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This topic is about acute bronchitis in people who don't have other health problems. Acute bronchitis may be treated differently if you have a long-term lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). For more information, see the topics Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Pneumonia.
What is bronchitis?
There are two types of bronchitis:
This topic focuses on acute bronchitis. Both children and adults can get acute bronchitis.
What causes acute bronchitis?
Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. Often a person gets acute bronchitis after having an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold or the flu. In rare cases, 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 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.
Acute bronchitis symptoms usually start 3 or 4 days after an upper respiratory tract infection. Most people get better in 2 to 3 weeks. But some people continue to have a cough for more than 4 weeks.
Pneumonia can have symptoms like acute bronchitis. Because pneumonia can be serious, it is important to know the differences between the two illnesses. Symptoms of pneumonia can include a high fever, shaking chills, and shortness of breath.
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, the doctor may take a chest X-ray to make sure that you don't have pneumonia or another lung problem.
How is it treated?
Most people can treat symptoms of acute bronchitis at home. Drink plenty of fluids. Use an over-the-counter cough medicine with an expectorant if your doctor recommends it. This can help you bring up mucus when you cough. 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.
Most people don't need antibiotics for acute bronchitis.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about acute bronchitis:
Taking care of yourself:
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Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. It is more common during the winter months and often develops after an upper respiratory illness such as influenza (flu) or a cold caused by a virus such as coronavirus, adenovirus, or a rhinovirus. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) may be a cause, especially in adults older than 65. About 10% of the time, acute bronchitis is caused by bacteria.1
Acute bronchitis can also be caused by exposure to smoke, chemicals, or air pollution, all of which can irritate the bronchial tubes. It can also develop from accidentally inhaling (aspirating) food or vomit.
See a picture of acute bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis is spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks and liquid droplets containing virus particles or bacteria are released into the air and onto objects. Then you may:
Most cases of acute bronchitis in otherwise healthy people last only 2 to 3 weeks. But more than 20% of people with acute bronchitis have a cough that lasts more than 4 weeks.2
Often it is hard to tell the difference between viral and bacterial forms of acute bronchitis, and many conditions have symptoms similar to acute bronchitis, such as asthma and pneumonia. Because pneumonia can be a serious complication, it is important to know the differences between acute bronchitis and pneumonia. For example, a high fever, shaking chills, and shortness of breath often occur with pneumonia but not with acute bronchitis.
Acute bronchitis is inflammation of the tubes that carry air to the lungs (bronchial tubes). It is usually caused by a virus and follows an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold or influenza (flu). The infection moves from the nose, mouth, and throat to the bronchial tubes, causing the tubes to swell and mucus production to increase.
At first, a dry, hacking cough is present. After a few days, the cough may bring up mucus from the lungs. The swollen tubes and increase in mucus may make it harder for you to breathe.
See a picture of acute bronchitis.
Most cases of acute bronchitis in otherwise healthy people last only 2 to 3 weeks. But more than 20 out of 100 people with acute bronchitis have a cough that lasts more than 4 weeks.2
How soon you get better depends on several things, including:
Most people get better without having complications. If complications occur, they include:
If you have a long-term (chronic) respiratory disease, such as asthma, acute bronchitis can make your coughing and wheezing worse and can increase the risk of having complications. In this case, acute bronchitis is a more serious problem and may be treated differently.
Children and older adults are most at risk for complications.
Children who have repeated bouts of acute bronchitis need to be evaluated to see whether they may have a foreign object in the air passage. Children may also be evaluated for asthma or other respiratory tract problems, such as:
Some things increase your risk for acute bronchitis.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:
Call your doctor today if you:
Call your doctor in 1 to 2 days if you:
Watchful waiting is a period of time during which you and your doctor observe your symptoms or condition without using medical treatment. Watchful waiting is often appropriate in otherwise healthy people with acute bronchitis unless you have:
If you have complications, such as pneumonia or repeated episodes of acute bronchitis caused by bacteria, you may be referred to a respirologist for diagnosis and treatment. Complications rarely occur.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
There are no routine tests to diagnose acute bronchitis. Diagnosis is usually based on your medical history, including your symptoms, and a physical examination. Your doctor will make sure you do not have pneumonia or risk factors for more serious diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), that may affect treatment.
If your doctor feels that your acute bronchitis is caused by:
More testing may be needed for infants and people older than 65, or if:
Sometimes other tests may be needed. These tests may include:
Treatment for acute bronchitis in otherwise healthy people usually includes taking steps to reduce cough, fever, and pain. Prescription medicines, such as antibiotics, generally are not beneficial. If you already have a disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure, or asthma, evaluation and treatment may be more extensive.
Most cases of acute bronchitis go away in 2 to 3 weeks, but some may last more than 4 weeks. Home treatment to relieve symptoms is usually all that is needed. This includes:
If prescription medicines are required, they may include:
Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses, which are not affected by antibiotics. Using antibiotics when they are not needed is expensive, it can lead to side effects from antibiotic therapy, and some bacteria may become resistant to the antibiotic. This resistance may make the antibiotic less effective the next time it is used. Talk to your doctor about antibiotics. Find out whether they are needed and what their benefits and risks are in treating acute bronchitis.
It is important to seek medical care if you have a long-term (chronic) lung disease such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and you have signs of acute bronchitis. Early treatment of acute bronchitis may prevent complications, such as pneumonia or repeated episodes of acute bronchitis caused by bacteria. This commonly occurs in people who smoke and in people with immune system problems, such as HIV infection, cystic fibrosis, and cancer.
You can help prevent acute bronchitis.
If you have an upper respiratory tract infection, it may help to:
Most cases of acute bronchitis go away in 2 to 3 weeks. Home treatment may help you feel better.
Home treatment may include:
Contact your doctor if your acute bronchitis gets worse, because this may mean you have pneumonia. Signs of acute bronchitis getting worse include:
Most cases of acute bronchitis in otherwise healthy people go away in 2 to 3 weeks. You typically only need non-prescription medicines to treat your symptoms. Most people do not need to use prescription medicines, such as antibiotics.
Your doctor may prescribe:
Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses, which are not affected by antibiotics. Using antibiotics when they are not needed is expensive, it can lead to side effects from antibiotic therapy, and some bacteria may become resistant to the antibiotic. This resistance may make the antibiotic less effective the next time you use it. Talk to your doctor about antibiotics. Find out whether they are needed and what their benefits and risks are in treating acute bronchitis.
If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
Corticosteroids, which may help relieve difficulty breathing, frequent wheezing, or a persistent cough, may be prescribed if other medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma are present.
Other medicines may be prescribed to treat complications, such as pneumonia. The medicine used depends on the complication.
There is no surgical treatment for acute bronchitis.
Rest, fluids, and home treatment are all that is needed to treat most cases of acute bronchitis in otherwise healthy people. People who have certain chronic respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), may need additional treatment.
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This Web site is sponsored by 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 Web site 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 e-mails about your area of interest.
- Gonzales RG, et al. (2001). Principles of appropriate antibiotic use for treatment of uncomplicated acute bronchitis: Background. Annals of Internal Medicine, 134(6): 521–529.
- Katz JT (2009). Pneumonia and other pulmonary infections. In EG Nabel, ed., ACP Medicine, section 7, chap. 20. Hamilton, ON: BC Decker.
Other Works Consulted
- Knutson D, Braun C (2002). Diagnosis and management of acute bronchitis. American Family Physician, 65(10): 2039–2044.
- Wenzel RP, Fowler AA III (2006). Acute bronchitis. New England Journal of Medicine, 355(20): 2125–2130.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Robert L. Cowie, MB, FCP(SA), MD, MSc, MFOM - Pulmonology|
|Last Revised||November 21, 2010|
Last Revised: April 21, 2012
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