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Acute Bronchitis - Topic Overview

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What is bronchitis?

Bronchitis means that the tubes that carry air to the lungs camera.gif (the bronchial tubes) are inflamed and irritated. When this happens, the bronchial tubes swell and produce mucus. This makes you cough.

There are two types of bronchitis:

  • Acute bronchitis camera.gif usually comes on quickly and gets better after 2 to 3 weeks.
  • Chronic bronchitis keeps coming back and can last a long time, especially in people who smoke. Chronic bronchitis means that you have a cough with mucus most days of the month for 3 months of the year and for at least 2 years in a row.

This topic focuses on acute bronchitis. Both children and adults can get acute bronchitis.

Most healthy people who get acute bronchitis get better without any problems. But it can be more serious in older adults and children and in people with other health problems, especially lung diseases such as asthma or COPD. Complications can include pneumonia and repeated episodes of severe bronchitis.

What causes acute bronchitis?

Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a virus. Often a person gets acute bronchitis a few days after having an upper respiratory tract infection such as a cold or the flu. Sometimes 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 usually 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.

Most people get better in 2 to 3 weeks. But some people continue to have a cough for more than 4 weeks.

If your symptoms get worse, such as a high fever, shaking chills, chest or shoulder pain, or shortness of breath, you could have pneumonia. Pneumonia can be serious, so it's important to see a doctor if you feel like you're getting sicker.

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, you may need a chest X-ray or other tests to make sure that you don't have pneumonia, whooping cough, or another lung problem. This is especially true if you've had bronchitis for a few weeks and aren't getting better. More testing also may be needed for babies, older adults, and people who have lung disease (such as asthma or COPD) or other health problems.

How is it treated?

Most people can treat symptoms of acute bronchitis at home and don't need antibiotics or other prescription medicines. (Antibiotics don't help with viral bronchitis. And even bronchitis caused by bacteria will usually go away on its own.)

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: July 10, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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