When a Cold Becomes Bronchitis

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on April 08, 2022

A cold can sometimes turn into bronchitis. It's important to know what to expect and when something more serious is going on.

Should I Call My Doctor About a Cough?

cough is a common cold symptom. Your lungs may be irritated, or your body might be trying to get rid of phlegm or mucus. But if you’re still coughing after the cold is gone, call your doctor.

Tell them how long you’ve had the cough. Also note whether anything seems to make it worse, any other unusual feelings, and whether you cough up mucus.

A new cough, fever, or shortness of breath could be a sign of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. Call your doctor to talk about your symptoms and whether you need to come into the office.

Go to the doctor if you’re coughing up thick green or yellow phlegm or if you’re wheezing, running a fever higher than 101 F, having night sweats, or coughing up blood. These may be signs of a more serious illness that needs treatment.

A long-lasting cough may be a sign of asthma. Sometimes, doctors call this "cough-variant asthma." Triggers include respiratory infections like a cold or flu, dust, cold air, exercise, and allergens. Asthma may be responsible for up to 25% of all long-term coughs.

See More: A Visual Guide to Bronchitis

What Is Bronchitis or a Chest Cold?

Bronchitis happens when the airways in your lungs are inflamed and make too much mucus. There are two basic types of bronchitis:

  • Acute bronchitis is more common and usually is caused by a viral infection. Acute bronchitis may also be called a chest cold. Episodes of acute bronchitis can be related to and made worse by smoking. People often describe this type of bronchitis as worse than a regular cold but not as bad as pneumonia.
  • Chronic bronchitis is a cough that lasts for 2 to 3 months each year for at least 2 years. Smoking is the most common cause of chronic bronchitis. Other causes include exposure to second-hand smoke, air pollution, dust and toxic gases.

What Are the Symptoms of Bronchitis?

Symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • Coughing a lot, with mucus
  • A lack of energy
  • wheezing sound when you breathe
  • A fever

Should I Call the Doctor About Bronchitis?

See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

  • A cough that lasts more than 2 to 3 weeks
  • A fever
  • A cough that produces blood or thick or colored mucus
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing

Can I Treat Bronchitis at Home?

If you have bronchitis, you should:

  • Drink fluids every 1 to 2 hours unless your doctor limits your fluid intake.
  • Rest.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Ease body aches by taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, or another painkiller such as acetaminophen (Tylenol). (If you’re taking any other drugs, talk to your doctor to make sure they won’t interact with painkillers.)
  • Follow your doctor's directions on ways to clear your mucus.
  • If you cough up mucus, note how often you cough as well as the color and amount of mucus. Report this to your doctor.

If you have a dry cough with little to no mucus, your doctor may prescribe cough medicine. They may also recommend an expectorant to help loosen mucus so you can cough it up more easily.

Because viruses cause most cases of bronchitis, antibiotics usually don’t help. But you might take them if you have a bacterial infection or if you have other lung problems.

How Can I Avoid Getting Bronchitis?

  • Don't smoke.
  • Don't allow others to smoke in your home.
  • Stay away from or reduce your time around things that irritate your nose, throat, and lungs, such as dust or pets.
  • If you catch a cold, get plenty of rest.
  • Take your medicine exactly the way your doctor tells you.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Don’t share food, cups, glasses, or eating utensils.

Show Sources


American Academy of Family Physicians: "Chronic Cough: Causes and Cures," "Acute Bronchitis."

Mayo Clinic: "Diseases and Conditions: Bronchitis."

Harvard Medical School: "That Nagging Cough."

UpToDate: “Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).”

the Cleveland Clinic: "Bronchitis"

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