Bronchitis Diagnosis and Treatment: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on April 23, 2023
4 min read

If you recently had a cold that turned into a nagging cough, you might have acute bronchitis. (In medical terms, “acute” means conditions that come on quickly and last a short time).

Bronchitis happens when your bronchial tubes, which carry oxygen from your windpipe to your lungs, become inflamed. The lining of the tubes makes mucus, which makes your cough worse.

The condition can also cause wheezing and make it hard to catch your breath.

To know for sure whether your recent illness is acute bronchitis and not an allergy or other problem, you should see your doctor. They will likely test you for COVID-19, which has some of the same symptoms.

While many cases go away on their own, others require treatment. Learn more about how doctors diagnose and treat bronchitis:

First, it’s important to figure out a time line.

If you have a cough and breathing problems that have lasted for months or years, it might be chronic bronchitis. This is a long-term health problem that needs ongoing treatment.

Some people with very serious chronic bronchitis have it their entire lives. Others can successfully treat it. You’re more likely to get it if you smoke.

This usually requires a combination of medications and lifestyle changes. Important ways you can improve your lung health include:

But those steps are important if you think you have acute bronchitis, too.

To learn other ways to treat your cough, see your doctor to find out what’s causing it.

When you see your doctor, be ready to talk about your symptoms in detail. You should be able to answer:

  • How long have you had your cough?
  • Are you coughing up mucus?
  • Is there blood in your sputum?
  • Did you ever have a fever or other symptoms, such as chest tightness?
  • Did you have a cold before the cough?
  • Are you wheezing?
  • Do you have trouble catching your breath?
  • Have you been around other people who have the same kinds of symptoms?

At the appointment, your doctor will go over your symptoms and give you a physical exam. They’ll listen to your chest while you cough. This may be enough to make a diagnosis. You may not need any tests. However, there are other times when you might need one or more.

Here are some of the tests your doctor might order:

  • Chest X-ray. If you have a fever or had one recently, this can help rule out or confirm pneumonia.
  • Sputum culture. If your symptoms are severe, your doctor might get a sample of the mucus you cough up (sputum). A lab test can tell whether the mucus is caused by an allergy or whooping cough (pertussis), which is a very contagious bacterial infection. Serious symptoms may also mean another test.
  • Spirometry. This is a test of your lung function. It measures how much air your lungs can hold and how quickly you can blow it all out. The test can help your doctor find out whether you have asthma or another breathing problem, along with your bronchitis.

Don’t be surprised if your doctor simply recommends rest and lots of fluids. A bout of acute bronchitis will often fade away on its own. Letting your body rest and drinking plenty of fluids may help it disappear more quickly.

Other treatments may include:

  • A cough suppressant (but only if you’re not bringing up mucus anymore; if you are, it means you’re still clearing your airways and your doctor likely won’t advise you to take one)
  • Pain reliever
  • Sleeping near a humidifier or sitting in a steamy bathroom
  • Bronchodilators (inhaled medicines that help open your airways)

Antibiotics are powerful medicines that treat bacterial infections. But acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection. Antibiotics don’t help with a virus.

If your doctor thinks the cause is bacteria, you might get a prescription for antibiotics.

If so, be sure to take the full prescription of antibiotics. Even if you feel better, the infection could still be in your system. You want to make sure you kill all the bacteria on the first try.

A bout of acute bronchitis can make breathing even tougher if you have other respiratory problems.

Allergies, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) all can narrow your airways. If you have one of these conditions along with bronchitis, you will probably need an inhaler and other treatments.

Be sure to tell your doctor all the medicines you are already taking to make sure no drugs will interact with each other.

Even with treatment, your cough may last for a few more weeks. It should become milder and drier as the days go by. You may also feel tired for a while longer. Plan to get rest. Don’t expect to have a lot of energy right away.

If your cough doesn’t improve and you continue to feel sick, see your doctor again. It could be a bacterial infection after all. Or you might have other breathing problems that are keeping you from getting over your acute bronchitis.