What Is Bronchitis?

d3sign / Getty Images
d3sign / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Reza Samad, MD

Bronchitis is the inflammation of the bronchi, the main air tubes that connect the throat to the lungs. It can result from an infection or irritants like dust or smoke.

As the bronchi become irritated and inflamed, the tissues swell and can produce mucus. This tends to trigger a cough that may be dry or may include sputum (coughed-up mucus). Some people also experience breathing issues from narrowed airways.

There are two types of bronchitis: acute and chronic. The illness that causes acute bronchitis can spread from person to person (making it contagious).

This article discusses the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for bronchitis.

d3sign / Getty Images
d3sign / Getty Images

Acute vs. Chronic Bronchitis

Bronchitis can be classified as acute (which occurs quickly and lasts a short time) or chronic (prolonged and can linger for a long time), depending on how long you have had the condition. Acute bronchitis usually lasts days to weeks. Chronic bronchitis lasts three months or more and can return for at least two years.

In most cases, acute and chronic bronchitis shares a similar inflammatory process but have different causes and treatments. However, for some people, multiple episodes of acute bronchitis can develop into chronic bronchitis.

How Do You Get Acute Bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis usually results from an infection. About 95% of acute bronchitis in otherwise healthy adults results from viral infections. Respiratory viruses that can cause acute bronchitis include:

Some bacterial infections can also cause acute bronchitis, which is far less common. Occasionally, breathing in irritating substances in the air (such as dust or smoke) can trigger acute bronchitis.

Acute bronchitis usually lasts up to a few weeks and improves when the immune system removes the infection or the leftover particles you inhaled.

How Do You Get Chronic Bronchitis?

Chronic bronchitis is part of the category of health conditions known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Unlike acute bronchitis, the cause of chronic bronchitis is rarely an infection. Instead, chronic bronchitis usually develops from breathing in substances that irritate the air passages over time.

Risk factors for chronic bronchitis include breathing in:

  • Cigarette smoke

  • Polluted air

  • Dust

  • Toxic materials from the air (at work, home, or anywhere else)

For most healthy people, acute bronchitis should improve in a few weeks. Chronic bronchitis may be diagnosed when you have a mucus-producing cough that lasts for at least three months and returns for at least two years in a row.

Bronchitis Symptoms: How to Tell Which Type You Have

Acute and chronic bronchitis both involve irritation and inflammation of the tubes that bring air to the lungs. Usually, they are caused by different irritants.

Acute bronchitis may happen at the same time you have upper respiratory symptoms (affecting the nose, throat, and sinuses), or it may develop after the illness. Most people will feel better in seven to 10 days but may have a lingering cough for a few weeks. Acute bronchitis symptoms include:

  • Cough (wet, with mucus, or dry, no mucus)

  • Throat soreness

  • Chest discomfort or soreness

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Body aches

  • Wheezing sounds as you breathe

When you have bronchitis, you may have a cough that sounds wet as you move mucus upward to spit it out. The cough can be bothersome and linger for long after the other symptoms have resolved.

Chronic bronchitis symptoms can occur anytime, even if you haven't been sick, and can include:

  • Cough (with or without mucus)

  • Feeling short of breath (which may worsen with exercise or physical activity)

  • Chest tightness

  • Wheezing sound as you breathe

Other, sometimes serious medical conditions can cause similar symptoms. If you are concerned, do not delay in seeking medical care. See a medical provider if you:

  • Have difficulty breathing or feeling short of breath

  • Have a temperature of over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (fever)

  • Cough up bloody mucus

  • Feel sick for over three weeks

  • Get bronchitis more than once

How to Diagnose Bronchitis

A healthcare provider can diagnose bronchitis. They will perform a physical exam, including listening to your lung sounds (breathing) with a stethoscope. They will ask you when your symptoms started and whether anything makes them better or worse. They may recommend a chest X-ray to look for other potential causes of your symptoms. There are no blood tests for diagnosing bronchitis.

Many people are not diagnosed with acute bronchitis because the illness improves within a few weeks without seeing a healthcare provider. A healthcare provider diagnoses chronic bronchitis. If you have the necessary ongoing symptoms over time, your provider may be concerned about COPD. If necessary, a healthcare provider may order special tests, including:

Complications of Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis usually does not worsen into other health problems. However, with chronic bronchitis over a long period, you can develop more severe symptoms, including:

  • Severe trouble breathing (even when talking)

  • Blue (or gray) color around your mouth or on your finger or toenails

  • Reduced mental alertness

  • A very fast heart rate (or feelings of a racing heart)

  • Weight loss

Can Bronchitis Turn Into Pneumonia?

The infection that causes acute bronchitis can spread from the big air tubes (bronchi) into the small sacks deep in the lungs (alveoli). Infection of the lung tissue is called pneumonia. If the virus, bacteria, or fungi that infect the bronchi spreads to the lungs, your case of acute bronchitis can turn into pneumonia.

Chronic bronchitis and COPD can lead to serious complications, such as dependence on oxygen therapy, disability, and even death. Medical treatments are available for chronic bronchitis. See a healthcare provider if you have concerns about breathing, lungs, or other symptoms.

Bronchitis Treatment

In many cases, healthy people may not need to see a healthcare provider for acute bronchitis because it will get better over time without medical treatment.

Possible treatments for chronic bronchitis include:

Hospitalization for bronchitis may be necessary if you have severe symptoms. See a healthcare provider or access emergency treatment if you develop:

  • Chest pain

  • Difficulty breathing

  • High fever

  • Cough up blood or blood-spotted mucus

Alternative Bronchitis Treatment

Acute bronchitis can often be managed at home. The goal is to decrease the symptoms and help soothe the inflammation. These are some general treatments that may not be right for every person. Consult with a healthcare provider about your health situation.


Drink plenty of fluids such as water, but avoid alcohol and caffeine, which may dry you out. Warm tea can soothe a throat that is sore from frequent coughing. Fluids can help moisten the throat and loosen mucus.


Rest, including extra naps, can help your body gather extra energy for fighting infection. Lower activity levels decrease the stress on your respiratory system.

Increase Humidity

You may wish to add humidity to your home using a humidifier, vaporizer, or steam from a shower. Moisture may soothe irritated breathing passages and help relieve dryness. Be careful around hot liquids to avoid burns or breathing in too-hot air.

Over-the-Counter Medications

You may consider over-the-counter medications to lower fever and decrease inflammation, including Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen). These medications can help you feel more comfortable. If you have concerns, check with a healthcare provider before taking any.

How to Prevent Bronchitis

The best ways to prevent bronchitis include:

  • Washing your hands

  • Staying away from people who are sick

  • Avoiding exposure to smoke (including secondhand smoke)

  • Wearing a mask if you might breathe in dust, smoke, or other irritating chemicals

  • Getting your flu shot (vaccine) every year

  • Receiving a pneumonia vaccine (about which you should first ask your provider)

Do You Need to Quarantine With Bronchitis?

If your bronchitis is caused by influenza, RSV, or other respiratory viruses, you should try to avoid contact with others to stop the spread of the illness. If you have chronic bronchitis, you do not need to quarantine during a flare-up, but you may want to limit your exposure to large crowds or places where people may be sick.

It is usually best to stay home from work, school, and social gatherings while sick, especially if you are coughing or sneezing because those both spread germs through the air to other people.

Outlook for Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis can be frustrating when a cough lingers for days to weeks. Bronchitis is typically not contagious and should resolve in its own in time. You may want to try some at-home remedies to manage the symptoms.

Chronic bronchitis is a medical condition you may live with for the rest of your life. Follow directions from your healthcare provider to optimize your health. Stop smoking tobacco products or other materials if you currently do so. Check with a healthcare provider to see if you might benefit from an exercise program or pulmonary therapy to maximize your activity.