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Acute Bronchitis

Topic Overview

Lungs

What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis means that the tubes that carry air to the lungs (the bronchial tubes) are inflamed and irritated. When this happens, the bronchial tubes swell and produce mucus. This makes you cough.

There are two types of bronchitis:

  • Acute bronchitis usually comes on quickly and gets better after 2 to 3 weeks.
  • Chronic bronchitis keeps coming back and can last a long time, especially in people who smoke. Chronic bronchitis means that you have a cough with mucus most days of the month for 3 months of the year and for at least 2 years in a row.

This topic focuses on acute bronchitis. Both children and adults can get acute bronchitis.

Most healthy people who get acute bronchitis get better without any problems. But it can be more serious in older adults and children and in people with other health problems, especially lung diseases such as asthma or COPD. Complications can include pneumonia and repeated episodes of severe bronchitis.

What causes acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. Often a person gets acute bronchitis a few days after having an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold or the flu. Sometimes acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria.

Acute bronchitis also can be caused by breathing in things that irritate the bronchial tubes, such as smoke. It also can happen if a person inhales food or vomit into the lungs.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptom of acute bronchitis is a cough that usually is dry and hacking at first. After a few days, the cough may bring up mucus. You may have a low fever and feel tired.

Most people get better in 2 to 3 weeks. But some people continue to have a cough for more than 4 weeks.

If your symptoms get worse, such as a high fever, shaking chills, chest or shoulder pain, or shortness of breath, you could have pneumonia. Pneumonia can be serious, so it's important to see a doctor if you feel like you're getting sicker.

How is acute bronchitis diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. This usually gives the doctor enough information to find out if you have acute bronchitis.

In some cases, you may need a chest X-ray or other tests to make sure that you don't have pneumonia, whooping cough, or another lung problem. This is especially true if you've had bronchitis for a few weeks and aren't getting better. More testing also may be needed for babies, older adults, and people who have lung disease (such as asthma or COPD) or other health problems.

How is it treated?

Most people can treat symptoms of acute bronchitis at home and don't need antibiotics or other prescription medicines. (Antibiotics don't help with viral bronchitis. And even bronchitis caused by bacteria will usually go away on its own.)

The following may help you feel better:

  • Don't smoke.
  • Suck on cough drops or hard candies to soothe a dry or sore throat. Cough drops won't stop your cough, but they may make your throat feel better.
  • Breathe moist air from a humidifier, a hot shower, or a sink filled with hot water. The heat and moisture can help keep mucus in your airways moist so you can cough it out easily.
  • Use nonprescription medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin, to relieve fever and body aches. Don't give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20.
  • Rest more than usual.
  • Drink plenty of fluids so that you do not become dehydrated.
  • Use an over-the-counter cough medicine if your doctor recommends it. (Cough medicines may not be safe for young children or for people who have certain health problems.) Cough suppressants may help you to stop coughing. Expectorants can help you bring up mucus when you cough.

If you have signs of bronchitis and have heart or lung disease (such as heart failure, asthma, or COPD) or another serious health problem, talk to your doctor right away. You may need treatment with antibiotics or medicines to help with your breathing. Early treatment may prevent complications, such as pneumonia or repeated episodes of acute bronchitis caused by bacteria.

What can you do to avoid getting bronchitis?

There are several things you can do to help prevent bronchitis.

  • Avoid cigarette smoke. If you smoke, stop. People who smoke or are around others who smoke have acute bronchitis more often.
  • Wash your hands often during the cold and flu season.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick with a cold or the flu, especially if you have other health problems.
  • Get a flu vaccine every year, and talk to your doctor about whether you should get a pneumococcal vaccine.

Health Tools 

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.


Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems. Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
  Bronchitis: Should I Take Antibiotics?

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American Lung Association
Web Address: www.lungusa.org

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)
TDD: 1-888-232-6348
Web Address: www.cdc.gov
 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC works with state and local health officials and the public to achieve better health for all people. The CDC creates the expertise, information, and tools that people and communities need to protect their health—by promoting health, preventing disease, injury, and disability, and being prepared for new health threats.


KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and Teens
Nemours Home Office
10140 Centurion Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32256
Phone: (904) 697-4100
Web Address: www.kidshealth.org
 

This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.


National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD  20824-0105
Phone: (301) 592-8573
Fax: (240) 629-3246
TDD: (240) 629-3255
Email: nhlbiinfo@nhlbi.nih.gov
Web Address: www.nhlbi.nih.gov
 

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing and treating:

  • Diseases affecting the heart and circulation, such as heart attacks, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, and heart problems present at birth (congenital heart diseases).
  • Diseases that affect the lungs, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, sleep apnea, and pneumonia.
  • Diseases that affect the blood, such as anemia, hemochromatosis, hemophilia, thalassemia, and von Willebrand disease.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Wenzel RP, Fowler AA III (2006). Acute bronchitis. New England Journal of Medicine, 355(20): 2125–2130.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Robert L. Cowie, MB, FCP(SA), MD, MSc, MFOM - Pulmonology
Last Revised July 10, 2012

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