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Bronchitis

Bronchitis is an infection of the lungs' airways (bronchi) and is usually caused by a virus. Find out more about bronchitis symptoms, the causes and the treatment options available.

What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an infection of the bronchial tubes that carry air to your lungs. It causes the airways to swell and become irritated, producing more mucus than usual.

Who is at risk of getting bronchitis?

Things that increase your risk of getting bronchitis include:

  • Smoking - people who smoke or who live with a smoker are at higher risk of acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis.
  • Exposure to irritants – working around certain lung irritants, like chemical fumes, grains or textiles.
  • Air pollution – living in areas with high levels of pollution from traffic or factories.
  • Gastric reflux - repeated bouts of severe heartburn can irritate the throat and make you more prone to developing bronchitis.
  • A weak immune system – recovering from an illness may make you more susceptible to getting bronchitis. Older adults, infants and young children are also at higher risk.

Symptoms of bronchitis

  • Bronchitis symptoms may include:
  • Persistent cough
  • Clear, grey, yellow or greenish phlegm (mucus)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Blocked or runny nose
  • General aches and pains
  • Feeling tired

If you have acute bronchitis, your cough might stay for a few weeks after your other symptoms have gone. You might find that your constant coughing makes your chest and stomach muscles sore.

When to see a doctor

In most cases, acute bronchitis will go away without any treatment, and all that's needed is plenty of rest and fluids.
You only need to see a doctor if:

  • You've had a severe cough lasting longer than three weeks
  • You've had a high temperature for more than three days
  • You're coughing up mucus streaked with blood
  • You have a heart or lung condition (e.g. asthma, heart failure or emphysema)
  • You're getting more breathless
  • You've had repeated bouts of bronchitis

Diagnosing bronchitis

If you see a doctor, they may need to rule out other serious lung infections, like pneumonia, which is similar to bronchitis. They will listen to your lungs as you breathe to check for signs like wheezing and ask questions about your cough (e.g. how frequently you cough and whether it produces mucus).

If the doctor is unsure about your diagnosis, they may do some tests or refer you to a specialist. Tests may include:

  • Chest X-ray - (this will help rule out pneumonia)
  • Mucus sample
  • Blood tests
  • Lung function test using a device called a spirometer which you breathe into. This measures the volume of air in your lungs

Treatment for bronchitis

In most people, bronchitis will clear up by itself within a few weeks without the need for treatment from a doctor. While you are having bronchitis symptoms, you should drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration and get plenty of rest. If you have a headache or a high temperature, paracetamol or ibuprofen may help (but you should avoid ibuprofen if you have asthma).

If symptoms last for at least three months, it is known as chronic bronchitis. There is no cure for chronic bronchitis, but there are several medications to help relieve symptoms:

  • Bronchodilators - to open up the airways - taken as an inhaler
  • Steroids - to reduce inflammation in the lungs - taken as inhalers or tablets
  • Mucolytic medicines – to thin the mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough up
  • Specific lifestyle changes can help ease chronic bronchitis symptoms, including:
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • Regular moderate exercise
  • Stopping smoking
Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi