Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on March 08, 2024
6 min read

Bronchitis happens when the bronchial tubes, which carry air to the lungs, become inflamed and swollen. This causes a nagging cough and mucus.

There are two types of bronchitis:

Acute bronchitis

Also called a chest cold, this type is more common. Symptoms last a few weeks, but it doesn’t usually cause problems beyond that time.

Chronic bronchitis

This one is more serious. It keeps coming back or doesn’t go away and causes ongoing irritation or inflammation of the bronchial tube lining. Chronic bronchitis is part of a condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). With chronic bronchitis, your cough lasts at least 3 months and comes back at least 2 years in a row.

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,” or extremely tired
  • 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.

Most often, the same viruses that give you a cold or the flu cause acute bronchitis. But sometimes, even bacteria can 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 (such as chemical fumes or dust) that bother your lungs over time
  • Smoking or breathing in secondhand cigarette and marijuana smoke for a long time
  • The use of e-cigarettes (vaping)

Is bronchitis contagious?

While the condition isn't contagious, you can spread the viruses and bacteria that cause bronchitis to other people. For example, if a flu virus has caused your bronchitis, others may also get the flu from you, but they won't have symptoms of bronchitis.

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.
  • You have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD (chronic acid reflux)

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
  • A 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 such as COPD and a flare-up of chronic bronchitis.

Can bronchitis turn into pneumonia?

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 check for any abnormal sounds, such as wheezing.

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

  • 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 whooping cough, the flu, or COVID-19, 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 if 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. About 8-12 glasses a day can help thin out your mucus, making 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 such as 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 such as 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
  • Mucolytics, which are medicines you inhale or take orally to loosen mucus

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

  • Stay away from cigarette smoke.
  • Get vaccinated against pneumonia.
  • 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 and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Wear a mask to protect yourself from people who may be sick and when you’re around things that bother your lungs, such as paint fumes.

Bronchitis happens when the tubes that carry air to your lungs become swollen and irritated, causing symptoms such as cough and mucus. There are two types: acute, which lasts a few weeks and usually isn't severe, and chronic, which persists or keeps coming back and can be more serious. Causes include viruses, bacteria, smoking, and exposure to irritants. Treatment usually involves managing symptoms with rest, hydration, and sometimes medications. If symptoms continue or worsen, it's important to talk to your doctor.