Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on April 18, 2022
5 min read

Bronchitis is when the tubes that carry air to your lungs, called the bronchial tubes, get inflamed and swollen. You end up with a nagging cough and mucus.

There are two types:

  • Acute bronchitis. This is more common. Symptoms last a few weeks, but it doesn’t usually cause problems past that time.
  • Chronic bronchitis. This one is more serious. It keeps coming back or doesn’t go away.

Symptoms of both acute and chronic bronchitis include breathing problems, such as:

  • Chest congestion, when your chest feels full or clogged
  • A cough that may bring up mucus that’s clear, white, yellow, or green
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing or a whistling sound when you breathe

Symptoms of acute bronchitis also may include:

  • Body aches and chills
  • Feeling “wiped out”
  • Low fever
  • Runny, stuffy nose
  • Sore throat

Even after the other symptoms of acute bronchitis are gone, the cough can last a few weeks while your bronchial tubes heal and the swelling goes down. If it goes on much longer than that, the problem might be something else.

If you have a new cough, fever, or shortness of breath, call your doctor to talk about whether it might be COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

With chronic bronchitis, your cough lasts for at least 3 months and comes back at least 2 years in a row.

Most often, the same viruses that give you a cold or the flu cause acute bronchitis. But sometimes, bacteria bring it on.

In both cases, as your body fights the germs, your bronchial tubes swell and make more mucus. That means you have smaller openings for air to flow through, which can make it harder to breathe.

Chronic bronchitis causes include:

  • Breathing in air pollution and other things that bother your lungs, like chemical fumes or dust, over time
  • Smoking or breathing in secondhand smoke for a long time

You have a higher chance of getting either kind of bronchitis if:

  • You smoke.
  • You have asthma and allergies.
  • You have a weaker immune system. This is sometimes the case for older adults and people with ongoing diseases, as well as for babies and young children. Even a cold can make it more likely, since your body’s already busy fighting those germs.

Your risk of getting chronic bronchitis is higher if:

  • You’re a female smoker. You may be more at risk than a male smoker.
  • You have a family history of lung disease.

Call your doctor if your cough:

  • Brings up blood or mucus that thickens or darkens
  • Keeps you awake at night
  • Lasts more than 3 weeks
  • Causes chest pain
  • Has a barking sound and makes it hard to speak
  • Comes along with unexplained weight loss

You’ll also want to call your doctor if you have a cough along with:

  • A foul-tasting fluid in your mouth
  • Fever over 100.4 F
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath

If you’re 75 or older and you have an ongoing cough, check with your doctor to see whether you should come in. Call your doctor if you have a lung condition like COPD and a flare-up of chronic bronchitis.

Bronchitis can lead to pneumonia, though this is rare. Usually, it doesn’t cause any other problems.

Your doctor usually can tell whether you have bronchitis based on a physical exam and your symptoms. They’ll ask about your cough, such as how long you’ve had it and what kind of mucus comes up with it. They’ll also listen to your lungs to see whether anything sounds wrong, like wheezing.

Your doctor may need to do some tests, depending on whether they think you have acute or chronic bronchitis. These tests may include:

  • Check the oxygen levels in your blood. This is done with a sensor that goes on your toe or finger.
  • Do a lung function test. You’ll breathe into a device called a spirometer to test for emphysema (a type of COPD in which air sacs in your lungs are destroyed) and asthma.
  • Give you a chest X-ray. This is to check for pneumonia or another illness that could cause your cough.
  • Order blood tests. These can identify signs of infection or measure the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your blood.
  • Test your mucus to rule out diseases caused by bacteria. One of these is whooping cough, also called pertussis. It causes violent coughing that makes it hard to breathe. If your doctor thinks you have this or the flu, they’ll also take a nasal swab.

Most of the time, acute bronchitis goes away on its own within a couple of weeks.

If yours is caused by bacteria (which is rare), your doctor may give you antibiotics. If you have asthma or allergies, or you’re wheezing, they might suggest an inhaler. This helps open your airways and makes it easier to breathe.

To ease your acute bronchitis symptoms, you can:

  • Drink a lot of water. Eight to 12 glasses a day helps thin out your mucus and makes it easier to cough it up.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers.Aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen treat pain. But avoid giving aspirin to children. You can use acetaminophen to treat both pain and fever.
  • Use a humidifier or steam. A hot shower can be great for loosening mucus.
  • Take over-the-counter cough medicines. You might take a medicine like guaifenesin during the day to loosen your mucus so it's easier to cough up. Your doctor will call this an expectorant. Check with your pediatrician before giving any cough medicine to children.

Chronic bronchitis treatments target your symptoms and include:

  • Medications like antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and bronchodilators to open your airways.
  • A mucus-clearing device to help you cough up fluid more easily.
  • Oxygen therapy so you can breathe better.
  • Pulmonary rehab, an exercise program that can help you breathe more easily and exercise more.

To lower your chances of getting acute bronchitis or a flare-up of chronic bronchitis:

  • Stay away from cigarette smoke.
  • Get the flu vaccine since you can get bronchitis from the flu virus.
  • Make sure your pertussis vaccine is up to date.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Wear a mask when you’re around things that bother your lungs, such as paint fumes.