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Bronchitis

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?

Acute bronchitis

The two types of bronchitis are acute (sudden and severe), or chronic bronchitis which develops and worsens over time.

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection. The main symptoms are a persistent cough that may produce phlegm (mucus) and chest discomfort. This temporary inflammation of the airways can last up to about 3 weeks.

People of any age can develop acute bronchitis symptoms, but if you are healthy it’s unlikely to be severe.

Acute bronchitis is most common in children under the age of 5, and often develops during colder months, after a common cold, sore throat or the flu.

As it is usually caused by a viral infection, there is not a straightforward acute bronchitis treatment. Instead, a doctor will advise you to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluid to prevent dehydration. Drinking water also helps to thin the mucus that builds up in your lungs - making it easier to cough and clear.

Acute bronchitis symptoms can sometimes cause a high temperature as well as aches and pains. These can be treated with paracetamol or ibuprofen (if you have asthma, it is not recommended to take ibuprofen).

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a long-term condition that keeps coming back or never entirely goes away. Chronic bronchitis mostly affects adults over the age of 40.

It's a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of severe lung diseases that makes it hard to breathe and worsens over time.

Chronic bronchitis symptoms include a persistent cough often with phlegm (mucus), wheezing, a tight feeling in the chest, shortness of breath, and fatigue (excessive tiredness). The chronic bronchitis cough can last for up to 3 months, and can come back each year.

If you’re a smoker and have been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, it is important that you stop smoking. This is because the chemicals in cigarettes and cigarette smoke can make chronic bronchitis worse. A doctor can give you support if you are finding it hard to give up.

What causes acute bronchitis and chronic bronchitis?

Usually, a virus causes bronchitis, the same type of virus as would cause the common cold or flu. The virus is inside the millions of tiny droplets that come out of the mouth and nose when someone coughs or sneezes. Less often, bronchitis is caused by bacteria.

The most common cause of chronic bronchitis is smoking. It also affects people who inhale second-hand smoke.

Bronchitis can also be triggered by breathing in irritants like air pollution, dust, chemicals and toxic gases.

Is bronchitis contagious?

Acute bronchitis is contagious because it's usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection spread by coughing, sneezing, or touching infected surfaces.

Chronic bronchitis is not infectious as it usually develops after long-term irritation of the lungs' airways.

Who is at risk of getting bronchitis?

Things that increase your risk of getting acute bronchitis or chronic 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

-Chronic bronchitis symptoms and acute 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

Acute bronchitis treatment

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
Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP at Livi

Last updated: