Acute bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, the hollow air passages that connect the lungs to the windpipe (trachea). The inflammation can be caused by an infection or by other factors that irritate the airways, such as cigarette smoking, allergies and exposure to fumes from some chemicals.
Acute bronchitis often starts with a viral infection that involves the mouth, throat, nose, ears and sinuses. Acute bronchitis does not affect the lungs like pneumonia does.
Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by viruses, although the condition also can be caused by bacteria.
A cough is the main symptom of bronchitis. The cough can be dry or it can produce sputum, the mucus-like substance brought up from the lungs. The sputum may be clear, cloudy, brown, yellow or green. Colored sputum does not necessarily mean you have a bacterial infection. A viral infection or other reason for inflamed bronchi can cause production of brown, yellow or green sputum.
Other common symptoms include:
- sore throat
- low-grade fever
- chest discomfort
- shortness of breath.
Your health care provider will ask about the details of your illness, including when you developed any symptoms of an upper respiratory infection. He or she will want to know if anyone else in your home has been ill. Your health care provider will listen to your chest with a stethoscope to try to detect wheezing and sounds of airways clogged with mucous called rhonchi.
The level of oxygen in your blood may be tested using a small device that closes gently over a finger. If your health care provider hears any suspicious lung sounds during the physical examination, or if your oxygen level is lower than normal, he or she may order a chest X-ray to check for pneumonia.
Treating acute bronchitis
The viral infection that causes most cases of acute bronchitis resolves within a few days. However, the symptoms can linger for a couple weeks. And in some people, the cough and wheezing can persist for one to two months long after the initial infection is gone.
If you are uncomfortable with body aches or a low grade fever, you can take acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Rest and drink plenty of fluids — eight to 12 glasses a day — to thin the phlegm and make it easier to cough it up.
Breathing in warm, moist air also helps loosen the discharge. If you don't have a vaporizer or humidifier, stand in a hot shower for a few minutes or run hot water in the sink and drape a towel over your head while breathing in the steam.
In otherwise healthy people, antibiotics are rarely needed in the initial treatment of acute bronchitis.
People with acute bronchitis may benefit from using an inhaled bronchodilator drug. It can help to open the airways.
Some nonprescription medicines can loosen phlegm or suppress coughing, to help you sleep at night. Ask your doctor which ones he or she recommends.
When to call your health care provider
Call your health care provider if:
- Your breathing becomes difficult or painful.
- You notice new wheezing or have worsening asthma symptoms.
- You have a high fever that does not come down after taking a fever-relieving medication, such as acetaminophen or aspirin.
- If a fever lasts more than three days.
Any time you have chest pain, you should call your doctor for advice. Chest pain can come from the heart as well as the lungs.
People at high risk of complications from acute bronchitis — such as infants, the elderly or people with chronic lung or heart disease — should call a physician at the first signs of bronchitis.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.