchitis, keep your distance as much as possible and wash your hands after spending time with them.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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. Kinkade S, Long NA. Acute Bronchitis. Am Fam Physician. 2016;94(7):560-565.

  2. American Academy of Family Physicians. familydoctor.org. Acute bronchitis

  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Bronchitis.

  4. American Lung Association. Chronic bronchitis

  5. Cedars-Sinai. Acute Bronchitis in Children

  6. Earwood JS, Thompson TD. Hemoptysis: evaluation and managementAm Fam Physician. 2015;91(4):243‐249.

  7. American Academy of Family Physicians. familydoctor.org. Chronic bronchitis

  8. Kinkade S, Long NA. Acute bronchitisAm Fam Physician. 2016;94(7):560-565.

  9. American Lung Association. Chronic bronchitis.

  10. Kaiser Permanente. Physical Exam for Pneumonia. Mar 25, 2017.

  11. KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation. Coughing. May 2018.

  12. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). Acute bronchitis: Overview. Updated December 2, 2020. 

Additional Reading