Acute bronchitis is an infection and inflammation of the lining of the bronchial passages. These are the large airways that connect the windpipe to the lungs. Although bronchitis makes you cough, it is not an infection of the lungs like pneumonia. However, when acute bronchitis does not get better, it can develop into pneumonia.
Acute bronchitis often begins with an upper respiratory infection in the nose, sinuses, ears, or throat that is usually caused by a virus. Infection with bacteria can sometimes follow a viral infection.
Infants, young children, older people, smokers, and those with lung or heart disease are more vulnerable to developing acute bronchitis from upper respiratory infections. They are also more likely to develop pneumonia from bronchitis. When symptoms last a long time or come back again and again—which often happens in smokers—the condition is called chronic bronchitis.
A cough is the main symptom of bronchitis. It may be a dry cough or produce phlegm (also known as sputum). Phlegm is a collection of mucus and pus-like material containing white blood cells, which fight the infection. When the phlegm is yellowish-green, it’s likely you have a bacterial infection. Other common symptoms include:
- sore throat
- low-grade fever
- chest discomfort
- shortness of breath.
If symptoms of acute bronchitis occur in an infant, older adult, or individual who is chronically ill — especially those with lung or heart disease — call a doctor immediately.
Call your doctor if your temperature is above 100° F for more than 3 days, your fever does not come down with acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen or naproxen, you have chills that shake your body uncontrollably, you become short of breath, or if your cough gets worse and produces thick mucus that is bloody or smells foul.
Even after the infection clears, a dry, hacking cough can last for several weeks because the airway lining is still irritated.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam that includes listening to your chest through a stethoscope and taking samples of sputum so they can be examined under a microscope for bacteria.
Treating acute bronchitis
Acute bronchitis usually clears up after four or five days without antibiotics. If you have a fever, take acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Rest and drink plenty of fluids—eight to 12 glasses a day—to thin the phlegm and make it easier to cough it up.
Breathing in warm, moist air also helps loosen the discharge. If you don’t have a vaporizer or humidifier, stand in a hot shower for a few minutes or run hot water in the sink and drape a towel over your head while breathing in the steam.
If your doctor thinks that a bacterial infection is causing your bronchitis, and it is not getting better, he or she might prescribe an antibiotic (usually in tablet form) to treat the infection. If the infection is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t work.
Some people with acute bronchitis benefit from using a bronchodilator drug, usually in inhaler form. It can help to open the airways.
Some nonprescription medicines can loosen phlegm or suppress coughing, to help you sleep at night. Ask your doctor which ones he or she recommends.
If you smoke, try not to smoke while you have bronchitis. Staying quit beyond that, and never smoking again, is the most important step you can take to prevent bronchitis from reappearing.